The integration of contemporary Inuit art into the Canadian mainstream has been one of the most striking shifts of the past decade, bringing to light a group of mid-career artists worth watching carefully. Drawing, rather than printmaking, is their medium of choice. At the vanguard of this new gang is the Cape Dorset graphic artist Shuvinai Ashoona. Using pen and coloured pencils on paper, Ashoona has developed a body of work that marries the particulars of place – the town's new water truck, the community school bus – with a phantasmagoria of Inuit legend, TV images, bizarre monsters and, increasingly, worlds.
This new planetary motif emerged about three years ago, and it's tempting to read the series as her response to the Earth under political and environmental siege, reflecting, too, the cultural compressions that result from electronic communication. (Her previous imagery had included tropical fish.) Charged with both rapture and terror, her new works surge with creativity. Inuit women stand face to face, exchanging worlds (or is it words, or breath – the women assume the stance used for Inuit throat singing). A pregnant woman has a belly world. A child, seen from above, drags a world behind him like a balloon. One world is attached to a mermaid mother by tentacle-like strands. Is this Sedna or a flippered Virgin Mary?
In one of Ashoona's new drawings, two figures stand on either side of an Inuit mother and child. On the right, a figure holds up a drawing of a seal hunt – the kind of scene that has been the staple of Inuit art for decades. On the left of Ashoona's drawing, however, another figure holds up a drawing of a man with a suicide victim in his arms. Like fellow female Cape Dorset artists Annie Pootoogook and Annie's mother Napachie Pootoogook, Ashoona has incorporated into her art both the splendours and the horrors of life in these remote northern communities.
Ashoona's stunning depiction of a world turned octopus is likewise built from contrasts. On the right, a man holds up a drawing of a hunter with his seal blind. But this hunter shares pictorial space with a much larger, many-tentacled octopus with a planet for a head, and arms and fingers made of smaller worlds. Its long talons could grasp and slash, yet the figure seems passive, its toes peeking out innocuously beneath its waving appendages. Potentially fierce, the beast is momentarily becalmed.
The picture presents two ways of seeing, and might be understood as a fantasy self-portrait, the figure of the visionary artist who challenges the traditional way of understanding things. This is Ashoona's world, and she welcomes us to it.
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