Kenojuak Ashevak

Kenojuak Ashevak

BORN: Ikerrasak, Northwest Territories • 3 October 1927

Even if they know almost nothing of the North, Canadians still idealize it. “The true north strong and free” is part and parcel of our identity. In the last thirty-five years our vision of that vast, lone land has been created to an extraordinary extent by Inuit art. No Inuit artist has captured our imagina¬ tion as firmly as Kenojuak, the best known of all the northern artists.

Born on Baffin Island, Kenojuak was raised in the traditional way of Inuit women, travelling with her family from camp to camp. Married in 1946, she soon developed tuberculosis and was confined to a sanitarium at Quebec, a terrible period during which her two eldest children died of botulism. What turned her life around was art.

“One day, while I was getting provisions in Cape Dorset,” she said in her oral autobiography, James Houston, a government worker who was trusted by the Inuit, “gave me paper and pencils, wrapped in a plastic bag…I was uncertain what I should draw, but he suggested that I draw whatever was in my mind.”

It turned out that her mind was full of images, both traditional and wholly original. “I just take these things out ofmy thoughts,” she said, “and out ofmy imagination, and I don’t really give any weight to the idea of its being an image of something…I am just concentrating on placing it down on paper in a way that is pleasing to my own eye.”

That, she maintained, was the way she started and that is the way she remained.Dazzled, Houston arranged for the creation of artistic cooperatives that would transfer the drawings produced by Kenojuak and others, including her husband, onto silkscreens, and, beginning in 1959, Kenojuak’s art burst upon the world.

There was immediate acclaim in Canada and abroad, enough that the National Film Board in 1962 made her the subject of a documentary. Her limited edition prints quickly commanded high prices. One of her first images, “Enchanted Owl,” appeared on the postage stamp issued in 1970 to commemorate the centennial of the Northwest Territories, and the owl, grave but decorative with its staring eyes and gripping claws, has been a much reiterated theme in her work.

The owl, as she said, “drives away the darkness,” and for the Inuit, living without sun for half the year, no image could be more meaningful. Soon she was scratching her art directly onto copper plates carried from camp to camp, bringing the completed work to Cape Dorset for reproduction.

In all, Kenojuak produced some two hundred prints, most in the annual Cape Dorset print collections. There were additional commissions from the World Wildlife Fund and the federal government, to commemorate the 1990 signing of Inuit land settlements.

Astonishingly, Kenojuak proved adept in the medium of sculpture, too. Until her hands became too weak to work in stone, she produced a flood of superb soapstone pieces. With her husband, Johnniebo, she undertook a huge twenty-five panel green and white mosaic plaster mural for the Canadian Pavilion at Expo 70 in Osaka, Japan. Characteristically, a huge owl was at the centre, surrounded by symbolic repre¬ sentations of the sun, igloos, polar bears, and dog sleds.

Honoured by her government and her people, Kenojuak continued her work, producing prints, sculptures, and, in the early 1990s, perhaps because the print market seemed to be drying up, coloured pencil and ink drawings. Less vigorous in her old age, she continues to draw, though less frequently.

“I continue to do so primarily for the future these works of art will guarantee for my children,” she said. “Therefore, I am grateful to those people who are interested in, and admire, my work. When I am dead, I am sure there will still be people discussing my art.” Kenojuak’s art has provided a rich legacy not only for her children but for all Canadians.