Inuit Art

Inuit Art
Nunavik art
The first ancestors of today’s Inuit arrived in Arctic Quebec (Nunavik) approximately 4000 years ago when the ice sheets of the last ice age were retreating from the Hudson’s and Ungava Bay coasts. Originating from Siberia, Palaeo-Eskimo people spread across the Canadian arctic following the game they hunted.
Their descendants, the Dorset people, adapted their way of life to the rigorous climate and meagre resources. Archaeologists have discovered oil lamps that date back to that era and were undoubtedly used for heating igloos.
A new wave of immigration from Alaska spread into Canada about 1000 years ago. The Thule Inuit took advantage of a warmer period and prospered by hunting whales in the arctic waters. Their technology and hunting methods gave them an advantage over the previous inhabitants whom they eventually replaced. The last of the Dorset people lived in Nunavik until around 500 years ago. Inuit today still speak of an Inuit super-race. Undoubtedly, they remember one or the other group that once inhabited their land.
The historic period begins 300 years ago. The climate had turned colder and Inuit people had once again adapted their way of life. It is during this period that they met Europeans for the first time. The newcomers provided them with new tools in exchange for skins and small artefacts, thus introducing the concept of trading objects they created in order to obtain what they needed. This practice would, 250 years later, transform itself into a wonderful artistic industry.
inuit art sculpture

inuit art sculpture

In 1948, the Canadian Guild of Crafts organized the first showing of Eskimo sculptures in Montreal. The event received an enthusiastic response from the public and carvings made by previously unknown Nunavik artists all sold within a few hours. The Canadian government soon increased its efforts to encourage artists and to promote this developing art. Inuit cooperatives began to appear in the late 50’s and contributed to the promotion of Inuit art. During Expo 67 in Montreal, Inuit artists and their work were featured at the Canadian pavilion and they have enjoyed world-wide acclaim ever since.
Nunavik sculpture is produced in a wide variety of styles, from highly detailed representational works to abstract or minimalist pieces. The characteristics of the raw materials and the culture of Nunavik Inuit combine to give their art a unique flavour.


Ancient skills

The first wave of contemporary artists was born at a time when the Inuit still survived on the game they hunted and lived in the shelters they made from skins, snow and stone. They relied on skills and traditions that had been passed on from generation to generation. Men and women were experts at fabricating objects that were used on a daily basis. Their skills at making things were what the first artists wanted to show off.

Attention to detail

Typically, early pieces were meticulously detailed renditions of hunters or people involved in some task. Implements incorporated in these works were precisely portrayed by the artists with the expectation that buyers would appreciate the exactitude of their work. The stone that the artists used was perfect for such detailing.

Steatite , which is largely composed of talc, has a very fine grain and is soft enough to be shaped with hand tools. Its grain is quite even and the varieties they used turned dark grey when polished. These qualities helped show off the details so important to the artists. This attention to details, even today, is found in much of Nunavik art. The early themes are still popular with the artists and they pride themselves in their knowledge of their traditional ways.


The term Steatite is generally interchangeable with the term Soapstone although it may imply a slightly greater hardness than is associated with the term soapstone. This greater hardness of Steatite may be due to other minerals in the stone other than talc, or a crystal structure that is finer or denser.

sculpture inuit

sculpture inuit

Characteristics :

  • Color is grey and white to almost silver
  • 1 to 3 on the hardness scale


Serpentine is classified as a group of related minerals in the Hydrous Magnesium Iron Silicate family (similar to Talc and Chlorite) and can have a hardness ranging from 3 to 4.5. Serpentine often incorporates inclusions, which give the stone its unique color variation.Characteristics :
  • Color is olive green, yellow or golden, brown, or black
  • 3 to 4.5 on the hardness scale


A non-fissile variety of shale or slate. A sedimentary rock formed predominantly from a mixture of clay and other minerals. Its extremely fine grain is known to take excellent detail in carving.Characteristics :
  • Color is grey to black, but many other colors are known
  • 2.5 to 4.5 on the hardness scale

Finding stone

Artists obtain their stone by traveling by canoe or sled to quarries known to contain good quality stone. This one is very shallow and extracting carving stone by hand is relatively easy. Some quarries become deep pits after several years of use and extracting stone is then more difficult and dangerous. Carvers mining stone will often work in teams for security.

First step

Sculptors will bring back several pieces of stone from a mining trip. The shape of a block of stone often tells the artist what his subject might be. Useless parts are sawed or chopped off as a first step in the making of a sculpture.A shape emerges
With a practiced hand, the artist will begin to chip away at the stone until a rough shape begins to appear. As work progresses, smaller carving tools made or modified by the artist to work the stone in constrained areas are used.

Cutting and shaping
Often, a lot of the work that will go into the making of a sculpture is in the detailing. This can start fairly early in the carving process. The stone being used here is steatite which is well suited to complex work. The artist is using a chisel to cut through and shape the stone.

Smoothing the stone

The sculptor has begun to smooth the stone with sandpaper. There are many steps to polishing as finer and finer grades of abrasive must be used in order to reveal the beauty of the stone. Bone pieces have been fitted to the runners of this piece in an effort to be as true to reality as possible.Final polish
All the details have been added and the artist is giving the stone its final polish. It is hard to estimate the time needed to carve such a piece since artists will often make several smaller pieces as they work on a large one. This one was ready 6 weeks after the block it came from was first cut.