Masterpiece 2019: The artists of Cape Dorset

Arts and culture
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In Shuvinai Ashoona’s work, it’s eggs and alligators, baleen and bones that become anchors, giving some strange familiarity in the beautifully surreal worlds the contemporary artist creates. Even in large format pieces where Ashoona’s coloured pencil seems to dance off the page, you’re never lost for long, her lexicon bringing you back to whatever the story is she’s trying to tell.

“She always asks for specific formats of paper at the end of each project,” explains Bill Ritchie, studio manager at Kinngait Studios, the art studios of the West Baffin Eskimo Co-operative in the Nunavut community of Kinngait (Cape Dorset). “She seems to know where to begin a new drawing part way through a current drawing and if I leave two pieces of paper on her table, she will oftentimes draw both at the same time.”

Ritchie has spent a great deal of time watching Ashoona work. “Nothing seems to stand in her way when she is confronted with an eight-by-four-foot paper – she simply crawls up onto the paper,” says the studio manager. “The placement of objects on the sheet is precise, and she contains the image within the borders when it suits her, other times, she runs the image off the page.”

Four pieces of Ashoona’s work including Composition (Egg and Moon), 2009; Composition (Rainbow Baleen), 2018; Exercising After Work, Relaxing After Work, 2018; and Ashoona and John Noestheden’s Untitled Collaboration, 2008, will feature in the Masterpiece Pavilion, sponsored by RBC, at Fine Art Asia.

shuvinai Ashoona Composition of egg and moon 2009

Shuvinai Ashoona – Composition (Egg and Moon), 2009

Ashoona will show alongside fellow Kinngait Studio artists’ work including Tim Pitsiulak, The First Lesson, 2012; Tim Pitsiulak, Computer Generation, 2013; and Annie Pootoogook, Father and Child at Kitchen Table, Cape Dorset, 2005-6. All are from RBC’s corporate collection. 

“I know a lot of what we think of as the cannon – which is a contested idea – is not people working in coloured pencil,” says Alysa Procida, executive director of the Inuit Art Foundation and publisher of the Inuit Art Quarterly. “But I think Shuvinai’s work sits very comfortably within any kind of conversation about contemporary Canadian art.”

Amidst the icons and symbols that make up her lexicon is a portrait of her life in Canada’s North.

“Some of the more ‘fantastical elements’ like the multiple worlds, I think those are and are not specific to the North especially when you look at the composition of how landmasses exist on those globes,” she says. “But things like baleen, bones, eggs and people in parkas, that’s just how she lives her life, that’s her every day, it’s not exotic, it’s not other.”

There’s a universality to the underlying themes, says Procida. “Her work is reflecting her lived experience, her imagination and her perspective on quite a number of ideas – the world, safety, sometimes sex … all kinds of things.”

Born in Kinngait in 1961 to well-known artists, Ashoona began drawing in 1996. Her art was first included in the Cape Dorset annual print collection in 1997 with two small dry-point etchings entitled Interior (97-33) and Settlement (97-34). Since then, she’s gained international attention. She was the subject of a 2010 documentary by Marcia Connolly called Ghost Noise and has captured the attention of the contemporary arts community.

She’s also become a prolific collaborator, working alongside artists like Toronto-based Shary Boyle and John Noestheden in Hamilton, Ontario, the latter of which Untitled Collaboration, 2008, will be in the Masterpiece Pavilon.

“It’s very clear when her work is shown that other artists respond really strongly to it,” says Procida.

Even in works where the more familiar icons of her language are absent, there’s an underlying sense of playfulness. It’s a playfulness emblematic in Ashoona’s points of reference as well, according to Ritchie’s story behind the Rainbow Baleen.

shuvinai ashoona exercising after work composition 2018

Shuvinai Ashoona – Exercising After Work, Relaxing After Work, 2018

“I asked her to do the baleen drawing. I put the real baleen on the table in front of her and she really enjoyed the challenge of drawing it,” he says pointing out that the first one was very true to the form and colour of baleen. The technicolour iteration came afterwards.

“She calls the baleen rainbow, but I wonder if it was more of an anomaly, a variation on a theme, stretching the subject to its bleeding edge rather than having some philosophic meaning that everybody seems to be expecting,” he says. “When I spoke to her about why she coloured it that way, she referred to a Skittles commercial where a man is milking a giraffe and getting multicoloured skittles for his trouble.”

Her piece Exercising After Work, Relaxing After Work, 2018, centres around a woman contorted into a strange, headstand-like pose, a calm look on her face. The longer you look, the more effortless the scene becomes, a peculiar contrast to some of her other works in the lounge.

“Her use of space in the handstand drawing and the other one is remarkable and it must give her comfort to find herself revisiting such a comfortable and relaxing image,” says Ritchie. “When I showed her the RBC handstand image, she said the woman was relaxing and it does appear that she is relaxed in a seemingly awkward position.”

Maybe that’s what it is about Ashoona’s work that makes it so arresting. Amidst her lexicon – that familiarity of those beautifully-surreal worlds she creates – the language is in a constant state of iteration, an incessant evolution much like the world Ashoona calls home. It’s one of the many things that makes the artist unique, says Ritchie.

“Image making is linked strongly to effort and reward, but Shuvinai transcends that by taking something completely new and working with it endlessly until it becomes her own, her dialect – her persona.”

“When you watch our films you can’t doubt that Inuit are people just like you and me,” he says. “That may seem like an obvious thing to say but it’s about as radical as you can get.”

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