• Legacy

What are the Earliest Inuit Prints?

The Enduring Images of Nungusuituq

Jun 25, 2020
by Krista Ulujuk Zawadski and Jo Poortenaar

Drawings by Enooesweetok of the Sikosilingmint Tribe of Eskimo, Fox Land, Baffin Island is a pivotal and significant, yet often overlooked, mark on the vast landscape of Inuit art history.

 This portfolio of prints, based on drawings by Nungusuituq (1890-1950), was produced between 1913 and 1914 near Amadjuak Bay and published privately by Robert J. Flaherty in 1915. Only two copies of the original portfolio are known to exist: one in the Government of Nunavut Fine Art Collection, currently on long-term loan to the Winnipeg Art Gallery, and the other in the permanent collection of the Royal Ontario Museum, along with a collection of Nungusuituq’s original pencil drawings. As one of the earliest efforts to reproduce drawings by an Inuk artist through the practice of printing, this collection is integral to the contemporary history of Inuit printmaking; and yet questions surrounding Nungusuituq’s artistic relationship to Flaherty, the circumstances of the drawings’ production and the rarity of the portfolio itself have all served to shroud these works in mystery over for over a century. 

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Nungusuituq
Unganu Angeeook Omiak (Women’s Large Boat) (1915) Lithograph 16.5 x 25.5 cm

Consisting of 21 stone lithographs, this portfolio is a collection of small-scale figurative silhouettes depicted against stark paper landscapes. Both simple and striking, the linear composition and austerity of the forms are reminiscent of the type of engraving that would have traditionally been done on narrow bone and antler. Nungusuituq depicts scenes of hunting, travel, games and other details of traditional life on the land, thematically consistent with much of the graphic work produced in the early days of Inuit printmaking. 

The inscription on the portfolio cover reads, “These Drawings were Made at Amadjuak Bay, Fox Land, the Winter Quarters of Sir William Mackenzie’s Expedition to Baffin Land and Hudson’s Bay, 1913-1914.” In 1910 Mackenzie commissioned Flaherty to conduct a geological survey on the east coast of Tasiujarjuaq (Hudson Bay). He then undertook the survey over the course of six years and four expeditions. Nungusuituq acted as a guide for Flaherty, making over 40 drawings while wintering in the expedition’s quarters. The drawings Flaherty collected from Nungusuituq during the 1913 to 1914 expedition were published privately in the spring of 1915 in Toronto. While on expedition Flaherty also shot film footage, with Nungusuituq acting as a member of the crew. Made almost a decade before Flaherty’s Nanook of the North (1922), these early films were all lost in a fire; however, the documentary images created by Nungusuituq in this print portfolio have survived. 

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Portrait of Nungusuituq c. 1913-14 by Robert Flaherty
COURTESY THE ROBERT AND FRANCES FLAHERTY STUDY CENTER

Nungusuituq (Noogooshoweetok, Noasweeto), which translates to “everlasting,” was born around 1890, the son of Joe and Lao, in the Qikiqtaaluk region (Sikosuilarmuit; Baffin Island), and lived near Kinngait (Cape Dorset), NU. He was married to Luliakame and they had a son named Anunglung. Among his cousins are the prolific photographer, historian and artist Peter Pitseolak (1902-1973) and the renowned camp leader and artist Josephie Pootoogook (1887-1958). Pitseolak notes that Nungusuituq did not take up drawing of his own volition, but rather was instructed to draw by Flaherty, and he recalls that the artist described the process as “tiring,” [1]. It is still unclear why Flaherty chose to credit the artist as “Enooesweetok,” as he frequently called the artist Noasweeto and referred to him in writing simply as “N,” [2]. Beyond the ramifications that this pattern of naming inconsistencies has had on Flaherty’s legacy, it has likely also affected Nungusuituq’s place within the arc of Inuit art history. 

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Nungusuituq
Innuit Keinek Ivik (Esquimo Hunting Walrus) (1915) Lithograph 16.5 x 25.5 cm

Beyond the production of the drawings themselves, the artist participated in many aspects of the expedition and the filmmaking, and Flaherty described Nungusuituq as “the Eskimo artist par excellence at either drawing or carving on ivory,” [3]. In notes and records from Flaherty, he has suggested that one of Nungusuituq’s drawings included in the portfolio, titled Innuit Pektockseauk (Esquimaux Playing a Game), was to be the basis of a specific scene in the now destroyed 1914 film, and so it is possible that the sequence of shots are based on the series of drawings [4].  Works like Netsuiekseeak Okeeyuitme (Seal Hunting in Winter), thoughtfully composed scenes of overwintering around Amadjuak Bay, exemplify the broader importance of the preservation of Inuit cultural identity through the representation of traditional practices on paper. These snapshots of Arctic life from the early twentieth century have served as essential documentary images, not only for those like Flaherty, who elicited their production, but also for Inuit themselves. The exploration of themes such as Inuit cultural traditions, traditional lifestyle, community, labour and the land can be seen throughout the contemporary history of printmaking. From Niviaksiak’s (1908-1959) sealskin stencil Eskimo Fishing Through Ice (published in the first Eskimo Graphic Art catalogue in 1959) to Pitaloosie Saila’s stonecut Journey by Dog Team (printed by Qavavau Manumie and published in the 2018 Cape Dorset Annual Print Collection), these themes have been consistently represented and remain visibly relevant to contemporary Inuit cultural identity. 

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Nungusuituq
Ivik Keinek Okeeyuitme (Walrus Hunting in Winter) (1915) Lithograph 16.5 x 25.5 cm

Though the transaction between Flaherty and Nungusuituq may seem isolated from what we know of the printmaking process today, as the production of prints by Inuit themselves is an essential element of the print studio dynamic, this exchange is foreshadowing. The incentivizing of pencil and paper-based artistic production for the purpose of reproduction through printing is an early example of the evolving print economy and the relationship between Inuit artists and the early patrons of Inuit prints. 

The influence of this small body of work, alongside the complex and layered narratives about its creator, while not widely known, continues to endure. The precedent set by these drawings and subsequent prints for a future generation of artists, who have gone on to claim control over the means of their own artistic production in Kinngait and beyond, cannot be underestimated. While many questions remain regarding the details of these works, their impact is difficult to overstate. A milestone work by a mysterious figure in the history of Inuit art, Nungusuituq lives on through the indelible quality of the printed image. Inuk artist par excellence, enigmatic and everlasting. 


NOTES 

­1 Peter Pitseolak and Dorothy Harley Eber, People from Our Side: An Inuit Record of Seekooseelak – The Land of the People of Cape Dorset, Baffin Island. A Life Story with Photographs by Peter Pitseolak and Oral Biography by Dorothy Harley Eber (Edmonton: Hurtig Publishers, 1975), 88. 

2 Jo-Anne Danzker, ed., Robert Flaherty, Photographer/ Filmmaker: The Inuit 1910-1922 (Vancouver: Vancouver Art Gallery, 1979), 54. 

3 Ibid. 

4 An edition of 200 facsimiles were made in 2001, which are now spread throughout various libraries and private collections. Jo-Anne Birnie Danzker, “Robert Flaherty/Photographer,” Studies in Visual Communication 6, no. 2 (Summer 1980): 21.   


This Legacy was originally published in the Fall 2019 issue of the Inuit Art Quarterly.