50-year-old Inuit drawings offer snapshot of life in the Arctic

CBC News
10 July 2016

By Sima Sahar Zerehi

In 1964, Terry Ryan travelled to North Baffin Island, going from camp to camp by dogsled. He carried with him a pile of archival paper and pencils, his mission to get Inuit living in traditional camps in the region to create drawings depicting their day-to-day life.

Now this collection of 1,840 drawings from Clyde River, Pond Inlet and Arctic Bay are in an art exhibition that will be travelling to the North in 2017.

“This collection was made for an Inuit audience,” says Norman Vorano, assistant professor of art history and curator of Indigenous art at the Agnes Etherington Art Centre, Queen’s University.

Many of the drawings contain writing in Inuktitut, explaining the images and offering information about the artists. In some cases the entire piece is composed of writing, particularly the work from Clyde River.

The curators of the exhibition also got input from community members from Pond Inlet and Clyde River on the drawings. Vorano travelled to Nunavut earlier this year and interviewed some of the artists who contributed to the collection. Some of those videos will be part of the exhibit.

“A number of people actually wrote in their drawing that they wanted to record this because they wanted their kids to know how life was when they lived it, when they were young,” says Vorano.

The exhibition is a joint effort between the Canadian Museum of History and the Agnes Etherington Art Centre.

A small selection of the drawings appeared in a catalogue that was produced in 1986 when they were exhibited at the Art Gallery of Ontario, but the vast majority of them have never been seen by the public.

Artist Terry Ryan was working at Cape Dorset’s West Baffin Eskimo Co-op in the early 1960s when he decided he wanted to go to North Baffin to collect drawings from Inuit still living a traditional lifestyle, says Vorano.

He travelled through the communities from February to April, distributing art supplies.

“They’re all done on archival paper which means that Terry Ryan really thought about the future and the legacy for this collection,” says Vorano.

The pieces are predominantly pencil drawings on paper approximately 50 by 65 centimetres, and a few include colour.

On his way back, Ryan collected most of the drawings and made arrangements with the Hudson’s Bay posts to get the others sent to him in Toronto once they were ready. People gave drawings to the post manager and the post manager would send them to Ryan .

The Canadian Museum of History acquired the collection in 2014.

“Through Terry I was able to see the drawings and I knew right there that these drawings were extraordinary and they had to be preserved as a collection,” says Vorano.

Now, in addition to a travelling exhibition, the collection is also being digitized so it can be available in its entirety to anyone who wants to see it, particularly Inuit in Nunavut.

“The important thing is to have the collection available for Northerners to see so that people in Nunavut can use the collection in school, so they can better understand their history,” says Vorano.

Image: Toongalook (Arctic Bay), What I Had Seen a Long Time Ago, 1964, graphite on paper, 50 x 65 cm, Canadian Museum of History IV-C-6848

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