• Feature

Your Guide to Some of History’s Biggest Inuit Artists

Jul 14, 2021
by Leanne Inuarak-Dall

You may be familiar with the stylized owls of Kenojuak Ashevak or bold patterns of Jessie Oonark, but what makes these artists historically significant? What does it take to make history in the world of Inuit art? Today, we're profiling the lives and careers of 5 visionary Inuit artists whose creative works have helped to celebrate and preserve their rich cultural knowledge for future generations. Read on to learn more about some of history’s biggest Inuit artists.


Jessie Oonark
Big Woman (1974) Stonecut and Stencil 63.5 x 94.3 cm

Jessie Oonark

The work of Jessie Oonark, OC, RCA, brought the world’s attention to art coming out of Qamani’tuaq (Baker Lake), NU, and influenced generations of artists with her distinctive style. The first Inuk in her community to be asked to create drawings for sale, Oonark (in her early fifties) enthusiastically started to record imagery from traditional life, developing the complex visual language she continued throughout her artistic career. [1]

Her drawings and wallhangings utilize bold lines and vibrant colours, depicting subject matter surrounding Inuit womanhood, traditional beliefs and transformations. In Big Woman (1974), Oonark combines a series of motifs associated with Inuit women: uluit (woman’s knives), tunniit (traditional tattoos), decorative hairsticks and expertly sewn garments like amauti. Here as in many of Oonark’s works, these elements are distilled to their most essential forms, resulting in a striking, graphic image of a strong Inuit woman.

Oonark was a prolific artist who had more than 100 images featured in the Baker Lake Annual Print Collections. Her work was also featured in the 1960 and 1961 Cape Dorset Annual Print Collection, making her the only artist outside of Kinngait (Cape Dorset), NU, to appear in the Cape Dorset Collection. In 1992, the Jessie Oonark Centre was opened in Qamani’tuaq in her honour, offering a workspace for local artists to create. Many of Oonark’s children have become prolific artists in their own right, such as Janet Kigusiuq, known for her abstract collages; Victoria Mamnguqsualuk, who creates narrative drawings; and William Noah, best known for his skeleton prints. 


Tivi Etok
The Torngats who lived inside the cliffs (1975) Stonecut 54.6 x 74.6 cm

Tivi Etok

When he was first chosen to attend a printmaking workshop in Puvirnituq (Povungnituk), Nunavik, QC, Tivi Etok was hesitant. [2] Despite this, his work has gained international recognition and helped to preserve Inuit histories and legends for younger generations.

Etok grew up creating drawings in the sand, showing the rhythms and movements of animals and camp life. Following the 1972 workshop where he learned stonecut printing techniques, Etok returned to Kangiqsualujjuaq, Nunavik, QC, and helped to establish a printshop at the co-op in his community. Just three years later, Etok became the first Inuk printmaker to release a solo print collection. The 1975 collection, titled Whispering in my ears and mingling with my dreams, contained 15 prints inspired by legends and stories from his childhood. In the print above, one of the works from this initial collection, Etok recounts a story about Torngats, great spirits trying to lure an unsuspecting Inuk into their cliffside dwelling with the promise of strange, new food.

Another solo print collection, In the days long past, was released the next year, focusing on the action of the hunt, containing lively images of wildlife—notably caribou—using quirky expressions and handwritten text to convey knowledge surrounding traditional ways of hunting. Regardless of subject matter, Etok creates evocative, dynamic works that use humour and emotion to keep old stories alive.

Etok continued to ensure Inuit cultural history lives on not only through his artwork, which is held in public collections internationally, but also through his words. In 2008, Etok recounted his life to Inuk author and filmmaker Jobie Weetaluktuk, who published a trilingual biography titled The World of Tivi Etok. The Life and Art of an Inuit Elder.


Gilbert Hay
Windbreak (1991) Steatite

Gilbert Hay

Through his art and advocacy, Nunatsiavut artist Gilbert Hay helped to bring inspiration and recognition for the many talented Inuit artists in Labrador. Hay, who was raised in Nain, Nunatsiavut, NL, moved west to Edmonton, AB, where he studied art and began carving. After travelling extensively across North America, Hay returned to Nain in 1974, inspired to revitalize his connection to his Inuit heritage. He began experimenting with different materials, carving out of soapstone, ivory, whalebone and labradorite, as well as learning to sew traditional garments from his mother.

In 1975, Hay tried his hand at printmaking, a significant moment as he is considered the first Labrador Inuk to explore the medium. Together with printmaker Bill Ritchie, they opened the first Craft Centre in the community of Nain, opening doors for fellow artists to gain exposure for their work at a time when there was a lack of arts development in Nunatsiavut.

Hay’s work is characterized by a tension between representational and abstract forms that address colonization and the political realities of the North. He has spoken about the concept of “memory art,” where the process of creating work containing “traditional” subject matter is a way to reinforce cultural traditions and document Inuit history. These connections can be seen in Windbreak (1991), where Hay preserves much of the natural shape of the stone, highlighting the variation of tones with the form of a woman’s face, whose braids flow into the shape of a whale’s fin.

Through his dedication to the development of the arts industry for Nunatsiavummiut and commentary on political issues facing Inuit, Gilbert Hay remains a pioneer in the history of Inuit art.


Kenojuak Ashevak
Untitled (Owl and Flowers) (2008) Coloured pencil and ink 50.8 x 66 cm

Kenojuak Ashevak

Arguably the most widely recognized Inuit artist in the world, the many achievements of Kenojuak Ashevak, CC, RCA, have cemented her status as a leading figure in the history of Inuit art. One of the first women to participate in the Kinngait (Cape Dorset), NU, printmaking program, Ashevak's graphic works immediately gained attention for their harmonious compositions and captivating depictions of Arctic wildlife.

In 1970, her iconic print The Enchanted Owl (1960) became the first artwork by an Inuk artist to appear on a stamp, helping to introduce many people to the world of Inuit art. In this 2008 drawing, Ashevak depicts one of her favourite subjects, the owl, using controlled pen marks to show the texture of feathers. Flowing lines emanate from the body, decorating the page with an exuberant display of flowers, coloured with aqua, violet and magenta.This work is emblematic of her distinctive style containing fluid, often symmetrical graphic forms teeming with energy.

Throughout her life, Ashevak created an astonishing body of work that has been featured in almost every Cape Dorset Annual Print Collection and countless international exhibitions. In 1994, Ashevak was a part of the historic signing of the Nunavut Land Claims Agreement, creating an exclusive lithograph for the cover of the final agreement. In addition to her many achievements, Ashevak was an inspiration for many Inuit artists, serving as a mentor and role model to artists in her own generation and the next.


Agnes Nanogak Goose
Aknak Natinikhiyok (1988) Stencil 50.7 x 57 cm

Agnes Nanogak Goose

One of the most prolific artists out of Uluhaktok (Holman), Inuvialuit Settlement Region, NT, Agnes Nanogak Goose created dynamic artworks celebrating the rich tradition of Inuit storytelling. Inspired by the drawings of her father, Nanogak Goose was part of the first generation of artists to provide drawings for the Holman Print Shop in the 1960s. In 1985, Nanogak Goose was awarded an honorary degree from Mount Saint Vincent University in Halifax, NS, for her contributions to the arts, making her the first Inuk to receive an honorary degree from a university. [3]

Preferring to work in colourful felt-tip pens, Nanogak Goose’s work is vibrant and filled with energetic scenes from daily life and legends. Since 1967, more than 200 of her drawings have been translated into prints, appearing prominently in every Holman Print Collection until the 1990s. In Aknak Natinikhiyok (1988), Nanogak Goose tells the story of a female shaman and her family, translating an epic tale that takes place over two years and includes starvation, murder and transformation into a single image.

Interested in preserving traditional myths, Nanogak Goose created illustrations to accompany the stories in the 1972 book Tales from the Igloo, and later More Tales from the Igloo (1986), for which she also provided the text. Her commitment to vitalizing cultural traditions is apparent not only through her visual storytelling but in her community involvement. Together with her father Jimmy Memogana, Nanogak Goose helped to rejuvenate the “western style” of Inuvialuit drum dancing by teaching it to younger generations. “Western style” is still practiced by dancers in the Inuvialuit Settlement Region today in part due to their efforts.  

1 Jean Blodgett and Marie Bouchard, "Jessie Oonark: A Retrospective," (Winnipeg: Winnipeg Art Gallery, 1986), 16. 

2 Tivi Etook and Marybelle Myers, "Tivi Etook: In the days long past," (Montreal: La Fédération des Coopératives du Nouveau-Quebec, 1976), 42.

3 "Nanogak Receives Honorary Doctorate," Inuit Art Quarterly 1, no. 1 (Spring 1986), 6.

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