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Kenojuak Ashevak (Della Rollins for The Globe and Mail/Della Rollins for The Globe and Mail)
Kenojuak Ashevak (Della Rollins for The Globe and Mail/Della Rollins for The Globe and Mail)

Beauty in a cold and troubled land Add to ...

Kenojuak Ashevak, the immutable beacon of Inuit art, has weathered a tsunami of change in her 84 years. She has been the public face, the guiding hand and the aesthetic inspiration of Cape Dorset for more than 60 years. But even she can't safeguard her community or her artistic heirs from the many social upheavals her people have faced.

When Ms. Ashevak was born in the 1920s, her family lived a nomadic life of hunting and fishing, with its cycles of starvation and plenty – the sort of existence romanticized in films such as Nanook of the North. This lasted until the other Inuit in her family's camp murdered her father when she was a small child, and she subsequently went to live with her grandmother. She survived the transition to settlement life in permanent communities and the separation from her own children while she was treated for tuberculosis in a Quebec hospital in the early 1950s.

In more recent years, her adopted home of Cape Dorset, the epicentre of Inuit carving and printmaking since the late 1950s, has experienced the same kind of substance abuse and domestic violence that has plagued other communities in the North. Nunavut's homicide rate is about 10 times the Canadian average. Suicide figures for young males and child-abuse statistics are equally shocking. Reconciling the two Cape Dorsets – a place of artistic excellence but devastating social problems – has been a hard task for many southerners who want to celebrate the art and the artists, while averting their gaze from the vicious undercurrents of despair and poverty.

Modernity’s footprint

As the community has evolved in reaction to southern influences, so has the art. The availability of new materials and techniques, as well as the changing art market, have affected the art and the artists both aesthetically and commercially. Originally, Inuit art dealer Pat Feheley says, “drawings were made to create an image bank for prints; now they are an end in themselves.” In the past decade, the availability of large and different-coloured papers, pencil crayons and oil stick have enabled younger artists such as Tim Pitsiulak, Shuvinai Ashoona, Itee Pootoogook and Jutai Toonoo to make cutting-edge art that is large-scale, in-your-face and modern.

The person who has pushed social and documentary realism the hardest is Annie Pootoogook, the granddaughter of renowned artist Pitseolak Ashoona. She won the coveted $50,000 Sobey Art Award in 2006 for coloured drawings depicting the good and the bad of contemporary life in the North, including spousal abuse, children playing Nintendo and family groups collecting supplies from the store, where once they would have gone hunting or fishing.

You have to wonder what James Houston, the artist and government administrator who started it all, would think. He arrived in Baffin Island in the late 1940s, lived on the land with the Inuit, hunting by dogsled and sleeping in igloos. He found a southern market for Inuit carvings and introduced printmaking in the late 1950s. He wanted to celebrate the timeless and elemental quality of Inuit carving and help the Inuit find a way to sustain themselves as their traditional way of life disappeared in a transitional era. That is why he organized a rudimentary printmaking studio.

One of the original printmakers in Houston's studio, Kananginak Pootoogook was also a key figure in establishing the West Baffin Co-op. The Inuit-run business includes the graphic arts and stonecutting centre known as Kinngait Studios and a community store originally for hunters and trappers, and now a multimillion-dollar community business. A skilled draftsman, Mr. Pootoogook sketched the material culture of the past in detailed drawings of weapons, clothing and tools. He also chronicled the effect of southern communications, travel modes and social influences on the traditional Inuit way of life in narrative drawings including watching television, surfing the Internet, riding snowmobiles and consuming drugs and alcohol.

For Ms. Ashevak, Mr. Pootoogook's death late last year meant the loss of a friend and an artistic colleague who had been there with her from the earliest days. Today, she is the only remaining artist who worked with Houston and his first wife, Alma. Unlike her friend Mr. Pootoogook, she doesn't make art from what she sees around her, and instead adheres to an imaginative and spiritual aesthetic that is infused with an innate decorative sense. Her first print, Rabbit Eating Seaweed, was produced from a design she had embroidered on a sealskin bag. Drawing was something she learned to do as a way of making precisely executed but spiritual, rather than factual, graphic images for the printmakers to reproduce. The Enchanted Owl, an iconic work of hers from 1960, became one of the best-known pieces of Inuit art when it was later printed on a six-cent stamp.

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