August 14, 2012

Inuit Stone Block Prints

        In Quebec back in June we went to the Musée de la Civilisation, where I saw an interesting exhibit of Inuit stone block prints.  (The museum blurbs sometimes call them engravings, but in fact they are relief prints, not intaglio prints, so for clarity I'm calling them stone block prints.)  These prints were made by Inuit artists in a cooperative workshop founded in Nunavik in 1961.  I suppose due to the physical difficulty of carving stone, but perhaps also due to traditional divisions of labor, the carving was mostly done by men and the printing mostly done by women, although designs were invented by each.  For those who are interested, you can read a bit more about the exhibition on the museum's web site, and the exhibition will be up until September 30.
        These owls are probably my favorite piece in the exhibition.  There's some interesting stuff going on here.  To begin with, the artist, Joe Talirunnilik (1893-1976), has left the perimeter of the matrix visible around the edge so we can see the shape of the original stone block.  Most of the stone block prints in the exhibition retain the basic shape of the block, but this one seems strange in that the block's shape is neither used in the image, nor carved away.  It's just left there.  The title of the piece is "Owl," not "Owls," so it may be that this image represents the same owl twice rather than two separate animals.  I don't know the significance of the rabbit, though I can't help
suspecting that it will soon be owlfood!  I really love the beautiful pattern of the feathers on the wings.
        The second piece shows two scenes in one, rather than a single scene with two hunters, a common technique in the prints in the exhibit.  In this case, it's representing the differences between hunting on land (at the top) and hunting by kayak (in the middle.)  Again, you can see that the stone block was left in its natural shape around the edges.  I like the use of texture for the water and to add details to the caribou.
        The label on this third piece specifies that the artist, Leah Nuvalinga Qumaluk (b. 1965), inks and prints her own works.  Of course this begs the question whether she also carved it, or what parts of the process the other artists did for their work.  At any rate, Qumaluk chose to ink the border in a different color, again emphasizing the stone's edge.
        I enjoyed seeing a different way of thinking about and executing relief block prints.  Although the Inuit artists could import wood blocks along with their ink, paper, and other supplies, they favor soapstone because it's native to the region.  Relief printing was not a traditional art, but carving designs onto bone is, so it wasn't a huge stretch to adapt that tradition to flat blocks for receiving ink.  Finally, for more information about the art market side of the Inuit prints, you can read this article by R.V. Denenberg.

[Pictures: Owl, stone block print by Joe Talirunnilik, 1963;
Hunting Caribou by Kayak, stone block print by Juanasialuk Irqumia (1912-1977);
Family of Birds, stone block print by Leah Nuvalinga Qumaluk, 1965.
(All images from Musée de la Civilisation.)]

3 comments:

  1. I would love to own some Inuit prints. If I'd known about this exhibit I might have gone (since I was in nearby Ottawa in June).

    I wonder if the literature calling these 'engravings' is a translation issue. In French, both engravings and relief prints get called 'gravures' so it's easy to see how what was this could lead to confusion.

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  2. Hello, minouette. I think you must be right about the translation issue. I know it's the same word in Spanish, too.

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  3. Imagine my surprise when my daughter forwarded a link to your blog and I found an illustration of the print "Family of Birds" by Leah Qumaluk. She is currently settling the affairs of my recently deceased ex-wife and I asked her to look for Inuit prints which I bought in Banff in 1965. She found two, one of which is that very print!

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