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Showcase in Asia the latest effort to promote Inuit art on the global stage

William Huffman discusses his recent trip to Asia and the impact of Kinngait art on the global stage
A close up of the paper igloo in the Korean version. Photo courtesy of West Baffin Cooperative.

“Inuit artists have always been observational. They’ve always documented the land, and it’s not necessarily because they want to talk about climate change — they document it because it’s what they do. They’re communicating to the audience what is going on in their environment.

“But what we’re finding 65 years later is we can look through our archives of drawings and prints and pick key moments where things were happening scientifically as observed by the artist. It’s kind of amazing.”

That comes from William Huffman, marketing manager and recently appointed interim general manger at the West Baffin Cooperative, who is frequently on the move around the globe bringing Inuit art to new cultures, setting up exhibits, networking and making connections that promote Inuit art and way of life to the world.

Beyond just reaching artists, people in other fields are using the work Huffman is bringing to them as a touchpoint for their conversations, connecting concepts and different Indigenous peoples in an increasingly global village.

Speaking from Scotland last month, Huffman was fresh off a trip showcasing Kinngait and West Baffin Cooperative art in the Republic of Korea, Malaysia and Vietnam as part of the Team Canada trade mission.

It was part of Kinngait Studio’s 65th anniversary celebrations.

“When we talk about Indigenous populations, we also tend to forget that in places like the [Republic of] Korea — Koreans are the Indigenous peoples,” says Huffman.

The exhibit in Gwangju at the LeeKangHa Art Museum, titled ‘Arctic Myths, Resistance to Extinction’ running from March 19 to May 19, is West Baffin’s second project at the venue. The exhibition features documents that the Korea-Canada Arctic Research Project team encountered during a November 2023 visit to Kinngait.

“The exhibition in Gwangju is as much a celebration of art making in both Korea and Kinngait as it is a record of the relationships that were forged when the delegation visited us,” commented Joemee Takpaaungai, associate manager of arts at Kinngait Studios. ‘There are some older prints in the show, new works by the Korean artists who were here in the studio, spectacular drone footage of our local landscape, interviews with Inuit artists and documentation of an amazing moment when a Korean dancer had an improvisational performance in our gallery space with two local throat singers. There’s so much behind these ‘documents’.

‘The Korean-Arctic project is about a growing conversation between these two places,” Takpaaungai continued. “In 2023, I helped to select the 93 works of art that populated the Canadian Pavilion at Gwangju Biennale. I never imagined it would be such a success that West Baffin Cooperative would be asked to do it again this year. It was more than a simple exhibition, after people saw the show they wanted to know more about Inuit art, Inuit people and this mysterious place, the Arctic, where we live.

“After lots of discussion, we decided it was important to host some Koreans in Kinngait, and that’s what happened in December last year. All the things that happened during the visit, all the knowledge that we shared together, that will be the basis of the 2024 Canadian pavilion. And this current exhibition at LeeKangHa Art Museum is a teaser for the Koreans about what this year’s project is going to be about.”

“This initiative has grown into something much more than anticipated, by truly bringing together the Inuit artists of Kinngait with their counterparts in Gwangju, Korea,” says LeeKangHa Art Museum director Sun Lee. “This shared experience proves that two different communities, from opposite sides of the planet, can become one unique international family.”

“Suddenly now,” said Huffman, “we’re starting to share this kind of Inuit traditional knowledge… [These] documents [are] now part of temporary discussion.”

‘The Igloo’, said Takpaaungai, referring to a special instillation featured in the exhibition, “is made out of traditional Korean paper. We make them from snow but our Korean friends can make them out of paper. The artist, Seola Kim, spent time here, worked in the studio drawing and became more familiar with the stonecut printmaking process. I’m very happy to see that she was inspired by Inuit art and culture and that our Igloos are now finding their way to Korea.

“When you see the gravitas of this work, how sophisticated this work actually is — and the history of the organization is so compelling as one of the first Indigenous-owned, Inuit-owned social enterprises in the country — you’ve got all the toolkit to motivate people.”

Harmonizing relationships

In addition to the exhibit in Gwangju, West Baffin Cooperative joined other Canadian business leaders participating in a delegation to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia and Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. While exploring future possibilities for the artists of Kinngait, West Baffin was also able to conduct market research while taking part in business briefings, plenary presentations, networking opportunities and events with the stakeholders from every nation.

“The vision of the West Baffin Cooperative — I have such a close relationship with my board and with people like [president] Pauloosie [Kowmageak],” said Huffman. “I say to them, ‘I have a crazy idea’,”We’ve been invited to Kuala Lumpur and Ho Chi Minh City. What do you think?’ And they’ll say, ‘Do you think there’s an opportunity there?’ and I’ll say, ‘I think I can make it work.’ And then they’re like, ‘Go, and send us some pictures.’ And that’s the Inuit community, doing more for the promotion [of their own people] that I can use to harmonize that into [other] relationships… I say to [the board of directors], ‘I’ve been invited by the Canadian government, and I’m going to try to find more marketplaces for Inuit art’.”

Huffman says he was compelled by the inequities between the North and the south.

“Why am I doing this? It was just so palpable how frustrated artists in the North are,” he said. “I’ve largely been able to, over the last nine years, to go all over the world and [create] relationships with major educational institutions and museums.

Kowmageak added, “As a board of directors, we prioritize the organization’s presence on the international stage, and that’s something our founding artist members like Kenojuak Ashevak pioneered. We are proud to build on a strong tradition of taking the Inuit art of Kinngait and the work of the West Baffin Cooperative to audiences across the globe.”

Kira Wronska Dorward

About the Author: Kira Wronska Dorward

I attended Trinity College as an undergraduate at the University of Toronto, graduating in 2012 as a Specialist in History. In 2014 I successfully attained a Master of Arts in Modern History from UofT..
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