Eskimo art is a triumph in merchandising

SOL LITTMAN September 1 1975


Eskimo art is a triumph in merchandising

SOL LITTMAN September 1 1975


Eskimo art is a triumph in merchandising


When Kenojuak, the Eskimo artist, drew this Arctic owl in 1960, she threw it in with a batch of her other prints, stencils and drawings and sold the whole package for $20. Recently, a Calgary collector paid an Australian art dealer $10,000 for a lithographic copy of The Enchanted Owl. Kenojuak had graduated from being an ordinary Eskimo housewife, with three children, to a ranking artist, and what could be more artistic than to see most of the wealth from her increasingly valuable work accrue to others? Not that Kenojuak was upset; art was a pastime that brought in a little extra money for something that just seemed to flow from her fingertips, unbidden.

In fact, until the district administrator, James Houston — an author and artist whose The White Dawn has recently been turned into a movie — asked her to try her hand at drawings for his new print-making program, she had never drawn and certainly never had a lesson. Houston told her only to draw the “old ways” and to stick to animals, spirits and people.

By the time her angry bird was selected she had almost forgotten the half real, half mythic creature she had drawn, and was only dimly aware of the response that greeted her work in the south. She scarcely realized that each of the 50 copies of her print had been sold to Kabloona (white men) for $80 apiece.

The success of Canadian Eskimo art is one of those almost unbelievable stories. What began as a souvenir and curio industry has moved into the realm of serious art, widely traded on the international market, avidly sought after by collectors, reverently displayed in museums and pedantically discussed in learned journals. Furthermore, all this has happened since 1948 and, on top of that, the Eskimo never before had any great artistic tradition.

What little art they did have was basically magico-religious in nature: small carved pieces — bears, seals and geese the size of a thumbnail — that served as charms to ward off evil spirits and influenced .animals to submit to the hunter. Shaped in ivory or the soft, local soapstone, they were carried inside one’s clothing or wrapped in a skin. It never occurred to the Eskimo to flatten their bases so that they could stand upright.

Sol Littman is a free-lance writer, art critic and broadcaster.

It was the sailors who manned the whaling ships that invaded the Arctic in the 19th century who taught them the art of scrimshaw, those beautiful line drawings carved in ivory that everyone assumes to be an original Eskimo craft. Nor did the Eskimo have a reservoir of rich visual images drawn from ancient legends. Pitseolak, one of the great printmakers, says, “Some people saw monsters, somewhere, someplace, but I have never seen the monsters I draw.”


In fact, many of the designs used by Canadian Eskimos may be of Siberian origin. Anthropologist Edmund Carpenter, who once taught at the University of Toronto, reports that “by a fascinating error a designer selected from the huge library of his father-in-law, an elderly anthropologist, Siberian designs and included these in a booklet on Canadian native designs. The Eskimo were given this book for reference. Many Eskimo prints displayed in art museums owe their forms to this error.”

How did it all happen?

By 1948, when artist James Houston first visited the Arctic to find new subject matter for his own work, it had become clear that the Eskimo were faced with imminent starvation. Houston realized that the small carvings he had encountered at the Cape Dorset trading post could be marketed in the south. On his next trip to Montreal he visited the Canadian Handicraft Guild and asked this nonprofit organization to handle the carvings. The guild agreed to do so if he could encourage the Eskimo to produce a steady flow of work.

In 1951, Houston journeyed to West Baffin Land to launch the program and in 1953 he returned as the civil administrator appointed by the Canadian government. For the next 10 years he lived in Cape Dorset, responsible for the welfare of Eskimo people scattered over an area of 60,000 square miles. Houston knew how to guide and to foster; his wife, Alma, knew how to organize. But, above all, he succeeded in romanticizing the primitive work produced by the new industry he had created thereby making it acceptable to sophisticated buyers. “Through their prints,” he once wrote, “they speak to us of legends and ancient mystical happenings, of great inland journeys. They reveal themselves to us. Powerful thoughts have existed in their arts and crafts and songs and legends for thousands of years . .. The naive, spontaneous quality of Eskimo art represents one of man’s forthright expressions.” Pure bafflegab. But such language moved Eskimo art from the curio counter into the art museums.

Hardship and hunger were the Eskimo’s inspiration rather than an urgent need to express tribal memories. There was little that was artistic, primitive or ancestral in the soapstone ashtrays and igloos that comprised the original shipments, designed for sale in gift shoppes. There are also those who doubt Houston’s charming story of how print-making began in Cape Dorset. Houston writes:

“Oshaweetok, a famous Eskimo carver ... sat near me one evening casually studying the sailor head trademarks on two identical packages of cigarettes. He noted carefully every subtle detail of color and form, and he suggested to me that it must be very tiresome for some person to sit and paint every one of the little heads with exact sameness on an endless number of packages . . .

Eskimo drawings are hardly masterpieces; they are a mixture of Eskimo vision, white man’s techniques, ana Japanese style

“Looking around in order to find some way to demonstrate printing, I saw an ivory walrus tusk that Oshaweetok had recently carved. The white tusk was about 15 inches long. Oshaweetok had carefully smoothed and polished it and had incised bold engravings on both sides. Into the lines of these engravings he had rubbed black soot gathered from a seal oil lamp.

“Taking an old tin of writing ink that had frozen and thawed many times... I dipped up the heavy black residue and smoothed it over the tusk. Taking a thin piece of toilet tissue, I laid it carefully on the inked surface and rubbed it lightly and quickly. Stripping the paper from the tusk, I saw that by good fortune we had a clear negative image of Oshaweetok’s incised design.

“ ‘We could do that,’ he said. And so we did.”

In the spring of 1958, the first series of prints, by a dozen artists, was shown at the Stratford Shakespearean Festival. The whole exhibit sold. In the] past 10 years, the price of these new prints, originally about $80, has doubled. The value of older prints, especially those of the early Sixties and the late Fifties, has risen astronomically. It is difficult to say whether these prices are justified. The art market is irrational and unpredictable. It deals in objects described as “priceless” and with prices that have no relationship to the cost of manufacture. In the case of Eskimo art, crude drawings have been converted into interesting prints — but they are hardly masterpieces. They have charm, simplicity and a unique viewpoint, but they are what they are — a curious mixture of Eskimo vision, white man’s techniques, and Japanese materials and style.

Edmund Carpenter’s judgment is even more severe: “Eskimo stone art was made for, used by and believed in, solely by Westerners . . . Having de-

prived him of his heritage, and even the memory of this heritage, we offer him a substitute which he eagerly accepts, for no other is permitted. And so he takes his place on stage, side by side with the American Indian whose headdress comes from a mail order catalogue, who learned his dances at Disneyland, and picked up his philosophy from hippies...”

Whatever it is, the co-ops buy and pay cash for every carving and drawing, and the Eskimo artist seems content.

Dorothy Eber, who writes frequently on Eskimo art, recalls a visit with the aging Pitseolak: “Two years ago, at our first meeting, she sat on the floor and drew as we talked; now she sits on a couch, there is a telephone on the wall and across the room is a bowl of plastic flowers.”

The Eskimo world and Eskimo art are changing rapidly. All manner of dire things may happen as civilization transforms the Arctic. Like the silver fox, the whale, the caribou and the seal, Eskimo art will find survival difficult. Perhaps, just before its extinction, it will glow at its brightest. C3