• Feature

Printed Matters

Unearthing the Ulukhaktok Archive

Oct 23, 2018
by Katheryn Wabegijig

In January 2017, three safes were opened after being locked for decades in the community of Ulukhaktok (Holman), Inuvialuit Settlement Region, NT. Inside were hundreds of historic drawings, prints, stencils, documents, stories and photographs, including the original graphic experiments of Helen Kalvak, CM, RCA (1901–1984) and Mark Emerak (1901–1983), created at the Holman Print Shop (now the Ulukhaktok Arts Centre). The history of printmaking in Ulukhaktok began with the formation of the Holman Eskimo Co-operative and included artists Helen Kalvak, Victor Ekootak (1916–1965), Jimmy Memorana (1919–2009), Harry Egotak (1925–2009) and William Kagyut, encouraged by Father Henri Tardy, who ran the Catholic missionary and, in 1962, introduced them to printmaking using sealskin stencils.1 Holman Eskimo Prints 1965 features the inaugural print collection from the co-op, which almost consistently produced an annual collection until 2000. Necessity, style and marketability saw the techniques of the artists and printmakers change throughout these 35 years, from sealskin stencil to stonecut to woodcut to lithography and finally back to stencils, primarily utilizing Mylar.

All of these experiments, original drawings and prints were carefully and quickly packed in three crates in -55° February Arctic weather and shipped to Canadian Arctic Producers (CAP) in Mississauga, ON, the marketing arm of Arctic Co-operatives Limited (Arctic Co-ops), who have whole heartedly served their co-ops over the past 53 years. I am the Collections Manager at CAP tasked with the honour of caring for, cataloguing, digitizing and, most crucially, rehousing the community’s graphic archive in order to ensure their long-term conservation.2

EmerakMarkUntitled Mark Emerak (1901-1983 Ulukhaktok), Untitled, 1975, graphite, 50.7 x 66.5 cm
When I first toured the show room, I was overwhelmed by the sheer number of sculptures and the amount of talent on display. My current work place is an industrial warehouse area where shipping and receiving and storage and repairs occur. I am familiar with this environment. I have worked in picture framing workshops, warehouses and manufacturing facilities, handling all things to do with the care of artwork over the past 20 years. This opportunity is different; this is an unearthing. Constant discoveries are found in every layer of work that I diligently sift through in these plain pine crates. It is exciting to me, this newcomer to the Inuit art world, but for my colleagues, who have been working with the Ulukhaktok co-op, printmakers, artists and their artwork for decades, it is beyond that. Their love for these communities and their artists is contagious and very easily understood. I feel the importance and relevance of this archive that I will explore for the next nine months.

Opening each carefully wrapped folder that emerges from these crates is like unwrapping a gift­­—an archive of memory and culture of this community that captures their history, talent and spirit. There is an inherent desire to spend time with each piece, but also a practical need to collect and enter the required data, research where possible, label and then temporarily store each object to then be photographed. Ultimately, the precious in-depth research must be saved for after the technical aspects of managing this collection have been addressed. The vital first step in this project is a full inventory of Ulukhaktok’s formal printmaking program, from 1961 to its end in 2000.

Undoubtedly, Ulukhaktok’s earliest sealskin prints hold incredible value—culturally, artistically and otherwise—when we think about the beginnings of this legacy. Stored in a folder were 79 sealskin prints and experiments signed by Egotak (or Igutak), Kalvak (or Kalvakadlak), Jimmy Memorana, Bill (Billy) Goose (1943–1989) and Paul Ipiilun, bearing their respective identifying designation, symbol or chop.

Artist Agnes Nanogak Goose (1925–2001) produced an astonishing number of drawings covering a vast range of subject matter. These works won Nanogak Goose high esteem and an honourary degree from Mount Saint Vincent University in Halifax, in 1985.3 Already, over two hundred of her works have been catalogued, including 38 paper collage designs still in their air mailed box from the National Film Board of Canada in 1973, addressed to “Nanogak.” Research proved to be somewhat difficult as Nanogak is not named or tagged within the NFB website [Ed. Note: the NFB have since updated their website to include a credit for Nanogak]. The collages were used in the making of the film The Owl Who Married a Goose: An Eskimo Legend (1974), a short directed and animated by Caroline Leaf, using sand animation based on Agnes Nanogak’s designs.In the end credits the artist is credited with “DESIGN: NANOGAK”.

NanogakGooseAgnesDrawingForThePrintTheMosquito Agnes Nanogak Goose (1925-2001 Ulukhaktok), Drawing for the print The Mosquito, 1992, felt pen, 76 x 55.7 cm
Unidentified works that are uncovered within the crates give room for further discovery through post-photography research, when they will finally be available through digitization on a newly acquired collections management software system designed for museums and heritage organizations. An artist’s design style can be highly recognizable and consistent in detail within the subject matter that was chosen catalogue after catalogue, but there is always the chance that a drawing could be highly influenced by another artist’s style. Slowly getting to know these artists and the community of Ulukhaktok over these first few months is vital to reconnecting these drawings and prints to their maker.

While the editioned prints were always the end goal for the co-op, the drawings preceding these prints are invaluable. They show the creative process of the graphic designer and how true to the artist’s rendering the printmaker would stay. Thus far, there are over forty identified artists who have drawings in various states of completion found in this historical archive.

Although there is a highly consistent presence of particular artists in the Holman catalogues there was always room given to new artists. In a signed letter included in the Canada Council for the Arts grant proposal, artists Peter Palvik, Helen Olifie, Mary Okheena, Mabel Nigiyok, Emily Kudlak and Louie Nigiyok included the statement, “On behalf of the artists of Ulukhaktok, NT, we would like to see printmaking return to our community. With regards, The Artists of Ulukhaktok.” These established artists, and those that will emerge, are essential to revitalizing printmaking in Ulukhaktok. This project allows these artists, their community, researchers, curators and collectors to re-engage with Ulukhaktok’s almost forty-year history of printmaking by making these images available and accessible in one cohesive archive for the very first time.

This piece originally appeared in the  Fall 2018 issue of the Inuit Art Quarterly as the legacy story.    


1 Susan Gustavison, “The Early History and Enduring Narrative of Kinngait and Ulukhaktok’s Sealskin Stencils,” Inuit Art Quarterly 31, no. 2 (Summer 2018): 56–57.

2 This project is made possible by the Creating, Knowing and Sharing: Long-Term Projects grant funded by the Canada Council for the Arts.

3 Inuit Art Quarterly Profiles, s.v. “Agnes Nanogak Goose,” accessed August 17, 2018, https://inuitartfoundation.org/profiles/artist/agnesnanogakgoose.

4 Caroline Leaf. The Owl Who Married a Goose: An Eskimo Legend (Toronto: National Film Board of Canada, 1974), DVD.

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