This monograph covers highlights from the art of Kenojuak Ashevak (1927-2013). Kenojuak was an Inuit artist, part of one the Canadian First Nations of Nunavut. She is the most acclaimed and beloved native artist of Canada’s Northern Territories, considered to be one of the founders of modern Inuit art. She received many national awards and honours, dating from 1967 up to her death. Her art has continued to receive more recognition since her death.
The book gives an overview of the artist’s eventful life. Kenojuak was born into a nomadic Inuktitut clan in a haumuq (igloo) on South Baffin Island. Her family were hunters. Seal hunting was dangerous work and income low. Her father was murdered in a clan dispute, victim of summary justice. Any tale of Kenojuak’s life must include local hunter and part-time artist Johnniebo Ashevak (1923-1972), whom she married in 1946. His art is less well known than hers, although it is well regarded and in national collections. Kenojuak experienced forcible hospital confinement due to tuberculosis (1952-5) and lost children in infancy due to illness. She married twice after Johnniebo’s death and was mother to 16 children over the years, five adopted; seven did not survive infancy.
She learned traditional crafts from her family. Her skill was noticed and encouraged during her hospital stay. Some of her bags, dolls, boots and tapestries used stencils monochrome motifs.
Like other Inuit artists of the Cape Dorset region, her creativity was harnessed and disseminated by the couple Alma and James Archibald Houston. In the 1930s Houston had sold native crafts to Canadians in the South and the couple’s establishment of the print studio in 1956 proved highly successful, causing a sensation and leading to the introduction of Inuit art to Canadians nationwide. The studio allowed Inuit craftsmen to reach new markets and gain a significant source of income
One of the key artistic mediums of Canadian First Nations artists is the soapstone print. Blocks of local soapstone – soft enough to be cut with a knife – are flattened then a matrix cut in relief. The matrix is inked with a roller then a sheet of paper applied over it, taking the ink. The use of stencils allows variation in inking.
[Image: copyright 2020 Kenojuak Ashevak]
This catalogue for a touring exhibition (2020-2, Saskatoon, Dawson City, Kelowna, Ontario, Winnipeg and Medicine Hat) features Kenojuak’s late art, especially the bird pictures that she was famed for. The well-known late style contrasts with the few examples here of Kenojuak’s work of the 1960s. These pencil drawings lack colour and show less concern for neat shading. They are less visually appealing than the colour works but they have greater rawness and intensity. The freedom apparent compensates for the less polished finish. As new materials became available she adapted her style to take advantage of colours.
Exhibited art includes drawings (in black and coloured inks), soapstone prints, colour lithographs and an etching with aquatint. Most of the art is late drawings from the 1990s, 2000s and 2010s, alongside colour prints. Double-page spreads compare the original drawing to the subsequent print. Between the two, there are few changes in composition, only minimal changes to conform to the characteristics of the print medium. (Most of the prints were made by printmakers who transcribed drawings as matrices and editioned the prints.) Most typical of Kenojuak’s art in this book is the single animal or groups of few animals set against a blank background. Often the there are no picture borders, with the motif existing free of setting. Kenojuak favoured horizontal axes.
[Image: copyright 2020 Kenojuak Ashevak]
Kenojuak’s art shows animals frontally or in profile using curvilinear outlines, patterned shading and bold decorative fans of appendages, referring to feathers and spines. These extravagant appendages induce a hypnotic effect on the viewers. The animals are mainly birds and fishes, with frequent changes of scale. Owls, loons, swans, ravens, gulls, foxes, hares and chars all feature; Kenojuak rarely depicted whole figures in her mature work. Sometimes the animals are in the process of transformation or engaged in unclear (or unspecified) interactions.
This attractive book (trilingual in English, French and Inuktitut) provides an enjoyable introduction to one of Canada’s most beloved artists.
Leslie Boyd, Silaqi Ashevak, Kenojuak Ashevak: Life and Legacy, Pomegranate, 2020, hardback, 109pp, fully col. illus., English/French/Inuktitut text, $29.95/C$39.95, ISBN 978 0 7649 9818 8
© 2020 Alexander Adams
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