Artist Spotlight: Kenojuak Ashevak

The Northern region of Canada has many communities internationally known for their artists and print collections. The Acadia University Art Gallery is lucky enough to have large collection of Inuit sculptures and prints by artists of these communities – one artist in our collection is the acclaimed Inuit artist from the Northern Community of Cape Dorset, Kenojuak Ashevak.

Born on October 3, 1927, Ashevak spent her early years living a traditional hunting lifestyle on the land at Ikirasaq on the southern coast of Baffin Island, residing in igloos and skin tents. She grew up travelling between hunting camps on Baffin Island and in the Nunavik region of northern Quebec. To be able to survive on the land, the Inuit mastered many skills including crafting weapons and clothing, building “qarmaqs” (sod houses) and igloos, hunting, and fishing. From a young age, Kenojuak was required under the guidance of her grandmother to learn such skills as designing and creating handicrafts, sewing waterproof seams with caribou sinews and making repairs on skins being prepared for the Hudson’s Bay Company.

In 1958 while visiting Cape Dorset, Ashevak met James Houston; this encounter would change the path of her artistic career. In 1948, James Houston traveled to the Arctic on a drawing expedition to capture the lives and culture of the Inuit. During his visit he encountered many talented artists and decided to stay up north and collaborate with them to bring recognition to what is now internationally known as Inuit art. James Houston also founded the West Baffin Co-operative for printmaking. Ashevak was one of few artists approached by Houston and he encouraged her to continue her artwork as a form of income. In 1966 along with her husband Johnniebo Ashevak and children, Kenojuak Ashevak moved to the Cape Dorset community to provide schooling opportunities for their children.

Ashevak is regarded as the most renowned Inuit artist in history and a great Canadian national treasure; “what mattered to her most was to make the picture beautiful… It was all a desire to create what was in her head, but to do it in a beautiful way”[1] Her work has been displayed on Canadian stamps (e.g. “The Enchanted Owl” postage stamp, 1970) and coins (e.g. 1999 Canadian quarter depicting a polar bear and owl, entitled “Our Northern Heritage”), her life portrayed in film and books (e.g. NFB film directed by John Feeney, “Eskimo Artist: Kenojuak Ashevak”, 1963), and her art sought after all over the world by collectors, museums, and corporations.. She was also a major contributor to the Cape Dorset annual print collections issued since 1959 – the Cape Dorset print collections showcase the “best and brightest”[2] artistic talents from West Baffin Island, and each collection tells a different story.

Among her many achievements, Ashevak was awarded as a Companion in the Order of Canada in 1967, received Honorary Degrees from both Queen’s University and the University of Toronto in 1992, received the prestigious Lifetime Achievement Award at the National Aboriginal Achievement Awards Ceremony in Vancouver in 1996, and was the first Inuit artist to be inducted into Canada’s Walk of Fame. Ashevak travelled around the world as an ambassador for Inuit art to places including Holland, South Korea, Washington, and Germany.

In an interview in 2009, Ashevak stated that when she draws animals, her inspiration doesn’t come from the animal itself, but from her own feelings. She would work the animals into her drawings, not really paying attention to their real physical attributes, but how she saw them. She once said that her drawings, prints and sculptures are explorations of design and form and colour, rather than illustrations of events or stories. Over time she has developed some favourite subjects – birds, fish, human faces – and most of her work from the 1990s to the present includes these forms. Usually, the subject matter of her images is static; a solitary icon without any kind of background or context. The overall effect of the whole image is all that concerns her, so there is no need to search for a deeper meaning. For Ashevak, art is the chance to turn something form the real to the unreal. Some of her favourite subjects include birds (e.g. owls and ptarmigans), fish, and human faces.

“There is no word for art. We say it is to transfer something from the real to the unreal. I am an owl, and I am a happy owl. I like to make people happy and everything happy. I am the light of happiness and I am a dancing owl.” – Kenojuak Ashevak[3]

Ashevak died at the age of 85 in January 2013.

The following work by Kenojuak Ashevak is titled “Grand Entrance”.

Kenojuak Ashevak Grand Entrance .jpg

If you have any comments, join the conversation below!

Thanks,

Alexandra (Collections and Outreach Assistant, Summer 2017) and Dr. Laurie Dalton (Director and Curator, the Acadia University Art Gallery)

 

Work Cited:

 

ENDNOTES

[1] Martin, Sandra, “Visionary Inuit Artist Kenojuak Ashevak Dies at 85”, Jan 8th, 2013, Retrieved July 12th, 2017. https://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/national/visionary-inuit-artist-kenojuak-ashevak-dies-at-85/article7029924/

[2]  Huffman, William, “75th Cape Dorset Annual Print Collection”, Dorset Fine Arts, 2016,  http://www.dorsetfinearts.com/2016-annual-print-collection/

[3] Weldon, Carolyne, “Remembering Acclaimed Inuit Artist Kenojuak Ashevak.” Jan 9th, 2013, Retrieved July 12th, 2017, http://blog.nfb.ca/blog/2013/01/09/inuit-artist-kenojuak-ashevak/

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