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Where the River Widens: masterworks from Baker Lake 2014

Opened May 24, 2014

WHERE THE RIVER WIDENS: masterworks from Baker Lake

Qamani’tuaq (‘Baker Lake’ in Inuktitut) means ‘Where the River Widens’ and is renowned for its raw artistic style – rough, abstract and wild. This group exhibition, opening May 24th, 2014 at our Gastown gallery location, beautifully illustrates how these regional artisans integrate raw themes into stone sculpture, stone-cut and wood-cut lithographs, prints, tapestries and textiles.

Baker Lake hamlet lies amongst the barren lands of the Keewatin Region, Nunavut, and is the only inland Inuit community in the entire Canadian Arctic. Situated several hundred kilometres inland from Hudson’s Bay, it is positioned near the mouth of the Thelon River which opens into Baker “Lake”. The Baker Lake inhabitants are a culturally distinct group known as “Caribou Inuit”, who primarily relied upon hunting the migratory Caribou as well as fishing for sustenance. They lived on and from the land, and their lives focused simply upon survival.

European contact began in the early 17th century, and the Hudson’s Bay Company was setup for trading in 1670. In 1762, Baker Lake was named after Sir William Baker who was an HBC Governor. During the early 1900s, following the decline of the European whale hunting expeditions, the HBC operated a trading post along the south side of Baker Lake. Between 1950 to1965, Baker Lake developed from trading post to a community of permanent residents.

During this period, the art of carving and printmaking was slow in comparison to other communities such as Cape Dorset. It wasn’t until 1963 that an arts program was implemented, and then in 1971 the first Baker Lake Co-Operative was opened. In the early 1970s, Baker Lake artisans began to flourish.Arts and crafts were produced in the beginning, such as small soapstone sculptures, sewing, tapestries and jewelry made from Caribou hooves, which subsequently progressed to the fine contemporary art forms seen today.

The distinctive quality of the Baker Lake style is its vitality, and how Western influences upon their art form were very minimal in comparison to other Inuit regional styles.

In these early days, the Baker Lake people had to endure challenges and setbacks within the arts community and yet, with determination and fortitude, they forged ahead to create a spirited and prolific group of artisans who are now recognized internationally.

Stone Carvings

With its extreme cold weather, Baker Lake is a harsh and desolate place to live which is reflected through the rough expressionism of their sculptural art form.

Basalt is a heavy grey or black volcanic stone, and its hard density places restrictions on intricate details so their carvings have simple stylization with unadorned, unpolished surfaces. Within their minimalistic sculptural forms, there is a strict naturalism and they often appear crude or primitive. Typically Inuit art expresses a narrative or theme connected to their culture and beliefs.

Featured artists include; Thomas Akilaq, Basil Aptanik, Mathew Aqigaaq, Barnabus Arnasungaaq, David Arnasunggaq, Toona Iqulik, Nancy Pukingrnak Aupaluktuq, Peter Sevoga, Thomas Sivuraq, Martha Tickie, Lucy Tikiq Tunguak, David Toolooktook, Paul Toolooktook, Mary Yuusipik Singaqti and more.

Tapestries & Textiles

The introduction of brightly coloured textiles from Europeans, such a felt and wool duffel, inspired these artists to create vibrant tapestries and graphics that are in contrast to the dull grey and black stone used in carvings.

Historically, families would depend upon women’s ingenuity and skill to stitch animal skins into items of everyday use such as blankets, clothing and tents. During long winter months, women had time to explore their creative abilities by decorating parkas and garments with colourful and sometimes lavish decorations. They became talented seamstresses and passed along these age-old practices to their daughters through observation and training.

Over time these complex designs, and their distinctive cultural stories, transformed and eventually progressed into modern-day wall hangings. Wall hangings typically depict themes illustrating family, mother and child, animals and spiritual, which is predominately transformational. Featured artists include; Marjorie Agluvak, Irene Avaalaaquia, Annie Taipanak, Mary Yuusipik Singaqti and more.


Graphics are primarily limited to stone-cut, wood-cut, lino-cut, and the artist’s original drawings are used to create the outlines for the cuts.

The patterns are striking and spatially organized in a distinctive style that is individualistic and non-Western in its approach. Although mixed perspectives are used, it is strictly for aesthetic reasons. They tend to isolate their figures on the page, and then attempt to fill page completely.

The artists use vivid and saturated colours in unusual combinations, and often the subject matter is considered mysterious. They work narratively to explore the supernatural realm through descriptive or aesthetic expression, including themes relating to myths, legends, shamanism, landscape or human transformation (animals and spirits).

As Baker Lake is situated inland, the subjects tend to focus on Caribou and Muskox as opposed to water creatures, such as Walruses, Whales or Sednas. Featured artists include; Marjorie Esa, Hannah Kitusiuq, Janet Nipi Ikuutaq, Ruth Nuillalik, Nancy Pukingrnak Aupaluktuq, Simon Tookoomee, Mary Yuusipik Singaqti and more.

Coastal Peoples extends their gratitude to this remarkable group of gifted artists who continue to deepen our appreciation of and respect for their thriving Inuit culture.


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