RESEARCH: In Search of a Name 

Oscar Sanchez | December 2, 2016

Helen Kalvak, Hunter, 1965, stonecut, 2/30

Luke Anguhadluq, Drum Dancing, 1975, stencil, 40/50

This semester I’ve spent time researching within the SFU Art Collection in order to make a list of artworks made by Aboriginal artists.[1] The collection contains over 5,550 works of art and such a list of its Aboriginal holdings didn’t previously exist. Many artworks are spread across SFU’s campuses and tagged in the collection’s database with a variety of cultural markers, making my search more investigative than simply running a database report.

I began with a simple list of artists from searching the collection’s database with “Inuit”, “First Nations” and “Coast Salish”, for example. As I familiarized myself with the collection I’d occasionally stumble across artists that had not been tagged as Aboriginal, such as the contemporary Ojibwe artist Carl Beam. So far this process has turned up 618 artworks from Inuit, Anishinaabeg and North West Coast artists.

The most intensive research involved the collection’s holdings of Inuit prints, largely acquired by SFU in the late 1960s and early 70s. Here I was intrigued by the changing names of the artists. Traditionally, Inuit naming customs were closely tied to an Inuit sense of community and used a single, genderless given name, typically drawn from significant or recently deceased family members. In Canada, the Inuit were also given Christian names, which existed alongside Inuit names. This arrangement proved problematic not only for the Inuit, whose customs were being interrupted and changed, but also for Canadian government administrators who were unable to keep track of individuals, establish familial relationships, or even write and pronounce Inuit names. This also resulted in a wide assortment of spellings. The solution introduced in the 1940s was the alphanumeric disc system, which assigned each Inuk a unique number and was in use until the 1980s. This system was unique in Canada and controversially reduced identity to a number. Moreover, it was not entirely successful. Thus, at the behest of the Northwest Territories Council, a prominent Inuit community leader named Abe Okpik undertook Project Surname and traveled throughout the Canadian North between 1968 and 1971 to visit every community and many traditional campsites. There, he registered Inuit given names and helped those he visited select and register a surname for the first time, both of which were simultaneously given a standardized spelling. 

Aoudla Pudlat, Fall Plummage, 1981, lithograph, 18/50

This history has affected the cataloguing of the SFU Art Collection’s Inuit artworks. Though most entries were intact, many didn’t follow the naming pattern that followed Project Surname. Some artists were filed under several different spellings, while others were filed under a combination of given names and surnames. Meanwhile some artworks were missing artists, and one was filed under a well-intended but inaccurate transcription of an artist’s signature. More puzzlingly, artists and the printmakers that worked alongside them had been confused by people unfamiliar with the naming conventions of the Inuit. In this way, some artworks were erroneously filed under the printers, and in more than one case a misplaced comma effectively combined two people into one.

Thus, research became a matter of cross-referencing various sources in order to conclusively identify which artworks belonged to whom. The SFU Gallery’s own artists’ files proved useful in many cases as they hold previous research, press clippings and photocopies from publications. The gallery also has a number of annual art catalogues published by various Inuit art cooperatives. These contain images of many Inuit prints, but vary greatly in the information they provide. Dated to the 1960s and 70s, most of these catalogues also retain the given names that predated Project Surname.

Parr, Walrus Hunt, 1963, stonecut, 45/50

Online research proved fruitful. The collection of the National Gallery of Canada, the Artists in Canadadatabase maintained by the National Gallery of Canada Library, and the online Inuit Art database Katilvikmaintained by the Toronto auction house Waddington’s proved to be excellent resources. They provided biographical information and artists’ full names with past variations and spellings, which I was able to cross reference with our artists’ files and database entries. Katilvik’s entries also list every publication that included those artists, allowing me to use our Inuit art catalogues to look up artists and establish a connection between a full name and any information I had on hand. Other resources, such as the Canadian Women Artists History Initiative of Concordia University, or the collections of the Winnipeg Art Gallery, and that of the Canadian Museum of History also proved useful.

Though finding the correct names of Inuit artists is a small part of the larger project, I learned a great deal about them and the Canadian North through the process. For an art collection, this kind of update presents opportunities, particularly since it concerns an area of interest that is often neglected. As part of the research project I feel that it is important to update and correct the SFU Art Collection’s entries on Aboriginal artists. It not only makes work easier to find and access, but it will also allow the collection to better reflect its holdings and better represent the artists and artworks within.

[1] Aboriginal peoples include the First Nations, Métis and Inuit communities in Canada.

Further Reading

Alia, Valerie, Names, Numbers and Northern Policy: Inuit, Project Surname and the Politics of Identity.Halifax: Fernwood Publishing, 1994.

Ibid., Names and Nunavut: Culture and Identity in Arctic Canada. New York: Berghahn Books, 2007.

Ibid., “Nunavut: Where names never die.” In CBC Ideas (Radio Program). Toronto: Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, March 1995. .

Bonesteel, Sarah, “The E-Number Identification System,” Canada’s Relationship with Inuit: A History of Policy and Program Development. Ottawa: (Prepared for) Indian and Northern affairs Canada, 2006. .

Meekitjuk Hanson, Ann. “What’s in a name?” In Nunavut ’99: changing the map of Canada : the birth of a territory fulfills a dream. Iqaluit: Nortext Multimedia Inc. and Nunavut Tunngavik Inc., 1999. .

Goddard, John, “A man once known as W3-1119; INUIT IDSculptor david ruben is one of many inuks who speaks fondly of the number discs that were scrapped 30 years ago amid charges of racism, writes john goddard,” Toronto Star, Jan 08, 2006, Ontario edition. .

 “The Inuit: Disc Numbers and Project Surname,” Library and Archives Canada Blog, June 22nd, 2016. .

<< Previous Blog | Back to 2016 | Next Blog >>