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History of Inuit Art

The history of Inuit art in Canada can be broken up into three stages:


The creation of art and artifacts was done for very different purposes during each of these phases


During the Pre-historic Period, carvings were produced, in large part, either for use in shamanic rituals or for the purpose of creating amulets. These were tiny shapes made of bone, antler or stone, often worn on a belt or string. The creation of these objects was a delicate business, since it had to be done in such a way that the carver could not be held accountable for any misfortunes that occurred in spite of the charm. A shaman or angakok would carry many of these carvings with him as part of his equipment.

Artifacts were also created as teaching tools, toys, gifts, and to artfully decorate useful objects such as hair combs and sewing kits. These objects were usually kept quite small in consideration of the Inuit’s nomadic lifestyle.


The Historic Period began in the 1770’s and continued until the 1940’s. It was during this time that the Inuit became increasingly exposed to southern culture through interaction with whalers, traders and missionaries.

Throughout this period, these new southern visitors collected Inuit art and artifacts, with the subjects of choice being traditional scenes of Inuit culture and life in the Arctic. This dramatically affected the style and subject matter of the pieces being created.

As the Inuit were, understandably, reluctant to part with their own objects of tradition and power, they responded to this demand by producing artifacts, intentionally created for trade with outsiders. As these pieces were never meant to be carried from camp to camp year after year, their styling became increasingly delicate and detailed. While Historic Period art still relied largely on traditional life and themes for its content, artists began selecting and presenting that content in an illustrative manner to appeal to outside audiences.

By the middle of the 1800’s, most of the art created by the Inuit was aimed at a ‘tourist’ market. Instead of tiny pieces that would fit into the palm of your hand, larger pieces were produced and often given a base or stand – transforming the pieces into tabletop display items. Cribbage boards, dice, games, models and toys were the most popular items. It was also during this time that pencil drawings and the first watercolour paintings were introduced to the market.


The Contemporary Period of Inuit art began in 1949, when a young artist, named James Houston, introduced this art form to The Canadian Handicrafts Guild in Montreal. They encouraged him to return to the north to buy more carvings, and then sponsored an exhibition promoting Inuit carvings in the south. The Canadian federal government saw the potential benefit of promoting Inuit art as a way to drive economic development in the Canadian Arctic.

Inuit-owned co-operatives began in many Arctic communities during the 1950s and 1960s, and were supported through marketing initiatives in southern Canada. The marketing of Inuit art in the south would lead to the establishment of Inuit art as a major contemporary art form which attracted international interest.

By this point, demand for carvings was so high that the traditional carving material of ivory was not plentiful enough to keep up with demand. As stone was cheaper and more plentiful than ivory, soapstone replaced it as the most desirable medium. This resulted in an increase in the average size of carvings – a change encouraged by collectors. The use of ivory was relegated to use in carving accents such as faces, tusks or tools.

Pieces created during the Contemporary Period were increasingly treated as objects of sculpture, rather than curiosities. This allowed artists to express themselves with more freedom, and deal with subjects inspired by their inner spiritual life.

Inuit artists were fully aware that they were producing works for an outside market. They also learned that this market brought its own demands of subject, composition and workmanship.

Although power tools are readily available, today’s Inuit artists continue to create pieces by hand using files and axes. This gives the artist more control to release the spirit and image that lives in the stone. The carving is then brought to life by polishing the stone for many hours with differing grades of waterproof sandpaper.