A new book on the work of Inuit artist Ningiukulu Teevee introduces us to a world that encompasses the real and imagined, the present and the eternal and the stories of her people. Teevee’s art – all drawings and prints, going by what is presented here – is full of the world of Cape Dorset, Northern Canada. The region is now well known for its flourishing art scene, which has become widely recognised in North America. In her art people, animals, plants and the land (and sky) are the subjects of boldly coloured depictions telling stories or presenting us with more detached views.
Subjects included are animals, plants, landscapes, snowscapes, characters and mythological subjects. Individual animals include walrus, owls, reindeer, fish, polar bears, ravens, wading birds, geese, loons and foxes. Pelts and feathers provide an outlet for Teevee’s pleasure in drawing patterns.
Hunting and gathering plays an important part in Inuit life, for both sustenance and commerce. The Inuit learn from their parents and elders the skills of survival and hunting, including new technology such as satellite phones, telescopic rifle sights and unwater listening devices. While there is veneration for tradition, the current generations of Inuit – like any people – do not restrict themselves arbitrarily to the technology of their ancestors. They want to be safer, more efficient and more comfortable. Just as it is in hunting and snow travel, so it is in art. Whereas their forefathers were carvers of stone and bone primarily, the Inuit artists of today use plate and offset lithography, serigraphy, photography and video.
[Image: © 2019 Ningiukulu Teevee]
Teevee is one of the many artists of Dorset Bay who have benefitted from the opportunity to make art in a studio which enables local artists to produce prints professionally for sale in the municipal centres of Canada and beyond. For her drawings, Teevee, like other Inuit artists, uses accessible materials that are sometimes considered the domain of amateur – felt-tip pens, crayons and colour pencils. The prints Teevee has made include serigraphs, lithography, aquatint and stonecut (with and without stencils). The stonecuts (usually made on local soapstone, which is a very smooth soft stone of aluminium silicate) are usually in colour, sometimes graduated. This is a common Inuk art medium. In her art we also find other aspects common in Inuk practice: linearity, flat space, abstract grounds (or in the case of shaped stonecut matrices, no ground at all), curved forms, side views, lack of shaded volumes and shadows, motifs in circular movement.
A very fine print using stonecut and stencil is Siku Siggiaju (Spring Break Up) (2014) is of broken sheet ice on swelling seas. The quality of the blank white paper as the ice gives a contradictory dynamic of positive motif as negative space. The pared-down depiction uses the medium’s flat areas of colour or bare paper to echo the blank glare of snow-covered ice.
The 2004 colour lithograph of kelp has fronds overlayering each other, filling the print plane, is a figural description that becomes abstract. Likewise, designs of shoals and reindeer herds employ such a similar approach in a realistic manner, whereas the repeated motifs of owls scattered evenly across a picture is a more artificial design. The swirling movement of repeated forms is something that can be found in Aboriginal Australian dot paintings and some Japanese art, such as that by Yayoi Kusama and Minoru Onoda. It is all too easy for observers schooled in Western traditions to consider Inuit art as struggling between binary poles of traditional image making of Inuk design and Western pictorialism, when it might be better to look East and South to other traditions of the Pacific.
[Image: © 2019 Ningiukulu Teevee]
Her children’s book Alego (2009) follows a young girl learning about her beach and how to forage for food there. Teevee has said in interviews that she has retained the proclivity to view the world with the wonder and curiosity of a child, which keeps her art fresh. Some of her drawings of Alego are illustrated in this book.
The multiple subjects of Teevee’s art (including mythical subjects, cosmological scenes and humorous inventions relating to modern life) will leave some viewers wrong-footed but Teevee’s freedom is to her credit. This moving between registers and genres is not uncommon in Inuit art, where folklore, the natural world, customs and Western technology and culture all combine in art that is nimble and surprising. The humour in Teevee’s pictures of walrus is related to the many folk myths of walrus transforming into people. (Shapeshifting is a common part of stories.) Her walrus range from the naturalistic to the anthropomorphised. Likewise, her mermaids can be dreamy or humorous. Teevee’s participation in the storyteller practice animates her art sometimes. Often we encounter an image that makes us wish to know what story this image illustrates. Teevee moves between cool detachment and mischievous frivolousness.
Leslie Boyd is very familiar with Inuk art and has interviewed the artist to provide a sympathetic and informed introduction to the art. She explains some of the stories behind the art, as well as discussing Teevee’s intentions for her art. A list of exhibitions and publications by the artist show us how Teevee’s art has been received throughout Canada and the USA. The captions for the illustrations provide editions and printers for the prints, which is welcome.
Teevee addresses social issues such as pollution, addiction and depression, which she sees as problems for the Inuit. She incorporates such subjects into her art in ways that are mostly glancing. It is difficult to gauge how much of her art deals with social matters on the evidence of this book, which is intended as a general guide to Teevee’s art. The balance is firmly with art that is based on mythology, caprice and neutral scenes of the land, sea and animals.
This book comprises an approachable, generous and informative survey of Teevee’s art and is recommended for anyone interested in Inuit art, Inuit printmaking and Canadian art.
Leslie Boyd, Ningiukulu Teevee: Drawings and Prints from Cape Dorset, Pomegranate, March 2019, hardback, 92pp, over 80 col. illus., $24.95, ISBN 978 0 7649 8466 2
© 2019 Alexander Adams
To view my art and books visit www.alexanderadams.art