The West Baffin Eskimo Co-operative (WBEC), aka Kinngait Studios, is the oldest community art studio cooperative in Canada. Located at the south west coast of Baffin Island, the studio established an important area in the history of the promotion and production of Inuit art. In 1949, working with the Canadian Handicraft Guild, James Houston organized the first Inuit art exhibition in Montreal. Instrumental in starting the cooperative economy in Cape Dorset, James and Alma Houston moved there in 1956 to support the development of the arts and crafts market. While James introduced printmaking skills, Alma focused her efforts in supporting the Inuit women’s traditional skills and potential for hand-sewn goods in the market.
Pitseolak Ashoona (1908–1983) was one of the women who sewed six tents for James Houston and the first tourist to arrive on the shores of Baffin Island. A self taught artist, she used sewing and drawing to provide for her children after her husband died. Four of her 17 children lived, and each became artists at the Co-op, Kumwartok, Qaqaq, Kiawak, and daughter Napawchie Pootoogook. Pitseolak has been recognized as one of the first Inuit artists to depict her own life and the old ways, contributing to the development of modern Inuit art found in public art museums across Canada.
The WBEC provided opportunities for residents to earn an income by making art and by becoming members of the co-op, especially important for Inuit women who were often limited by gender specific roles. Art expression often depicted nomadic lives, before settling in Cape Dorset. Pitseolak was encouraged by James Houston to draw from her life experience with coloured pencils and felt markers. Later, images were then prepared for, hand-pulled stone prints by Terry Ryan and Inuit printmakers. They would primarily use a limited range of earthy tone inks that became highly priced commodities by southern customers. It is interesting to note that Inuit soap stone sculptures and sewing projects were were sold in museum gift shops across the country, organized through a nearly forgotten network of women of the Canadian Handicraft Guild. The first launch of prints from Cape Dorset was celebrated with fanfare in 1960 at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts. (Whitelaw, 2014, p. 114).
West Baffin Co-operative and the people who supported the art reaching a market serves as a good example of how people can come together to receive benefit from of an economic development project owned and operated by the community it serves.
Dozens of artists over the years have received recognition as members of the Royal Canadian Academy of the Arts, including: Pitseolak Ashoona , Pauta Saila, Kenojuak Ashevak, Osuitok Ipeelee, Kananginak Pootoogook, Pitaloosie Saila. While some members have reached some economic success it is important to note that all community members are encouraged to participate in the project through participation and membership.Skill development and education is central to the co-operative concept. Younger generations are offered a space, materials, and mentoring to begin a practice of art making.
Recently, grandchildren of that first generation of Inuit artists have sadly died prematurely, including Pitseolak Ashoona’s granddaughter, Annie Pootoogook (1969-2016). Also recent deaths include: Jutai Toonoo (1959-2016), Arnaquq Ashevak (1956-2009) and Tim Pitsiulak (1967-2016).
Photo: Inuit artists and Terrence Ryan at the print studio in Cape Dorset, 1961, photograph by B. Korda. Library and Archives Canada.
Pitseolak: Pictures out of my life. (1971) Edited by Dorothy Harley Eber with Inuktitut transcript by Ann Meekitjuk Hanson, Oxford Press.
In Cape Dorset We Do It This Way: Three Decades of Inuit Printmaking. Jean Blodgett, Heather Ardies, Leslie Bond and Linda Sutherland (1991) McMichael Press.
“From the gift shop to the permanent collection: Women and the circulation of Inuit art” by Anne Whitelaw (2014) In Craft, Community and the Material Culture of Place and Politics. pp105-123.
Inuit artists and Terrence Ryan at the print studio in Cape Dorset, 1961. From left, front row: Parr, Kiakshuk, Kenojuak Ashevak, Lucy Qinnuayuak, Napachie Pootoogook; second row: Pitseolak Ashoona, Egevadluq Ragee, Pudlo Pudlat; back row: Terrence Ryan. Photograph by B. Korda
Inuit artists and Terrence Ryan at the print studio in Cape Dorset, 1961, photograph by B. Korda. Library and Archives Canada.