They closed the Co-op store and the government offices in Cape Dorset on Thursday afternoon for Kananginak's funeral. Despite a bad snowstorm the night before, which had made many roads impassable, 300 people crowded into the community centre for the emotional Anglican service in the Inuktitut language.
Darkness comes early in the Arctic winter, so the mourners used flashlights to wend their way to the cemetery where they placed Kananginak's coffin in a shallow grave, covered it with a blanket of gravel, rocks and snow and marked the mound with a handmade cross. The Inuit artist and respected elder died of lung cancer, at age 75, in an Ottawa hospital on Nov. 23, 2010. He was the artistic hand and the guiding voice of Cape Dorset for more than 50 years.
Even when Kananginak was old and sick, he was moving in new artistic directions personally and helping his people prepare for a future without him. "He spoke about Inuit cultural topics a lot," said Jimmy Manning, recently retired buyer of drawings and carvings for the Inuit owned Kinngait Studios (known through its marketing arm, Dorset Fine Arts).
In his most fervent messages, Kananginak beseeched the Inuit to preserve the Inuktitut language and to keep working together in the Co-op. He also warned that if the market for Inuit art looked as though it was going to collapse, they needed to look ahead at what else was out there and plan for the future. "I guarantee you that he was a very wise man, and he came from a very strong family background," said Manning. "He is going to be missed by a lot of friends around the world."
Kananginak, the only remaining son of Pootoogook (the great traditional leader of the Ikirasak camp), grew up on the land, but made the transition to life in a permanent settlement. He revered the traditions of the past and embraced the future with a strategic intelligence.
The last of the four original Inuit artists who experimented with printmaking with James Houston in the late 1950s, Kananginak was a founding member of the Inuit organized West Baffin Co-op. He served as the inaugural president of the Co-op's board of directors (from 1959-1964) and was instrumental in developing both its graphic arts and stonecutting centre, and in transforming the original shop for hunters and trappers - an alternative to the Hudson's Bay Company store - into a multimillion dollar community owned business. Today the Co-op sells everything from milk to snowmobiles, and manages and builds infrastructure and housing projects in the community.
Audubon of the North
Other early Cape Dorset artists, such as Kenojuak Ashevak, are more imaginative and overtly spiritual; Kananginak belongs to a naturalistic and narrative style. He inherited his father's love of drawing, and the documentary skills of his paternal uncle, the renowned photographer Peter Pitseolak (1902-1973). He was proud of his uncle's reputation as a historian, which influenced his own work, according to Terry Ryan, former general manager of the West Baffin Co-Op and the first southerner ever hired by an Inuit organization.
More than most Inuit artists, Kananginak sketched the material culture of the past in detailed drawings of weapons, clothing, and tools. "He liked to draw, he was a good draughtsman and he took a lot of time to do his work," said Ryan. "He was interested in getting things right." He also chronicled the transition from ancient to modern and the effect of southern communications, travel modes and social influences on the traditional Inuit way of life by telling stories in images of Inuit hunting and fishing, watching television, surfing the Internet, riding snowmobiles and consuming drugs and alcohol.
As a hunter and a butcher, he understood the anatomy of the creatures that he killed to feed his family; as an artist, he had the ability to transform that appreciation of sinew and muscle into drawings and carvings that captured an animal's essence. Often called the Audubon of the North, he was particularly good at birds and owls, depicting them so realistically and yet so intuitively that they seem to be staring back at a viewer with a knowing if wary regard.