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The Power of Linocut Printmaking

Inuit Art Foundation | October 05, 2023

Categories: news

The Power of Linocut Printmaking

Oct 05, 2023

by Gayle Uyagaqi Kabloona


The Kinngait (Cape Dorset), NU, printshop and printmakers are well known and popular worldwide, with a collection of lithograph, stencil and stonecut prints released annually for the last 64 years. Every fall I wait eagerly for the new collection with works from contemporary masters like Ningiukulu Teevee, Ooloosie Saila and Quvianaqtuk Pudlat. But what about the other communities in Inuit Nunangat? And what if you’re an aspiring Inuit printmaker from elsewhere? 

The print shops that sprung up in places like Kinngait, Qamani’tuaq (Baker Lake), NU, and Ulukhaktok, Inuvialuit Settlement Region, NT, from the 1950s onwards were great spaces and career catalysts for their artists and, in many cases, have continued to produce wonderful collections of art. But the majority of Inuit don’t have access to an existing structure such as this. 

I grew up in the south and spent my 20s in Iqaluit. In Nunavut, art is all around you. Your family members may be famous artists, like mine—my grandmother is Victoria Mamnguqsualuk and my great-grandmother is Jessie Oonark, OC, RCA. Surrounded by their work, it seemed impossible for me to begin an art career without a real studio, a printing press and $1,000 worth of tools and equipment. Absent these supports, I and others I spoke to have needed to learn artistic mediums ourselves, creating and self-distributing our art: that’s where the simple, inexpensive process and straightforward distribution of linocut comes in.


In the early days of art production, stone cut relief and stencil techniques were used to create large prints for sale to usher Inuit into the wage economy, using techniques brought north by James Houston, OC, and influenced by Japanese printmaking traditions. Stenciling involves cutting out stencils and applying colour into the shapes in many layers, while lithographs are made using a very heavy flat stone and drawing or painting with an oily medium, then transferring it to paper with a special lithograph press. Stonecut is a type of block printing that transfers an image from a carved surface to the final paper. Each time a print image is transferred it carries small irregularities from the printing process and its printer, which is why each print is considered an original artwork even though there may be hundreds in an edition. 

But beyond the stone cutting method traditionally practiced, block printing can include woodcut or anything that can hold a carve—even potatoes. I’ve tried a few different types of linoleum and woodcut, using excess birch panels from a friend’s baseboard renovation. “I’m experimenting with block printing using old rubber boots,” Iqaluit, NU–based multimedia artist Siku Rojas—whose work involves colourful characters, stunning family portraits and a cool, Gen Z punk-Inuit aesthetic that invigorates traditional Inuit legends—told me. 

My interest in block printing began just before the COVID-19 lockdowns. I moved to Ottawa from Iqaluit in 2018 and enrolled in an evening printmaking class at the Ottawa School of Art where I learned traditional printmaking techniques like monoprinting, drypoint, etching, intaglio and was just beginning to learn lithography when the pandemic hit and classes were cancelled. I loved everything about the experience of being in the printmaking studio: the equipment, the messes, the creative, kind and interested people, the atmosphere of learning and exploration. But I had periods of time in between OSA classes where I was itching to create. I bought a beginner’s linocut kit from Wallack’s Art Supplies and found the perfect medium for me.


Linocut is a form of block printing, but it’s much simpler than stone cutting, since it uses soft materials and simpler carving tools. It can be done with water-based inks that are non-toxic and easily cleaned off tools at home; the smaller blocks can be printed without a press and instead imprinted by hand, a spoon or a rolling pin onto paper or fabric. 

It’s easy to learn: I taught myself through internet tutorials. Siku learned linocut at their local high school. “I always loved doing art and I had a very supportive teacher. We had a great art space at Inuksuk [High School],” they told me. Aedan Corey, who is from Ikaluktuuttiaq, NU, learned linocut after moving to Ottawa, transferring their digital sketches onto lino blocks with an iron. Aedan’s graphics come from memories, things they’ve seen at home and celebrating things we share as Inuit, incorporating their queer experience as an urban Inuk on Anishnaabe land, mixed with nostalgia for home and the strength of Inuit love and relationships. They use stark contrast and pencil crayon-like texture to create intimate yet strong moments.


Technological changes have made the materials highly accessible, since they’re cheap and simple to distribute. Aedan and I buy ours at the local art supply store in Ottawa, and Siku works with Speedball tools bought on Amazon—Iqaluit doesn’t have an art store, so for Northern artists, Amazon is a necessity. 

Because the blocks are often small, I can use simple, portable, easy-to-cut materials at home or in a small space; Siku and Aedan both create their linocuts at home. And you can create larger pieces if needed: I’ve occasionally digitized my small linocuts and manipulated them into bigger works. My little block print Tiitiurumaviit?, which was made in my apartment, was enlarged, altered and purchased by many customers, and later shown in Greenland, at the Winnipeg Art Gallery in Manitoba and the Ann Arbor Art Fair in the USA. 


Linocut allows artists in their very early stages to produce high-quality original art pieces and start to monetize their work early on. This step is crucial: when a $40 beginner’s kit or pads of paper are a financial barrier, every bit of income helps. “My mom bought my carving tools for me,” Aedan admits. When I wanted to upgrade, my mom bought tools for me, too, a $100 Pfeil set for Christmas that I treasure.

And linocut can be accessible not just for artists, but for art buyers as well: I added experimental linocut prints onto my website at $25 and they turned out to be quite popular. I’ve kept them on my website—even though I’ve been told by art professionals that I undervalue my art—because I think art made by hand should be available for everyone, not just for people with money, and linocut aligns with this value. Customers (particularly in Inuit communities) can support me and my art at a reasonable price and I can make sales and get my artwork into people’s homes. “I make Inuit art for Inuit, to be in Inuit homes,” Siku told me. With our colonial history, creating for each other is freeing.


Alongside the practical considerations of accessibility, there is an important decolonial aspect to linocut that comes from working outside the power structure inherent in the exportation of Inuit art. Early print systems were southern focussed: settlers were sent north to introduce foreign production methods for an exclusively southern market, with the Canadian Eskimo Arts Council (comprised solely of qallunaat for 12 years) dictating which Inuit prints were acceptable for sale to this market. 

“In (Inuit art’s) intention it was an expression of their lives,” Aedan told me. “I don’t think Inuit art has been for the white gaze specifically; it’s got all the aspects of our culture. But it’s been exported in a way, commodified.” That doesn’t connect with how either of us want to express ourselves through art. Beyond the commodification, Aeden questioned whether the impact of the southern gaze changed what was being produced. “I wonder whether some early pieces are an authentic expression of self or if it’s what someone dictated authenticity should look like?”


The power structure my ningiuq created and sold art within is much different than how Inuit operate now—and that gives us much more freedom. Creating on a small scale and having independent means of distribution with linocut allows us to control our own narratives, and in some cases to focus on creating for ourselves and our own communities. For me, creating artwork at home and being able to distribute it via social media and my website allowed me to circumvent an external determination of what my life should look like and represent. If I’m putting myself out into the world, I need that representation to be as multifaceted as I am. I’m not alone in that feeling: Siku marvels at the Inuit diversity in their workshops, sharing “everyone is so intensely unique, it’s fun to see how people express their experience.” 

“People have an expectation of what Indigenous art is supposed to look like. What we’re doing is expanding the definition of what Inuit art can be,” says Aeden.  Beyond the three of us, there are plenty of multidisciplinary Inuit artists bringing their own unique styles to linocut, like Ivinguak Stork Hoegh’s small Tupilak-like characters worked into her photo-based collage practice in Kalaallit Nunaat (Greenland), Sarah Ayaqi Whalen-Lunn blending the real and mystical in Alaska or Natashia Allakariallak’s intricate yet bold black-and-white prints in Nunavut. 


We’ve all taken different routes to linocut, and have been supported by our communities and sustained practices by selling our prints to other Inuit. “It’s not a singular thing, we’re not a singular people, literally Inuit is plural,” concluded Aedan about the versatility linocut has and its fit for the younger generation of Inuit who are picking it up. It’s stunning how a simple medium can be an act of self-determination and decolonization. That anyone can do it makes the process democratic, without a hierarchical export-based sales model. The generous support from our communities has redefined what Inuit art has value and to whom.

So, what of the future of printmaking? Will it revolve around professional studios, printing presses and catalogues or shift to individual artists making art at home? I think there’s room for it all. Linocut has allowed more individuals to express themselves and continue to do so because of changes to the art market as a whole. I love that we can push the boundaries of a previously established genre and showcase the diversity of voices within our culture. The more representations the better: neo-punk, millennial, Gen Z, queer, all of it. What’s exciting to me is new artists being able to create wherever they are.

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