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Kenojuak Ashevak in her lithography studio. PHOTO: © MARTIN LIPMAN
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"Ravens and Owl"
Kenojuak Ashevak, "Ravens and Owl," colour stonecut and stencil on laid japan paper, 1979, 24" x 24". printed by ningoochiak pudlat. gift of dorothy m. stillwell, m.d., collection of the national gallery of canada. reproduced with the permission of dorset fine arts.
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Kenojuak Ashevak, "Iridescent Char," 2009 Collection of Dorset Fine Arts. Photo © Dorset Fine Arts. From the National Gallery of Canada exhibition Uuturautiit.
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Kenojuak Ashevak, "Two Birds," coloured pencil and black felt pen over graphite on wove paper, 1991 – 1992, 21" X 26". Collection of the National Gallery of Canada. Reproduced with the permission of Dorset Fine Arts.
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Kenojuak Ashevak, "Bird Humans," linocut, 1960, 24" x 28". Edition of 50. Printed by Eegyvudluk Pootoogook. Reproduced with the permission of Dorset Fine Arts. Image: Canada Council for the Arts.
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"The Woman Who Lives in the Sun"
Kenojuak Ashevak, "The Woman Who Lives in the Sun," stonecut in red on laid japan paper, 1960, 21" X 26". Printed by Lukta Qiatsuk. Gift of the Department of Indian Affairs and Northern Development, collection of the National Gallery of Canada. Reproduced with the permission of Dorset Fine Arts.
The Grande Dame of Kinngait, this northern printmaker has quietly become one of the most honoured artists in Canada.
BY Amy Karlinsky
Kenojuak Ashevak’s art is easily recognized by its emblematic depictions in dazzling colour and careful detail. Her work is something of a northern bestiary, with its invention of fanciful appendages on common animals. Wings swell and swoon. Plumage glows with fantastical colour. Parading past are owls, ptarmigans, sea maids, goddesses, fish, suns, ravens and bears in formal and balanced combinations, making the implausible seem possible with the addition of a realistic detail or two — the curl of a talon, the exact contour of a duck’s neck.
Some of her iconic works seem to represent Inuit prints as a whole — like the smiling and somewhat macabre Woman Who Lives in the Sun (1960). Or the fecund plumage of The Enchanted Owl (1960). Each contains an isolated image or a silhouette on a white ground, typifying Kenojuak’s early style of centered compositions, rhythmic line and preference for radial symmetry. They are mythic in intent and energized by the dynamic use of positive and negative space. The Enchanted Owl was made into a six-cent stamp in 1970 to commemorate the Centennial of the Northwest Territories. The red version of the print has the distinction of fetching the highest price for an Inuit print on the resale market, selling for more than $58,000 in 2002 at Waddington’s. “She is arguably the best-known Inuit artist ever,” says Darlene Wight, curator at the Winnipeg Art Gallery.
Kenojuak Ashevak was born in 1927 in an igloo in Ikserak, a camp on south Baffin Island. Beginning at the age of six, she lived with her grandmother Koweesa for 13 years, learning skin sewing skills, and the means to collect animal and plant resources, skills that are no longer integral to artists growing up in Kinngait, people whose lives now are mediated by technology and the global village.
She married artist Johnniebo Ashevak, and they followed camp life at Keakto, Sartoweetok, Kamajuak, and Kungia, interrupted only by three years at Parc Savard Hospital in Quebec City in 1952. She was treated for tuberculosis, and passed the time making dolls and beading. Her time at Parc Savard never makes its way into her iconography.
When she returned to the north, Kenojuak’s art career began in earnest. In 1957 she was one of the first to make drawings for a new northern printmaking project, developed by artist and Northern Services Officer James Houston. The project was captured in an Academy Award-nominated, NFB film, Eskimo Artist: Kenojuak, released in 1963 and produced by John Feeney. The film contains memorable imagery of Kenojuak with her young family, and in the print shop as the stone-cut plate is inked and a print is pulled. As one of the first women of her generation to be involved in printmaking in the north, camp life remains a significant reference for her art.
The first print collection by the West Baffin Eskimo Cooperative was released in 1960. It includes one Kenojuak stencil, and in those days, the prints included the seal of the Canadian Eskimo Arts Council, an advisory body, since disbanded, of experts who approved the imagery. Since then thousands of prints have been made, hundreds from Kenojuak’s drawings. The co-operative follows the Japanese Ukiyo-e tradition — together, the artists choose which drawings will be made into prints. In the 2009 collection, she is represented by six prints, and in celebration of the fiftieth year of continuous annual collections, she also has work in the exhibition Uuturautiit: Cape Dorset Celebrates 50 Years of Printmaking, which recently opened at the National Gallery of Canada.
Kenojuak’s development as an artist is inextricably linked with the growth of the co-operative, and influenced by the cataclysmic cultural shifts that have occurred in her lifetime. The development of printmaking at Cape Dorset in the late 1950s is one of the most fascinating chapters in Canadian art history — a complicated nexus of talented artists, eager dealers, perplexed anthropologists, and hungry consumers. It’s a story of cultural collision, economic development, southern desires and great art-making. The prints, like the popular Inuit carvings before them, found an immediate audience. The images were fantastic, varied and had little to do with any notion of a stark or limited barren landscape. Animals of the hunt, shamanic practices, and oral stories made visual were part of the dramatic content.
For southern Canadians, the graphic works of Kenojuak and her colleagues depicted an authenticity in relation to land and nature. The experiment in printmaking at Cape Dorset tapped into a national consciousness that was catalyzed decades earlier by the Group of Seven in their attempts to define a national mythology. Inuit prints were informed by profound knowledge from the precepts of a hunting and shamanistic culture, and first-generation artists like Kenojuak had an inborn relationship to the land.
Southern art consumers, schooled in modernism with its underlying use of non-western forms, developed an appetite for the new prints, and throughout the 1960s, each Cape Dorset annual print collection was released to an expectant market. Inuit prints served to revitalize an increasingly urbanized and industrial southern landscape, and by the 1970s, Kenojuak was undertaking separate commissions for wall murals, book illustrations and special print portfolios and stained glass windows.
At 82, Kenojuak is one of a handful of artists from that first generation, still actively making drawings for limited edition prints. Over the years, her drawings have been featured in solo shows at Feheley Fine Arts in Toronto and other Inuit galleries, and her images have been part of almost every annual collection, interpreted in stencil, stonecut, engraving, etching, aquatint and lithography. She maintains an interest in depicting themes of wildlife, particularly birds, and the lives of women, but her work has become more formally complex, and at times more three-dimensional, with elements of abstraction, symbolism and realism. The complexity comes as a result of her confident graphic abilities, interest in decorative play, and sophisticated knowledge of printmaking processes.
In 2008 she won a Governor General’s Award in Visual and Media Arts, the highest honour for an artist in Canada. The GG followed on earlier honors — she became a Member of the Royal Canadian Academy of Arts in 1974, a Companion of the Order of Canada in 1982, a lifetime achievement honouree from The National Aboriginal Achievement Foundation, and has been given numerous honourary degrees. She always thanks and acknowledges the roles of James Houston, former Co-operative manager Terry Ryan, and the West Baffin Co-operative whenever she wins an award.
Many things have changed in the north. Inuit art is seen by many northerners as a means of keeping eclipsed traditions alive, and the visual culture of the north has shifted — artists like Shuvinai Ashoona and Annie Pootoogook have developed a style of surreal and narrative images that are redefining the genre. Yet some things remain. At the cooperative, the careful stewardship, responsiveness to new imagery by second- and third-generation artists and printmakers, and willingness to explore techniques continues. For Kenojuak, and those who collect and enjoy her work, what stands out today, after 50 years of making art, is the balance and harmony of her work.
Amy Karlinsky has taught school in Baker Lake (Kamanituaq), been the director of the Nunnatta Sunaquatngirt Museum in Iqaluit and has written essays and reviews about many aspects of Inuit Art. She has taught Inuit Art at the University of Manitoba, and her last research trip was to Kinngait in 2003 with the artist Aurora Landin.