• Feature

What Happens When You Put Inuit Art on a Global Stage?

Nov 07, 2022
by Emily Laurent Henderson

In 1967, marking the first century of Confederation, or creation of the Canadian nation-state, the young country was given a unique opportunity to define their identity on the world’s stage. Canada invited millions of visitors over a six-month period to Montreal for the 1967 International and Universal Exposition, or Expo 67 as it was commonly known. Expo 67 effectively introduced much of the world to not only Montreal but the multitude of cultural expressions held by the nation under the theme “Man and His World.” It also marked a moment in time in which Indigenous art was introduced to a new market through landmark exhibitions such as the Indians of Canada Pavilion and the now iconic Inuit art installation immortalized in Aki’name (On the Wall), a National Film Board of Canada 1968 documentary by David Millar.

Inuit art, language and aesthetics played an integral role in much of the fair’s branding. Of the architecture that defined Expo 67, the towering, inverted glass pyramid of Katimavik (the gathering place) dominated the landscape of Montreal’s Notre Dame Island, and the ever-popular ookpik owl, created by Kuujjuaq-based Jeannie Snowball (1906–2002), figured prominently as the official mascot of the event. Even cuisine was highlighted throughout the event at the popular restaurant La Toundra, where an “Inuit Cocktail” was featured as part of the “Katimavik Special” meal, drawing inspiration from the North that was largely inaccessible to most visitors of Expo 67 and to many Canadians. Also on the menu was mattak and char, all served up in a sumptuous setting that a 1967 Star Weekly article described as a space “where guests sit on seal-hide upholstery in a room decorated with [Inuit] tapestries and carvings.” [1] Coupled with the use of Inuit artwork on promotional posters and materials, Expo 67 helped to cement Inuit art as a uniquely Canadian export in the minds of collectors around the world. 


View of the walkway leading to the Katimavik of the Canada Pavilion, Expo 67, Montréal, QC, 1967

Although the fruit of the artists’ labours were viewed by millions, few knew of what they experienced in order to bring their work to life. The artists behind the Inuit art installation displayed in the Canada Pavilion, Kumukluk Saggiak (1940–2020) and Elijah Pootoogook, stayed in the suburbs of Montreal with host families during the production of the project, where they were introduced to life in the South for the very first time as they worked to share their artistic vision with 50.3 million visitors.

Saggiak and Pootoogook created a spectacular mural carved in plaster that depicted daily life in their home community of Kinngait (Cape Dorset), NU, complete with scenes of time on the land spent hunting and fishing, as well as life in town, which Inuit had only begun to settle into over the preceding decade. For most visitors, this was their first introduction and glimpse into Inuit art and life. Calling to mind enormous printmaking plates, the intricately detailed mural captured everything from the fine elements of Inuit textiles, such as the pattern of a sealskin parka and the structure of a sturdy pair of kamiks, to the variety of tools necessary for sustaining life in the North. 

Aki’name (On the Wall) follows the experiences of Saggiak and Pootoogook as they navigate suburban life with their families, often with a significant language barrier. Narrated primarily by an English-speaking voiceover describing Saggiak’s perspectives and observations, the film follows the artists as they encounter everything from adjusting to the trees that block the horizon to an implied lack of clarity around how long they would be expected to stay in the South, and away from home, to work on the project. 


Mural by Kumukluk Saggiak and Elijah Pootoogook at Expo 67’s Canada Pavilion La Toundra Restaurant

“I can’t speak with my host in Montreal, so I don’t always know what I’m expected to do,” Saggiak explained, “I don’t know if I’m yet to do more carvings, or if my work is almost over.” [2]

The mural was not the only contribution by Inuit artists to Expo 67; the short-lived, but iconic printed textiles from Kinngait Studios also made an appearance at the fair. Entered in Canada’s Design ’67 competition, the silkscreen-printed fabrics were one of just 58 submissions out of 2,400 from across Canada to receive an Exceptional New Design Award. However, where the textiles were actually displayed during Expo 67 has been poorly documented and can only be inferred through archival photographs. While it was possible they were intended for display at one of the fair’s pavilions, we do know they were featured as part of the staging decoration in at least one of the Habitat ’67 model suites. While the textiles program ultimately proved too cost ineffective to continue, their legacy lives on as many of the fabrics were recently displayed at the Textile Museum of Canada in Toronto, ON, as part of the exhibition ᖃᓪᓗᓈᖅᑕᐃᑦ ᓯᑯᓯᓛᕐᒥᑦ Printed Textiles from Kinngait Studios. 

Today, contemporary Inuit artists continue to be cognizant of the impacts of Expo 67 on not only their work but the perception of their work, as well as the politics around world fairs and expos—as tools for nation building and the establishment of national identities on the global stage. Contemporary Inuk painter Megan Kyak-Monteith reflects on these dynamics in the Inuit Art Quarterly’s Venice Biennale Special Issue in 2019, following her trip to the Venice Biennale (an international art fair) to be present for the opening of Isuma Film Collective’s installation at the Canada Pavilion. In her article “Iglulik at the Centre,” she draws connections back to Expo 67, writing, “notably, Inuit were the only Indigenous peoples to be included in the Pavilion, deliberately connecting Inuit culture and identity with the nation at the height of the Cold War following the relocation of Inuit families further north the decade prior as the federal government became increasingly concerned with Arctic sovereignty.” [3] 


Jeannie Snowball
Ookpik: Canadian Good Luck Creature tag (1963) Cardboard 10.2 x 6.5 cm

As Inuit increasingly self-represent in global art fairs, not only through the creation of artwork but also through curation and criticisms, there is a constant awareness of a power dynamic: a past that absorbed Inuit creative output and visual and cultural identities into those of the nation. Now, more than five decades beyond this pivotal, complex and high-profile moment in Canada’s history, the legacy of Expo 67 maintains a powerful influence on global perceptions of Inuit art. As Inuit art has expanded into a plethora of new media, such as fashion, digital art, metalwork, animation and more, the prints and carvings made famous during the era of Expo 67 have continued to capture the imaginations of collectors and enthusiasts around the world and inform the innovative work of the next generation of Inuit artists, while simultaneously providing a foil for reflection on how far we have come. 

Emily Laurent Henderson is a Kalaaleq (South Greenlandic Inuk) and settler writer, arts administrator and community organizer based in Toronto. A University of British Columbia 2020 graduate with a BA in Anthropology, Henderson is also an active member within the Indigenous community in Toronto, and formerly served on the Board of Directors for Toronto Inuit Association and is a co-founder of the Indigenous community gardening and food sovereignty grassroots organization, Tkaronto Plant Life. Henderson’s work has been featured in the Inuit Art Quarterly, C Magazine and Studio Magazine, along with textual and audio contributions to ImagineNATIVE Film Festival and WAG-Qaumajuq.


[1] Isobel Ledingham, “Eating exotically and otherwise at EXPO,” The Star Weekly, February 11, 1967, pp. 33–35

[2] David Millar, dir., Aki’name (On the Wall), 1968, The National Film Board of Canada, https://www.nfb.ca/film/aki_name/

[3] Megan Kyak-Monteith, “Iglulik at the Centre: Isuma at the Canada Pavilion,” Inuit Art Quarterly 32, no. 5 (2019): pp. 43–46

This article was originally published in the Spring 2022 issue of the Inuit Art Quarterly.


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