How Kinngait Artists Depict Their Interiors

Critical Text: An insider’s look at the history of how Inuit document their homes, dwellings and studios. 

ch’i cha jų̃ kwa’ch’e Dän däw Kwenjè Indigenous Sovereignty
Drawing of a studio from a birds-eye view, filled with monsters and creatures resembling animals working on computers and carrying art.

For over eight decades, Kingngamiut artists have created a distinct practice of depicting their homes, dwellings and studios. While the spaces themselves have shifted, the impulse to document remains. 

In 2003 a solo exhibition at Feheley Fine Arts vaulted Annie Pootoogook (1969–2016) into the contemporary art world. The simple, direct statements found in Pootoogook’s coloured pencil drawings focused primarily on everyday life in the modern hamlet of Kinngait (Cape Dorset), NU. It was not only her drawing style, tight and focused, or her innate sense of colour, but also the subject matter that appealed to viewers as arresting and refreshing. She often focused on domestic interiors, portraying the everyday details common to many Kingngamiut, such as clocks, graduation pictures, key holders, furniture and labels on bottles.

Many, particularly new admirers of Pootoogook’s work, heralded these depictions of Kingngamiut going about their lives as a startling new development in contemporary Inuit art. However, Pootogook was in fact following an already existing Kinngait tradition of depicting interior spaces. From the early photographs of Peter Pitseolak (1902–1973) to the graphic images resulting from the introduction of drawing and printmaking, Kinngait artists have chosen as subject matter the spaces common in their lives, ranging from domestic scenes to any other gathering place. This can be seen as a distinct tradition in this community long before any external influence would inform their imagery.

Photograph of a woman wearing traditional Inuit clothing holding an accordion inside a home with a clock in the background.
Peter Pitseolak, Aggeok playing the accordion (c. 1940–45). COURTESY CANADIAN MUSEUM OF HISTORY, 2000-1438.

Documentation and Memory Art

Peter Pitseolak began taking photographs in the early 1940s, showing family and friends in interior settings. He often featured traditional dress, as in this portrait, Aggeok Playing the Accordion (c. 1940–45), in which he positioned his wife in the interior of his modern home, complete with a clock and an accordion. While Pitseolak captured contemporary interiors, many of the Elders, as they picked up paper and pencil in the later 1950s, depicted an earlier time, before the social and economic changes of the second half of the twentieth century. Pitseolak Ashoona (1904–1983), born in the first decade of that century, lived on the land until the early 1960s. Our Camp (1974) shows a family sleeping inside a skin tent that is placed in the context of summer on the land with a hunter, animals and birds. Similarly, An Intimate Memory (2001) by Kananginak Pootoogook, RCA (1935–2010), offers the tender scene of a man and wife safely tucked in their warm and well-lit iglu in the Arctic night. The almost encyclopedic nature of these images convey not just detail but, importantly, fond memories of an earlier time.

Print of a couple inside of an igloo, the woman is tending to an oil lamp and they are surrounded by their belongings in front of a blue sky.
Kananginak Pootoogook, An Intimate Memory (2001). REPRODUCED WITH PERMISSION DORSET FINE ARTS © THE ARTIST.

Beyond Domestic – Trading Posts and Transition to the Studio

The increasingly active fur trade ushered in a new phase of change. In 1939 the Baffin Trading Company (BTC) opened, joining the Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC) as a trading post in Kinngait. Peter Pitseolak recalled this as a prosperous time when the people could trade for goods from the South, saying, “While the BTC was here we were well off from the land. They were trading in sealskins and polar bear and walrus hides. The Bay used to take only fox Pelts.” [1] People would travel from their camps and return with staple items like flour, biscuits, coffee, tea, sugar, rifles and ammunition. Towards the end of his life, Ohotaq Mikkigak (1936–2014) told me that those remaining in camp anxiously awaited their return; he recalled that they knew the sleds were coming close because they could smell “Qablunait.” [2] The 1977 drawing Trading Pelts depicts Napachie Pootoogook’s (1938–2002) memory of going to the post with her family. She drew the interior of the trading post in detail, with the trader in his cap flanked by shelves of the supplies that became more common in everyday life.

Drawing of two people inside of a studio creating drawings at a desk in front of a window, on the wall is a seal skin, fox pelt and artwork of a fish.

As the fur trade waned, arts and crafts experimentation resulted in a new economic opportunity through the newly established co-operative. The fledgling Kinngait Studios started in a modest wood building where sculptures and drawings were purchased while artists experimented with printmaking. Mary Pudlat (1923– 2001) recalled this transition in her drawing, In the Art Studio (1987–88). The syllabic inscription on the drawing clearly reflects its image, explaining: “Fox pelts and sealskin were our only source of income, but they no longer have value. Now making drawings and sculpture are our source of income.” Up until the early 1960s, most artists still lived on the land and came into Kinngnait sporadically. Whoever was interested would return to camp with drawing materials supplied by the co-op, as illustrated in another of Pudlat’s works, Sewing and Drawing in the Igloo (1989–90). The ability to make and sell drawings afforded women a source of income to support their families for the first time. The HBC also bought sculptures, depicted in detail in Qavavau Manumie’s Hudson’s Bay Store (2006–07), which shows an artist selling his sculptures in the 1970s to the manager in his trademark cap, surrounded by goods displaying price tags. The work is even more detailed than it first appears; in a recent interview, Manumie identified the artists of several of the works: Mask by Taqialuq Nuna, Dancing Bear by Pauta Saila, RCA (1916–2009) and Man Lifting Woman by Kiugaq Ashoona, OC, RCA (1933–2014). [3]

Drawing of two people inside of a store surrounded by goods, including furniture, fishing gear and stone sculptures with price tags attached.

The Kinngait Studios

The West Baffin Eskimo Co-operative was incorporated in 1959. In 1960, after hiring Terry Ryan, CM, the far-sighted all-Inuit Board of Directors set out to make the co-op financially independent, which they accomplished over the next five years. As the co-op grew into a self-sufficient, diversified enterprise, it provided the necessary stability for the art studio to grow. By 1976 a separate new studio housed lithography presses, while a series of additions to the original building resulted in a separate stonecut printing studio and an area designated for purchasing sculpture. Gradually it became a hub, not only for the printers and stonecutters but for the many artists who came either to draw onsite or to sell their work. Naturally, the interior of the iconic studios became a frequent subject matter for many of the artists.

Drawing of an artist studio from a birds-eye view, four people are inside at various stages of printmaking, there is art on tables and the walls.

The Stonecut Studio (2003–04) by Shuvinai Ashoona, RCA, presents a bird’s eye view of the activities of the stonecut studio in delightful detail. Near the front door, master printer Qavavau Manumie prepares to transfer ink from block to paper with the back of the same spoon he has used for years. Completed prints are hanging to dry, proofs are on the walls and artists are bringing in their rolled drawings to sell. On the table in the middle, drawings under consideration are identifiable by their style—drawings by Annie Pootoogook, Kenojuak Ashevak, CC, OC, RCA (1927–2013), and Ashoona herself.

Kananginak Pootoogook, an artist who was among the first to join the experimental stage of printing, was himself not involved in the creation of lithographs. His 2009 work, Lithography Press, is devoid of people and focuses on this complex printmaking technology which, to a veteran printmaker in stonecut and stencil like Pootoogook, was entirely new. Again, viewed from above, the black press dominates the image, while the details of the rollers, ink and sponges are clearly rendered.


Contemporary Life in Kinngait

Recalling the tradition of earlier artists like Peter Pitseolak, graphic artists also depicted their homes. Shuvinai Ashoona’s drawing, Interior (1995–96), shows the details of contemporary houses from an aerial perspective. Drawn in her early style of small-scale pen and ink, this work captures ‘real time’ details in new houses, such as the window, the ubiquitous clock on the wall and women engaged in traditional work with skins. Mark Pitseolak, however, broke with convention with his sculpture Domestic Scene, in which he chose individual elements found in a contemporary house and carved them from stone. A woman cooks in a modern kitchen at the back of the scene, while a man sits in his armchair with a child in front of the coffee table and television. On the side, two children play with a dog.

Five stone sculptures depicting the interior of a house, a woman cooks in a kitchen, a man sits in a chair in front of a television and two children play with a dog.

This established tradition did not ignore more challenging subject matter within a domestic setting. Napachie Pootoogook was another artist who depicted domestic life, and in the latter part of her life, began a startling new series of monochrome drawings illustrating local stories and legends. But through these drawings she also showed the less than idyllic part of traditional life. These included mythical stories of cruelty and the unfortunate realities of past life, such as domestic abuse. Man Beating Wife (1997–98) shows a father abusing his wife in front of his sons while his daughter attempts to intervene. It may be her mother’s brave revelation of more personal moments that prompted Annie Pootoogook to tackle the same tough subject matter. Memory of my life: Being Hit (2002) depicts a particularly shocking, self-explanatory scene of domestic violence. Especially striking, the interior is detailed in the same way as many of her typical domestic interiors, yet here it becomes a setting for violence. In both Napachie and Annie Pootoogook’s drawings, it is apparent that these scenes are not imagined but are in fact autobiographical.

Annie Pootoogook did take detail to a higher level with, for instance, her well-known drawing of the new freezer in the co-op store, Cape Dorset Freezer (2005), in which every frozen product is meticulously drawn. In a drawing of a whale tail party by Pootoogook, the calendar on the wall shows that it is October, the month that beluga whales are numerous in the Kinngait area. Still,  today, when a whale is hunted, the tail is kept for a gathering of women to butcher, eat and take leftovers home—October is the month for frequent whale tail parties. Artists like Pootoogook created their own memory art; many of her drawings show her as a child, in her father’s camp or visiting her grandmother, Pitseolak Ashoona.

Drawing of a kitchen window, inside there is a sink, teapot and dish soap, outside is a snowy landscape and cloudy sky.

Stage Set

While realism was a driving force in many earlier works, in recent years interior settings have become a contextual device. Itee Pootoogook’s Kitchen Window (2010) does show some details of his kitchen, with the sink, teapot and soap visible, but it is the glowing landscape outside that is the real subject. Here Pootoogook creates a study of light and shadow, all rendered in the beautiful, soft, atmospheric drawing that typified his work. The dark details of the interior scene function simply as a frame for the luminous landscape.

Drawing of a studio from a birds-eye view, filled with monsters and creatures resembling animals working on computers and carrying art.

Even artists who previously documented interiors are stretching the tradition. Studio Monsters (2021) by Shuvinai Ashoona shows a drawing of the new studio, the Kenojuak Cultural Centre (KCC), held by two hands, partially human and partially composed of worlds holding a drawing that is depicting a bird’s-eye view of the new studio. This interior scene, however, provides the set for a cast of fantastic characters from the artist’s imagination; an elephant/walrus transformation sweeps the floor and a whale, a bear and various birds bring their drawings to sell, while fantastic, metamorphic creatures work on computers and even multi-task. When contrasted with the artist’s earlier studio drawing, one can see the progression of her artistic expression. Both are seen from an aerial view, but real-life depictions have given way to a panoply of fantastic beings.

Emerging artist Padloo Samayualie approaches many of her drawings in a similar manner. Several afternoons a week, artists who work at home bring their drawings to the studios to sell. In Looking For the Buyer (2018), Samayualie depicts her aunt, artist Elisapee Samayualie Pudlat, looking out a window in the dark of late afternoon, her drawing in a tube, waiting for the buyer to return. From her earliest work, architectural details have been an integral part of Samayualie’s drawings. This drawing is part of a remarkable series featuring the new KCC. In these, she utilizes the contours of the new building and its interior; her mastery of drawing is combined with her love of architectural details. In Looking For the Buyer, the figure is perfectly framed. This elegant, fully resolved drawing typifies the minute attention to detail and graphic brilliance of this artist.

Drawing of the back of a person holding their hands up to a window as they look out, they are wearing red boots and mittens.

The Kenojuak Cultural Centre provides a new setting for the contemporary artists of Kinngait. As time goes on, whether the subject is set in the studio, in homes, in the co-op store, the airport or the community hall, it is evident that this long-standing tradition of depicting interior scenes will continue into the future.


Unless stated otherwise, Interviews were conducted by Pat Feheley.

[1] Pitseolak, Peter and Eber, Dorothy. People from our Side: A Life Story with Photograph and Oral Biography (Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1993), 133.

[2] Interview with Ohotaq Mikkigak, Kinngait, July 2012. Kenojuak Ashevak corroborated this memory.

[3] Interview with Qavavau Munamie and Joemie Takpaungai, Kinngait, February 2021.


Author Biography:

Pat Feheley, OC is the Director of Feheley Fine Arts, a Toronto art gallery specializing in traditional and contemporary Inuit art. From the beginning, Feheley has spearheaded the gallery’s ongoing program of catalogued exhibitions. Over the last two decades, the gallery has championed emerging Inuit artists such as Annie Pootoogook, Shuvinai Ashoona, Samaiyu Akesuk and Ooloosie Saila. Feheley has an extensive administrative background in the visual arts, coupled with a lifetime of experience with Inuit and the Canadian Arctic. She has also published widely on the subject of Inuit art.

Credit: This article was originally published in the Summer 2021 issue of the Inuit Art Quarterly. Copyright the Inuit Art Foundation.

This story is part of the Nunavut Spotlight. View more content from the Spotlight here.