Picture fantastical bird-creatures with brightly hued plumes fanned out ostentatiously. Or a prowling polar bear cut into serpentine rock, rigid, yet astonishingly fluid and true to life. Art in Nunavut never ceases to amaze — even more so because the artists create it all in one of the planet’s harshest landscapes covered in snow and ice for most of the year. That only seems to fire the vivid imagination of the largely Inuit community here in Canada’s Arctic.
In addition to the polar bears and caribou that roam, and the tusked whales and walrus that swim in the ocean, in a place still mainly traversed by kayak and dogsled, the art from this unusual place is stirring, inventive, and original — inspired by the strong, tight knit culture, exotic wildlife, and traditional hunter-gatherer Inuit way of life. Nunavut just might have more artists per capita than anywhere else in the entire world, and to meet these talented people on the land that inspires them is something for the bucket list. Here’s what to see and where.
Iqaluit: A mix of everything
The territorial capital Iqaluit is a hub for creatives of all kinds and offers a great overview of their celebrated ingenuity. Even the Nunavut Legislative Assembly building, designed to resemble a traditional Inuit sled, houses an impressive collection artwork from sculptures, weavings, and paintings to beautiful maces with diamonds and narwhal tusk tips. Go to the Nunatta Sunakkutaangit Museum in an old Hudson’s Bay building to buy striking prints by contemporary artists, hand-sewn moccasins and traditional clothing, elaborate Inuit beadwork, handmade textiles, and unusual jewelry made out of bone, ivory, talon, metal, and claw. Don’t leave town without admiring the masterfully hand-sewn garments from seal skin and fur. Innovator Rannva Simonsen displays her much sought-after high-fashion designs, including mittens, scarves, vests, and colorful hats, downtown at her boutique, Rannva Design. Canada’s northern-most capital is also where all the major music, dance, film, and arts festivals take place in the territory.
International art collectors and world leaders covet the exquisite, bold, and original etchings, stone- and wood-cut prints from Cape Dorset and Kinngait.
This small community on Baffin Island’s southern tip is home to the celebrated, internationally-acclaimed West Baffin Eskimo Co-Operative, a lithography co-op founded in 1959 that produces limited edition prints. Cape Dorset is also home to the most artists per capita in Canada.
The late Kenojuak Ashevak, the world’s most famous Inuit artist, lived and created her imaginative prints here, as did well-knowns Pitseolak Ashoona, Kananginak Pootoogook, and soap stone sculptor Pauta Saila. Call ahead to tour the studio from September to May. The serpentine carvings crafted here are as impressive as the prints, and many artists in town welcome visitors at their studios (make arrangements at the co-op or with a local outfitter). Other communities known for printmaking are Pangnirtung, Pond Inlet, and Baker Lake.
Music, dance, performing arts
If you enjoy the performing arts, there’s lots to choose from here. Alianait Arts Festival is a homegrown, much loved annual event in late June in Iqaluit mixing theater, dance, music, and film. Onstage are traditionals like Inuit throat singing and drumming alongside modern interpretations like Arctic hip hop and circus. Fans love the many spontaneous jam sessions, open to all. Also in Iqaluit is Toonik Tyme Festival in April, a showcase of all things Inuit, including throat singing, drum dancing, Inuit games, igloo building, and contests. There are concerts and performances, and lots wonderfully authentic arts and crafts shows. Many small communities, such as Cape Dorset, put on community events that include throat singing performances and drum dancing, too.
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Based in Igloolik, also an Arctic film making hot spot, ARTCIRQ is a youth-oriented circus troupe. It’s also an experimental, out-of-the-box performing arts collective that aims to bridge modern art with traditional Inuit life, and positively impact young people in the process. The troupe produces meaningful, delightful, and inspiring works in video, music, and performing arts. ARTCIRQ works internationally and collaborates with global talents. Catch a performance at the annual Alianait Arts Festival in Iqaluit, at the group’s home base Igloolik, or check the website for performance dates and locations.
Baffin Island hamlet Pangnirtung is a far-flung, traditional Inuit community famed for its beautiful weavings and tapestries. “Pang” is set on a postcard-worthy beach of a mountainous fjord, often called the Switzerland of the Arctic for its breathtaking scenery. It’s here that artists make handsome lithographs and prints, and the area’s signature colorful tapestries, released in limited, annual editions. Founded in 1970, the Inuit owned weaving studio, called Uqqurmiut Centre for Arts & Crafts, is a busy, thriving collective filled with fabric looms and high-beam or vertical looms where you can watch the weavers at work and get to know them personally. Take home an iconic Pang Hat, a crocheted winter ski hat with a dangling tassel that you’ll see folks all over Nunavut wearing.
Inuit stone works are quintessential and making them is an ancient art form. Cape Dorset carvers and sculptors are world famous, and what’s especially compelling heres that many artists work at home studios in town where you can visit and learn about their process and inspiration. You can also meet stone carvers in Baker Lake and Arviat, known for more abstract works, or Iqaluit or Rankin Inlet. Kimmirut artists specialize in scrimshaw and walrus ivory carvings.
Motifs can be anything under the sun, though common themes address aspects of traditional Inuit life, such as polar bears, walrus, loons, hunters, Arctic birds, and tusked narwhal. Stylized polar bears — dancing, hunting, stalking, sleeping — are especially popular; ditto for Inuit mythology creatures. Ranging from life-sized sculptures to tiny and intricate figurines, they are often made from serpentine stone the carvers find and bring home in their kayaks. But they also work in other stone, antler, and marble. You can find more information at the Nunavut Arts & Crafts Association.
When you visit, don’t miss a chance to see the aurora borealis show, best October to April, or to track North America’s largest caribou migration on the epic fall odyssey southward, or catch some of Nunavut’s top attractions. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime trip, so you’ll want to do it all while you’re there.
Get inspired at the Nunavut Tourism website.