Mission possible
Bringing NWT arts to Europe

Michele LeTourneau
Northern News Services

Yellowknife (Aug 21/00) - Aboriginal arts and crafts, made in the Northwest Territories, seem to be custom- made for the western European high-end art market.

Annemieke Mulders, co-ordinator of marketing and promotions for the Arctic Canada Trading Co., a company owned by the NWT Development Corporation, attended a week-long trade mission in Holland and Belgium this past June.

The event, which was mainly devoted to the arts and crafts sector, enabled Mulders to have face-to-face contact with distributors and galleries in 10 cities in the two European countries.

"Belgium and Holland are excellent places to begin and to test the markets," says Mulders, who brought along birch-bark baskets, quill work and fully-beaded moccasins from the Fort Liard area, as well as carvings and painting from the Western Arctic.

Mulders uses the birch-bark baskets as an example to describe the quality of work from the NWT.

"I haven't seen the same quality. You can tell immediately that it's from the NWT. We really do have the best of so much."

Teaching the facts

Mulders says educating the consumer is integral to marketing the products.

"Except with the most sophisticated buyers and collectors, there's a general lumping together of all of the aboriginal people in North America. So education is required in distinguishing between the groups, distinguishing the difference between the Dene in the Northwest Territories and all the other groups. Because we have very unique things to offer."

There is a definite difference between the product of the NWT and that of other aboriginal groups, adds Mulders.

"Colour, style. Of course, carvings are uniquely Northern ... subject matter and the fact that there are stone carvings, both by Inuvialuit and Dene. That's not done in many places in the south. (The work) is strongly traditional without a lot of external influence. In larger centre in the south, there's more of western culture, more western influence."

Mulders says the aboriginal population, and the Northwest Territories in general, most closely fit the ideal that Europeans hold most dear.

"There's a closeness to the land, a hardship in living in this climate, which is represented in all the products that are made. There's a sturdiness to the utensils that were made, the clothing that were made, the shelters that were and are still made."

Bringing the North to Holland and Belgium was like playing Santa Claus, says Mulders.

The attraction to arts coming from the NWT has everything to do with the context in which they are created.

"I think in the Northwest Territories we're closer to the land and the land is in a far more natural state than other places in North America. We still have millions of square kilometres of raw, untouched land. There are still people who live off the land, not just going camping. It's real.

"There's a perception of this wild, wonderful, huge place ... and we're the place in North America that seems to live up to that the best, or most truthfully. There's nothing left in Europe that's really wild. It's all farmland or city or town."

And it seems everyone has heard of Yellowknife. Thanks to the diamond industry, the names Ekati and Yellowknife are familiar to Europeans, says Mulders.

"Everybody wants to come here. They just love the thought of being here. Therefore, there's a great interest in the products, with the high-end collectors. The stories behind the products are what intrigues them most. The fact that people can still see a bear in the wild, that they can still see a wolf that's wild, that's not in a zoo."

For Mulders, it's all hard work from here on in.

"It was not a selling mission. We were not allowed to make sales. It was strictly to show products and to make contacts. We made incredibly fantastic contacts."

Now it's time to follow through on those contacts and get the product out on the European market.

The Dutch and Belgians have a reputation for being trend-setters in the arts, so Mulders figures word about the NWT arts will spread.

The trade mission was an initiative of Industry Canada and the Department of Foreign Affairs. Canadian North made it possible for Mulders and the NWT products to make it to Europe and back.