To celebrate the 2012 International Year of Co-operatives launch we’re posting an article about Canadian Arctic Producers featuring R.J. Ramrattan, showroom manager and buyer. Check it out below!
Canadian Arctic Producers: Recalling the Past and Looking to the Future
By: Karolina Tomaszewska and Kate Mossman
Canadian Arctic Producers, or CAP, a Canadian institution and supporter and promoter of art made by Inuit and northern First Nations, celebrates its 46th anniversary in 2012, which also marks the International Year of Co-operatives. During these past forty-six years, it has played, and continues to play, a significant role in the development of Inuit art within Arctic communities.
CAP’s story begins with the emergence of the co-operatives in the North, which were first formed in 1959 to market traditional industries to the South, such as marketing Arctic char to southern cities like Montreal, as well as other locally produced goods, including arts and crafts. In those early days, it was the first co-operative members who produced carvings and gave them to their co-operative to sell. The co-operative would send carvings to the south once a year, and when the artist would eventually receive payment for the carvings, they would accept very low payment for their work.
To address some of these issues, a conference of local co-operatives was held in Iqaluit in 1963. The Co-operative Union of Canada was in attendance, and it was during this conference that participating co-operatives asked for assistance with the formation of a marketing agent for Inuit art. The Canadian Government agreed to establish a marketing agency as a limited company, investing funds in preferred shares. Each of the founding co-operatives was required to purchase one common share of $1.00 each. Any profits generated by the sale of the art would be allocated to the participating co-operatives as patronage and used to repurchase the government shares. When the investment by the co-operatives exceeded that of the government, control of the company was passed on to the co-operatives.
In 1965, CAP was incorporated to market the arts and crafts of the Aboriginal people of northern Canada. CAP’s aim was to act as an intermediary between remote northern co-ops and southern galleries. The organization’s first director was Alma Houston, the wife of James Houston, a Canadian artist instrumental in developing the market for Inuit art in the south. James Houston worked in collaboration with the Canadian Guild of Crafts, the Canadian government and the Hudson’s Bay Company before co-operatives in the North were first established. In its early years, CAP worked to establish supporters in prestigious art galleries, mount exhibitions, and create more significant appreciation for this art form. These efforts achieved widespread recognition and value for northern work, especially art made by Inuit.
A cornerstone of CAP’s operation was the commitment to fair and timely compensation for the artists. In 1979, CAP made the transition from government-supported corporation to fully Aboriginal-owned and operated co-operative. This ensured that artist-members would direct the operations of their marketing agency. In 1982, CAP amalgamated with the Canadian Arctic Co-operative Federation Limited to form Arctic Co-operatives Limited (ACL). ACL is a co-operative service federation dedicated to providing services and business development opportunities to communities throughout Canada’s Arctic.
Today, CAP is the wholesale marketing arm of co-operatives in select communities in Nunavut and the Northwest Territories, and it continues to purchase and distribute fine arts and crafts produced by Inuit and northern First Nations people. It is one of the world’s largest wholesale distributors of Inuit art. Proudly Aboriginal owned and controlled, CAP markets this unique art form which reflects the artists’ connection to the land and its animals, folklore and contemporary imagery. Its clients include galleries and art dealers throughout the world.
Recognizing the importance of 2012 to the co-operative movement, MIA felt that it was important to seek some personal perspectives on CAP’s important role in supporting the advancement of art made by Inuit. R.J. Ramrattan, showroom manager and buyer at CAP, kindly agreed to discuss his experiences with MIA regarding his work at CAP over the past twenty years and shed some light on how CAP’s work affects individuals as well as communities.
Ramrattan was first introduced to ACL through his sister who was working for the service federation headquartered in Winnipeg. He was hired as a summer student in 1989, a position in which Ramrattan was designated to work in the warehouse, opening new art as it came in. He says, “This was a particularly interesting position because some weeks I could open up to a hundred boxes filled with brand new, beautiful art.” It is here that Ramrattan’s passion and interest for the art began to grow and through these early experiences, he came to learn of the values and principles of the co-operative enterprise. “I found out how the co-op gives back to the community,” he says, “and helps the people by buying the art; that the co-op actually gives them the opportunity to have money in their hand and go buy the necessities of life.” Ramrattan notes that from that point, “I never turned back because the passion just continued to grow.” Not only did he have an innate affinity for the art, but he stood whole-heartedly behind the co-operative system as well. With an eager mind, Ramrattan was hired on full time the following year. He began working in the shipping and receiving department, but soon found himself involved in marketing and many aspects of the organization.
Ramrattan recalled that in his first year with ACL, he was invited on a trip to Sanikiluaq as part of the marketing arm, working alongside a team of individuals in construction, project management and accounting. On this trip, he understood more fully the importance of supporting the Inuit art industry and the communities engaged in producing this art. He explains, “We were not just moving art but we are helping a family to get through their daily lives in those communities. I felt I was doing something good.” Ramrattan found this to be a significant event in his career and life noting how it, “…changed the way I do things. I fell more in love with the art. I saw the women weaving the baskets up North and just wow!” Ramrattan began directing his focus towards growing with the co-operative, and working on not simply survival, but building better futures for these communities. His experiences with CAP in the Arctic have provided him with an appreciation for the talents of the local people, and he points out that “I fell in love with the people and the art.”
Today, Ramrattan takes on a variety of roles in his position as showroom manager and buyer for CAP. First and foremost, he oversees the daily operations at CAP and puts their resources to work. On any given day he can have walk-in clients at his Mississauga office or members of co-operatives coming to town that need support. Education is also a major component of Ramrattan’s job description. He educates clients about Inuit art and on the realities of life in the North and also uses his resources to encourage awareness of Inuit art in southern communities by collaborating with educational and cultural institutions. The Museum of Inuit Art is one of the first museums he has worked closely with to achieve these goals. This is not only because of MIA’s proximity to CAP in Mississauga, but also because MIA is the only museum in southern Canada dedicated solely to Inuit art and culture. He has had a unique experience collaborating with MIA, and it has really broadened his horizons in the field of Inuit art.
Education for Ramattan also extends to the artists that he has the opportunity to work with. He encourages artists to always learn and challenge themselves, either through engaging with different subject matter or improving sculpting techniques. For example, he finds that some artists are very talented in producing realistic objects. Ramrattan tries to encourage them to challenge themselves and create more abstract works that connect with spiritual and cultural aspects of Inuit life. As he notes, “I encourage them to open their minds, and be more artistic and creative.” Daniel Shimout (1972-) from Salliq (Coral Harbour) is one of the artists he has encouraged in this direction. Ramattan points out that “This artist is proven. He does amazing hunters and drummers with faces that are really wonderful. I suggested he take his work to another level, encouraging him to be more spiritual in his vision.” Ramrattan noted that he recently received new sculptures from Shimout, and the new abstract pieces by this artist are remarkable. For Ramrattan, it is important that he continues to build relationships with artists in order to create a bond based on trust and loyalty. The results are stronger friendships and business relationships.
Ramrattan has also had many unique experiences through his work with CAP. For example, when Canadian Arctic Gallery-Inuit Art, a regular client from Basel, Switzerland, began purchasing pieces from CAP on a routine basis, Ramrattan noticed a trend in their selection of pieces by Pitsuilak Qimmirpik (1986- ). He suggested they take on a solo exhibition of the artist. Both artist and gallery agreed, and the yearlong preparations began to take shape. Qimmirpik was challenged with producing a variety of subject matter for the show and as a result, this show gained immense media attention. The show, which was advertised all across Europe, took place from Sept. 3rd to Oct. 9th, 2004, with the Canadian ambassador, Jean-Paul Hubert, attending the ribbon-cutting ceremony. This show sparked greater interest in the artist, and when Qimmirpik carved an owl in the gallery space over the course of four days, individuals were fighting to buy it once it was finished. This type of experience truly solidified the relationship between CAP and Qimmirpik as well as between the artist and his audience.
Having been with CAP for over twenty years, Ramrattan has seen many changes take place with regards to the marketing of Inuit art, the subject matter of the art, and also the technology involved in communicating with artists in the Arctic. As he explains, “Twenty years ago, there was much less access to the Arctic whereas today, many more people can jump on a plane and buy directly from artists. Also, there are more independent wholesalers. This becomes a challenge because an artist can only produce a limited amount during a year, and when it all becomes distributed through various wholesalers, it is difficult to keep track of an artist’s stylistic evolution.” As a co-operative, CAP gives back to the communities, and as Ramrattan observes, “The more you support the system the more you get out of it.” This ethos is an important component of how CAP operates.
Ramrattan has also noticed changing trends in art production. Modern imagery is making an appearance in more and more artistic pieces. “When an artist used to create a boat, it usually came equipped with paddles, whereas now the artist will replace paddles with a motor. Artists are also challenging themselves with a variety of mediums. Stone, bone and antler are being incorporated to come up with unique aesthetics, whereas in the past the tradition was to work with a single medium,” he explains. In addition, he points out that technology has changed the way art is purchased. In the past when Ramrattan was deciding whether or not to purchase a piece the transaction would take place on the telephone. It would be up to him to try and visualize it based on his knowledge of the artist and their previous works. The next stage of technology was Teleview, which was used to send still images of the artwork. In the age of advanced technology and the internet, dozens of images can be sent within seconds. This not only allows for better judgment but it improves efficiency for both parties, allowing for enhanced communication across great distances. As a result, now artists can be immediately compensated for their artwork and focus their efforts on pursuing further art production.
Finally, in his position at CAP, Ramrattan expressed feeling fortunate to have had met so many interesting and creative people through his work. This includes meeting artist Elijah Michael (1929-2008), an elder from Kimmirut (Lake Harbour), Nunavut. Ramrattan noted that he had had the chance to meet Michael’s wife, Annie Michael (1935-1999), who was also an artist. He also had the opportunity to watch Michael carve his artwork, which largely involved images of family. As noted by Ramrattan, “His artwork was about family and strong values and he was passionate about that and those pieces were memorable for me.” Michael’s art and friendship continues to be very important to him. It is these experiences, including meeting inspiring and talented individuals, engaging with beautiful pieces of art, and supporting Arctic communities, that fuels Ramrattan’s passion for working at CAP, an organization that continues to play a significant role in connecting the North and South. These important contributions are being celebrated throughout this following year with the United Nation’s designation of 2012 as the International Year of the Co-Operative, which MIA will be commemorating through a variety of future activities.