• Feature

How Jessie Oonark Turned Qamani’tuaq Into a Hub for Inuit Art

Iqqaumaviit? Remembering the Inuit Behind the Co-ops

Nov 02, 2021
by Napatsi Folger

This Portfolio tells stories about the founding of Canadian Arctic artist co-operatives with a focus on the contributions of the Inuit involved. Examining the roles of hard-working local Inuit artists like Kananginak Pootoogook, RCA, Jeannie Snowball, Levi Qumaluk, Jessie Oonark, CM, RCA and Helen Kalvak, CM, RCA, who were essential in establishing and maintaining artist co-operatives across the Canadian Arctic.

OonarkJessieUntitledPeopleAndAnimals

Jessie Oonark
Untitled (People and Animals) (c.1958–59) Graphite and coloured pencil 46.5 x 58.5 cm
COURTESY FIRST ARTS PREMIERS INC. 

World-renowned artist Jessie Oonark was integral in the proliferation of Qamani’tuaq (Baker Lake), NU, as a hub for Inuit art. The inclusion of her drawings in the 1961 Cape Dorset Annual Print Collection constituted the first and only instance of a print by an artist from outside of the community of Kinngait (Cape Dorset), NU. That same year, a Department of Indian and Northern Affairs [now Crown-Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs Canada] arts and crafts program was established and by 1963 the Baker Lake Annual Print program was established by Gabriel Gély, a French painter. A short three years later Oonark was provided her own studio and a salary, such was her renown. The Baker Lake Sanavik Co-operative was incorporated in 1972 largely due to the success of Oonark’s work, but by the 1990s the co-op moved away from art production to develop a more retail-oriented business model. In 1992 Jessie Oonark Ltd. was established in honour of the artist’s legacy on the artistic community of Qamani’tuaq to once again support new generations of Inuit artists in developing their skills and sharing them with the world. 

OonarkJessieTattooedFaces

Jessie Oonark
Tattooed Faces (1960) Stonecut 30.5 x 60.9 cm
REPRODUCED WITH PERMISSION DORSET FINE ARTS © THE ARTIST


“It was incredible to be in that space at the Jessie Oonark Centre [and] to spend some time in Qamani’tuaq and to see firsthand some of the impact that she’s had. There are huge carved stone slabs and all the printmaking equipment, it is so impressive to see as an artist. You can see the evidence of the impact she’s had on the community. To be able to develop some of my own work in that space as part of my residency in 2018, that felt very important. It was an incredible opportunity to work with other artists in the community in this shared space as they work on their own projects. 


We made wallhangings and prints. I was learning along with everybody else. I was able to do some stonecut printmaking while there—my first entry point in that medium. It felt really special and appropriate to do that in that building and in that community and to be inspired there. That was amazing. When I left it really felt like people were energized about their work.”

Couzyn Van Heuleven, Artist and 2018 Artist-In-Residence At The Jessie Oonark Centre 




This Portfolio was first published in the Fall 2021 issue of the Inuit Art Quarterly



Read more from Iqqaumaviit? Remembering the Inuit Behind the Co-ops

How Did Kananginak Pootoogook Help Open Kinngait’s First Print Shop?

How Inuit Artists Came Together to Establish Nunavik’s First Co-op

What Did Ookpik Dolls Have to Do With Kuujjuaq’s Co-op Movement?

What Can Be Learned From the First Generation of Holman Artists?