Kenojuak Ashevak/ᕿᓐᓄᐊᔪᐊᖅ ᐋᓯᕙᒃ, Inuktitut artist

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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.

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[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.

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[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

To see my art and books visit www.alexanderadams.art

Tunirrusiangit / ᑐᓂᕐᕈᓯᐊᖏᑦ

Photography by Ian Lefebvre[Image: Kenojuak Ashevak, Seamaids (1978). Stonecut on paper, Sheet: 61.7 × 91.8 cm. Gift of Samuel and Esther Sarick, Toronto, 2002. © Estate of Kenojuak Ashevak]

Tunirrusiangit / ᑐᓂᕐᕈᓯᐊᖏᑦ Kenojuak Ashevak and Tim Pitsiulak is the current exhibition at Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto (16 June-12 August 2018) examining art made by two Inuit artists. Tunirrusiangit is the Inuktitut for “their gifts”, which is how members of the Inuit see the art of these two major figures in the Canadian-Inuit art world. Both artists lived in the Inuit Nunangat (Inuit homelands in Canada) and their art is a personal response to the lives and the traditions of their people. Both artists developed unique voices by departing from tradition in some respects. This review is from the catalogue.

Inuit art comprises many aspects and materials and it is not possible to accurately summarise in a short review. However, characteristics of earlier Inuit art that are relevant are a reliance on abstract patterns (especially curvilinear petal/feather forms), flat colour, a distinctly linear character, frequent use of profile and a preference for flatter as opposed to rounded modelling. Subjects often include nature, mythology, hunting, domestic and family life and essential human themes of birth, death and daily life. Materials include bone (especially whalebone), ivory (especially walrus tusk), stone carving, weaving and sewing. This has broadened in recent years to incorporate some elements of Western art and now Inuit artists use many of the tools, materials and techniques common worldwide. Tradition and modernity exist side by side – no more apparent than when a traditional theme is treated with new imported materials or a new aspect of daily life is depicted using time-honoured techniques and local materials.

Kenojuak Ashevak (1927-2013) lived her early life as a nomadic hunter and became involved in making art during a prolonged hospital stay in 1952-5.  She took art seriously when a co-operative was founded in 1959, assisting Inuit artists to promote and sell their work. For Kenojuak, she made art to support her family in the same way that she had hunted in her youth. She said, “There is no word for art. We say it is to transfer something from real to the unreal.” Thus art existed as a tool to feed and clothe herself and her family and also had a status similar to a nameless magic – the transformation of reality. Owls, geese, waders and other birds are visable in the graphics; more fantastic birds with rainbow plumage abound. Elongated feathers take on decorative beguiling qualities. The sun is a symbol of life with a female face and dotted tattoos. Fish, bears and dogs appear less often. Usually the motif floats free of any surroundings and exists as a symbol or icon.

Photography by Ian Lefebvre

[Image: Kenojuak Ashevak, The Woman Who Lives in the Sun (1960), Stonecut on paper, Overall: 49.7 x 66.2 cm. Gift of Samuel and Esther Sarick, Toronto, 2002. © Estate of Kenojuak Ashevak.]

The artist described her approach as intuitive, rarely making mistakes and allowing the image to develop without planning. Her art has bold curvilinear petal forms typical of Inuit art and dense patterning (in both descriptive and schematic forms). The stonecut prints, with raised designs carved on slabs of soft soapstone and inked with graduated colours on the matrix, are sometimes printed on Himalayan or Japanese mulberry paper. The clarity and forcefulness of these prints makes them ideal works for collectors. The artist also made intaglio engravings and lithographs. Most of her prints and later drawings bear her name in Inuktitut script.

Kenojuak’s colours are strong and usually limited in number. The most striking works are those with only a few colours. Many of the drawings were made with felt-tip pens, attesting to the importance of colour to Kenojuak. Unfortunately, such materials are not lightfast so careful conservation will be required. Happily, since Kenojuak’s art is now valuable, these drawings should receive the conservation attention it may need.

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[Image: Kenojuak Ashevak © Couvrette/Ottawa.]

A documentary film was made about her in 1963 and in 1970 her drawing Red Owl (1960) was featured in a sought after stamp. Over the years her art received a great deal of exposure, becoming Canada’s first high profile Inuit artist. She was awarded Canada’s highest honours and her art now achieves high prices. It is easy to see the appeal of her art from even this limited selection.

Timootee “Tim” Pitsiulak (1967-2016) was an artist, sculptor, jeweller and hunter resident at Cape Dorset. Subjects of his drawings were myth, animals, landscape and everyday life. Pitsiulak drew using coloured pencils of pastels on paper, sometimes on black paper. A particularly amusing drawing is Hero 4 (2015) in which two walruses sit on a beach. From the edge a digital camera taped to a stick waves towards the animals, encapsulating the juxtaposition of untamed nature and modern technology wielded by the wary spectator. Hunting wild animals is still a vital cultural, dietary and economic activity for the Inuit. In this case the bystander is intending on shooting video footage, the next day he might be shooting the animals dead. Inuit artists never present hunting as a moral quandary because it is not one. There is no conflict between admiring the strength and beauty of animals, revering them as spirits, and killing for necessity.

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[Image: Tim Pitsiulak, Morning Commute (2015), Pastel on Arches black paper, 76.2 x 111.8 cm. TD Bank Group Corporate Art Collection & The TD Gallery of Inuit Art © Estate of Tim Pitsiulak.]

Pitsiulak’s style varied from the realistic to the highly schematic, the latter reminiscent of traditional linear Inuit style. In the pastel-on-black-paper drawing How They Caught Big Game (2016) we see at the centre a depiction of a carved comb with net motif; at the edge of the drawing along a partial frame are simplified hunters in kayaks killing and hauling walruses. Whale and Hunters (2014) is a sophisticated distillation. This pastel drawing presents a dead whale seen at eye level, hunters in kayaks in traditional polar-bear-skin garments are stark against the black-paper ground.

Tim Pitsiulak walruses

[Image: Tim Pitsiulak, Hero 4 (2015), Pastel, 76.2 x 111.8 cm. Collection of Craig Wilbanks and Monty Kehl © Estate of Tim Pitsiulak.]

In GoPro Hydrophone (2016) shows the artist using his GoPro camera to monitor the sound of fish, whale and seal, something that he did on hunting expeditions. Pitsiulak does not shy away from the bloody end of the hunt in his art: there are scenes of killing, dragging and butchering. Pitsiulak compared making art to hunting, needing patience and skill.

There are some striking landscapes and views of ice floes, strongly colour and employing black and white grounds effectively. Qalupalik Maqgoo (2012) is a rendering of a the underwater monsters of folk tales told to children to warn them off thin spring ice. A huge drawing (1.2 x 2.4m) shows a whale covered with glyphs of Inuit life: sleds and dogs, igloo, kayaks, caribou, fish and topographic plans. As the life of the whale makes life possible for the Inuit, so the whale’s exterior is inscribed with a macrocosm of Inuit life. It is a daring visualisation that is symbolically meaningful and visually rich.

The catalogue displays Pitsiulak’s strength as an artist and his early death in 2016 is a real loss to Inuit (and Canadian) art. All of Pitsiulak’s art in this exhibition is from 2007 and after, most of it from the last few years of his life. Let us hope a full retrospective exhibition and catalogue can be produced to mark his achievements.

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[Image: Tim Pitsiulak, artist in residence at Open Studio in Toronto. Photo © Cheryl Rondeau.]

This catalogue reproduces many works by the two artists, includes photographs of the artists at work, commentary on that art by fellow Inuit creators, poems and images of their art. The poems of Taqralik Partridge are particularly good – sharp imagery, clean diction, concise. This catalogue is recommended to anyone interested in finding out more about the world’s most northerly artists.

 

Koomuatak Curley, Taqralik Partridge et al, Tunirrusiangit / ᑐᓂᕐᕈᓯᐊᖏᑦ Kenojuak Ashevak and Tim Pitsiulak, Goose Lane Editions/Art Gallery of Ontario, 2018, hardback, 160pp, fully col. illus., C$45, ISBN 978 1 77310 091 3

© Alexander Adams

31 July 2018