‘Both Artistic Compromise and Artistic Freedom’; The Complicated Context Behind the Inuit Printmaking Tradition


The Heritage Partnerships Team, working closely with the University of Oxford Careers Service, set up this micro-internship with the Oxford-based project, Hidden Objects, which aims to enable the sharing of Oxford Colleges' collections with a wider audience.

The Inuit are indigenous peoples who are native to northern Canada, with a lengthy history of nomadism and living off the land. Anyone interested in art history who has grown up taught by the English school system will know the failings of the widely accepted art historical canon in accrediting or even mentioning non-western art. Perhaps this is beginning to change. But it was made starkly clear to me as I began to research, during my week-long micro-internship with Oxford’s Hidden Objects Project, the tradition of Inuit printmaking. I was intrigued by the specific and purposeful treatment of form within the Inuit prints after happening upon a few striking examples within Oxford’s collections and felt a desire to remedy my personal lack of knowledge about this area of art history.  

The obvious answer to why there is less awareness about non-western and Inuit art is lingering colonial attitudes, with indigenous art umbrella-termed into craft, being perceived as lesser than western fine art. Colonisation of course is integral to the relationship between the Inuit and the West, specifically the Euro-American Canadians. To summarise this violent history briefly and therefore incompletely; the Norse were the first western people to reach the Canadian arctic, before AD 1000. In the late 16th century, the explorer Martin Frobisher visited in 1576. But there was no sustained colonial contact till the late 18th century, when Western whalers came, and the fur trade was established. The native people began to rely on trading when food was scarce, known as the transitional period from a subsistence economy to a new barter economy. In the mid-19th century, permanent Anglican and Roman Catholic missions were established near trading posts. They offered and imposed medical assistance and education, undermining Inuit dependence on shamanism and traditional spirituality. This was the beginning of the historic period, where outsiders began to have a lasting influence. The language of the Inuit was oral, but a written one was developed. Missionaries pushed the use of Christian first names, as Inuit people traditionally had one name. This can be seen in the artist I focused on in my research, Luke Anguhadluq. The Canadian Government took control of Inuit welfare in the 1940s, which rapidly increased the rate of cultural change. Together with the Catholic Church they established villages and towns, schools and nursing stations, forcing the semi-nomadic Inuit people into permanent settlements. This coincided with a time of widespread hunger and disease, so no alternative was preferable. But it severely affected nomadic hunting while creating an immediate dependence on cash economy and government relief. Ultimately this led to rampant unemployment, a rise in teenage pregnancy, AIDS, suicide, drug and alcohol abuse (often related to trauma and abuse experienced at catholic boarding schools, which Inuit children were made to attend).

This violent context is necessary to understand the origins of printmaking and two-dimensional artwork in Inuit culture. The Canadian guild of crafts and Hudson’s Bay company, with the Canadian government, began to purchase carvings for export on a large scale and to promote their sale in 1949. The production of art was and is an integral part of the new cash economy. By the early 1960s, Inuit-owned cooperatives were formed for economic development. Carving, printmaking, and textile arts have been a vital part of Inuit economy and culture since then. The Inuit art of this time does not tend to be controversial or political, because only drawings which were saleable tended to be produced into prints. Later on, in the 90s, these social problems stemming from colonialism become more apparent in Inuit artwork. In some villages half the adult population are artists, some working full time or as a way of making extra cash. Men tend to be carvers while women dominate the graphic and textile arts. Earned income allows them to buy hunting equipment; fuelled by a general desire to hold onto the rapidly declining traditional way of life. Two-dimensional art, in particular printmaking, is a relatively recent development in Inuit culture. The Inuit people were compelled to produce saleable art by southerners, after being forced into a capitalist way of living. But despite this, and perhaps in spite of this, the unique lived experience of the Inuit people from pre-colonial times inhabits the scenes and pictures they produce. In 1948 James Houston visited the Inuit people, and traded his portraits for their carvings, spreading the word down south about the quality of their sculptural work. In November of 1949 the first exhibition of Inuit art was held by the Canadian Handicrafts Guild in Montreal. Houston also introduced the idea of printmaking. The Inuit carver Osuitok Ipeelee was studying printed images of a sailor’s head, noting the skill and patience for creating the same image repeatedly. Houston showed him how to do it by rubbing ink on an engraved tusk and pressing it onto toilet tissue. Osuitok declared ‘we could do that’; the birth of Inuit printmaking. Experimentation followed, with various types of inks and techniques. It was discovered that the green serpentine rock, typically used by sculptors, was excellent medium for low-relief carving of images for printing leading to the popular stone-cut technique. In 1958, Houston travelled to Japan, and studied the ancient Japanese tradition of ukiyo-e, where printmakers turn drawings of artists into prints. He shared this technique, and Inuit printmaking continues to thrive and expand into the 21st century.

 It is relevant to highlight that, in the early eras of printmaking, ‘Inuit artists were keenly aware that they were producing works not for their own people but for an outside market’ which created an environment of ‘both artistic compromise and artistic freedom’ (Inuit Art: An Introduction). A destruction of the traditional way of life coincided with the incentive to make art that the outsiders could not make, making it desirable for purchase by those outsiders. Driven by extortionately priced imported food and high costs of living in new underdeveloped settlements, they had to make saleable work for the western buyers; but it had to be distinctively Inuit to fill the ‘gap’ in the art market. Being aware of this socio-political context changes the experience of standing in front of a Luke Anguhadluq print or Elisapee Ishulutaq sculpture. These works are so well-received in southern Canada and the art market because they encompass the virality and deep-rooted connection with the land that western individualism and capitalism has long since abandoned. But they are also simply beautiful; the use of line and form tends holds authority over the picture-space in a way I haven’t come across before in western printmaking.

 I will end by directing you to the work of some of my newfound favourite Inuit artists, in addition to the few named already in this article; Pauloosie Kanaju, Pitseolak Ashoona, Kenojuak Ashevak and Napachie Pootoogook.


With thanks to Lauren Dyer Amazeen for supporting this micro-internship.


Tulurialik, Ruth Annaqtuusi, and David F. Pelly. Qikaaluktut : Images of Inuit Life. Toronto, 1986. Print.

Hessel, Ingo, Hessel, Dieter, and Swinton, George. Inuit Art : An Introduction. Vancouver ; Toronto, 1998. Print.

Pitseolak, and Eber, Dorothy. Pictures out of My Life. Montreal, 1971. Print.

Cook, Cynthia Waye. From the Centre : The Drawings of Luke Anguhadluq. Toronto, 1993. Print.

Family, online, accessed 6/12/21: https://nativecanadianarts.com/gallery/family-luke-anguhadluq/

Dyck, Sandra "Parr & Luke Anguhadluq: Drawing from Life" - Changes in the North, online, accessed 6/12/21: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=noDDjE4Tffs

Tirtirau, Sebastian, Reaching Remote INUIT Tribes in the Arctic Documentary, online, accessed 6/12/21: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nugPRn7x6-w

Antonia Jameson is a BFA Fine Art student at the Ruskin School of Art. Her practice is subject to change, translating through multi-media installation a sense of place and displacement, language learning, and repetition.

To learn more about our collaboration with the Hidden Objects Project and more micro-internships they have hosted see: 

John Piper: Artist In Stained Glass

Weaving tales of the Green Man

Oxford’s Mortlake 'Supper at Emmaus': A Look into St John’s President’s Lodgings

An 'Opera of Words'

A History of Bookbinding as Told through Oxford College Libraries

TORCH Heritage Programme

A printed image of a group of Inuit, gathered around a fishing weir and a series of tents.

Fishing Camp, 1970. Stonecut and stencil by Luke Anguhadluq. Photo by Antonia Jameson.