Focus On: Kenojuak Ashevak

“It makes me very happy. It’s not just art. It’s something for my life.” – Interview 2013, Kenojuak Ashevak

At the IAF, our minds are never far from Kenojuak Ashevak, CC, ONu, RCA (1927–2013). Particularly at this very moment, as we prepare to honour her legacy as one of Canada’s most acclaimed visual artists with the third iteration of the Kenojuak Ashevak Memorial Award on Friday! She is an icon of Inuit art, plain and simple. Her extensive body of work, developed over five impressive decades, indisputably captured the imaginations of a global audience. 

When I think about Ashevak’s artwork, I think of joy. I can see it emanating from the flora and fauna as well as the bright colours, patterns and compositions within her work. Beyond those elements, there is immense joy in the continual inspiration that she brings to Inuit and other artists and art lovers. And more intimately, there is the joy she took in the process of artmaking. The time spent flexing her imagination built creative strength and sense of self. That strength and confidence comes through in her work, a gift she shared with so many people. There are countless wonderful works to choose from, but as someone with a lifelong love of printmaking and who has had the privilege of working closely with Ashevak’s artwork, I’ve selected a few lithographs to share with you that I hope will give a glimpse at Ashevak’s joy.

While Ashevak’s images of Arctic wildlife, owls especially, continue to be some of her most popular, I have always been drawn to her compositions that include a human element. In the Company of Birds (1995) shows us a confident Inuk woman with a direct gaze meeting our own from among her feathered enclosure. The finely formed birds that flank her delicately tattooed face look almost ephemeral, as though they are made of smoke and at the slightest touch might dissipate into the atmosphere. My mind likes to think this is representative of the artist and her elaborate inner life, spent among the ornate birds and compositions her imagination so expertly conjured.

I find Ashevak’s skilled use of repetition mesmerizing—there is something undeniably appealing to me about a good pattern. With the lithograph Illustrious Owl (1999) we find beautiful contrast between many spherical patterns within a composition that seems to echo the golden ratio, the artistic and scientific principle that creates a sense of balance and harmony which draws the human eye. The owl itself is defined by tiny dots that come together as one speckled form. The radiating movement of the owl’s decorative plumage keeps our eyes roving over the image as the red, purple and gold pulsate, making the owl come alive on the page. 

Taliillajuuqpaujaaluk (Great Big Sedna) (2001) is another lithograph that I’ve always loved. Sedna has such a major presence in Inuit legend as a powerful goddess of the sea. Here we find her in the dark waters, swimming in profile through her ocean home. Her fish-like lower body is curled in on itself, scales glimmering and catching the light as she glides in the cool depths. Her long dark hair expands behind her, enveloping her body and becoming the deep dark waters we are asked to imagine here, showing us that they are one and the same: Sedna and the Sea. 

If you love the artistic legacy Ashevak has left, consider checking out the two previous winners of the Kenojuak Ashevak Memorial Award, Tarralik Duffy and Laakkuluk Williamson Bathory, and join us as we name the third winner of the Kenojuak Ashevak Memorial Award at 7PM CT on September 22 at the Winnipeg Art Gallery-Qaumajuq!  Watch live with us on Facebook.

Paige Connell

Awards Manager @ Inuit Art Foundation, Toronto, Ontario

This article was written by Paige Connell and edited by Jessica MacDonald and Sue Carter.

Copyright © Inuit Art Foundation All rights reserved.