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The art of discovery: Exhibit displays newly identified Inuit artworks

Nunatsiaq | June 20, 2023

Categories: news

ARTS AND CULTURE  JUN 20, 2023 – 8:30 AM EDT

The art of discovery: Exhibit displays newly identified Inuit artworks

Curator at Lethbridge gallery hopes revelation of names leads to contact with artists or their families

Exhibit curator Ooleepeeka Eegeesiak stands next to one of the pieces she was able to identify from the University of Lethbridge’s extensive Inuit art collection. (Photo courtesy of University of Lethbridge)

By Jorge Antunes

Makers of 38 Inuit artworks previously designated “unknown artist” have been identified through the use of Inuktitut syllabics and disc numbers.

Now the prints and carvings are on display in an exhibit that has been a labour of love for curator Ooleepeeka Eegeesiak.

Over the years, the University of Lethbridge in Alberta has acquired more than 1,000 Inuit artworks including 124 identified only with Inuktitut syllabics or Inuit disc numbers.

Many are undated but the oldest piece Eegeesiak was able to identify was produced in 1962.

Eegeesiak, sole curator of the exhibit titled The Shape a Name Takes, was born in Iqaluit but grew up mostly in southern Alberta, in Treaty 7 territory. She has a degree in Indigenous studies and works as an assistant curator at the university.

“And as an Inuk living in the south, I was super excited to get to work with the art here,” she said in an interview.

Of the 124 unknown works, she was able to identify 38, 25 of which will be on exhibit.

Eegeesiak was largely able to identify parts of a collection bequeathed to the university in 2017 by Dr. Margaret (Marmie) Perkins Hess.

At the time, CBC News reported the entire collection, including the Inuit art, was worth between $4 million and $5 million.

The sheer volume of works donated by Perkins Hess meant cataloguing them was a “huge task,” Eegeesiak said.

Because Perkins Hess did not have artists’ names for every piece she donated, “some of them slipped through the cracks, because the names [on those prints] were written in syllabics.”

Digging deep

Discovering the artists’ names involved research and muscle power. The pieces are “heavy and massive” rocks and any identification was usually on the bottom.

Eegeesiak said staff came up with their own cheeky name for the exhibit: Rock Bottom.

Not all the pieces had markings, which Eegeesiak said was disappointing because there was no other obvious way to identify them.

Seen here is the bottom of a previously unidentified artwork. Exhibit curator Ooleepeeka Eegeesiak said this piece is the work of well-known Inuit artist David Ikutaaq. (Photo courtesy of University of Lethbridge)

Most of those she identified were marked with Inuktitut syllabics, so it was relatively simple to translate the script into Roman orthography, or Latin letters.

The greatest challenge was to identify pieces that had only disc number markings.

Between 1941 and 1978, the federal government assigned Inuit discs, or tags, with identification numbers that were to be worn at all times.

“The justification for that was that non-Inuit administrators had difficulty pronouncing names,” Eegeesiak said, adding the system was imposed without consent and ended up eroding traditional Inuit naming practices.

Inuit were told that if they lost their disc or could not remember the number, they would lose access to services.

“So at the gallery, we had these paper books that were published in the 1990s by what was called then [the federal department of] Indian and Northern Affairs, which listed all of the artists’ disc numbers along with their names,” Eegeesiak said.

Eegeesiak has managed to find biographical information about some of the artists, but many are less known and remain unidentified. A lot of the works are from the 1980s, and many of the artists have died.

Eegeesiak recalls hearing her own father tell her about his disc number, something she didn’t understand at the time.

Her father was born and raised in Iqaluit and still remembers his number, although his disc was lost long ago.

“I think that’s reflective of how much psychological space those numbers actually took up in people’s heads and how they were identified as a number rather than as a name,” Eegeesiak said.

The names she has identified will be provided with “curatorial statement,” and published online for artists and family members to discover.

The exhibit’s name comes from Inuit art being very shape-based. Also, the stones used for traditional prints, which all came from Puvirnituq, have unique edges “like a calling card, a distinctive form of printmaking,” she said.

It’s also a reference to the different ways the artists identified themselves through the unique shape of their works. Eegeesiak was able to identify distinct styles in the work replicated in photos of historical pieces of the work of artists she researched.

The Shape a Name Takes runs at the University of Lethbridge Art Gallery until Oct. 21.

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