Many people have little understanding of the Far North of Canada, comprising the Yukon, the Northwest Territories, and Nunavut, a place that is still sparsely populated, frigid, and costly.
However, the Far North has changed: climate change is bringing its natural resources to the surface, and technology is connecting the North and South like never before.
Not only are southern populations, economies, and politics impacting the Far North, but southern culture is beginning to take hold as well.
In recent years, Far North culture, especially Inuit art, has been exposed to a new demographic in the South, resulting in a colonial fascination.
This is not a fresh occurrence, as Inuit art has been a significant part of the Canadian art world since the 1950s, when government efforts established employment programs with the intention of invigorating the economy in the Arctic.
A large portion of the Inuit art that has become popular in the South is not derived from ancient sources.
In the mid-twentieth century, James Archibald Houston, a Toronto artist, writer, and educator, brought Japanese printmaking techniques to Baffin Island (now in the territory of Nunavut) to the settlement called Cape Dorset.
The inhabitants of the settlement embraced this art form quickly and its market has since expanded significantly–unlike carving, printmaking is not native to the region.
Inuit art-making has become an established practice in the region, where “co-ops” have been established, most notably in Nunavut’s Baker Lake and Cape Dorset. These co-ops provide an opportunity for people to make a living, even with no prior art experience.
The older generation of artists, popular when the co-ops first began in the 1960s and 70s, is now being replaced by a younger generation.
Since the time of Houston’s artworks, Inuit art has achieved success in Canadian-art circles, with major museums collecting these pieces and specialty commercial galleries in cities such as Toronto, Vancouver, and Montreal, as well as in other parts of the world, now featuring the art.
This is the first time that these practices are being so widely accepted in the South.
Annie Pootoogook and Shuvinai Ashoona, two middle-aged cousins from Cape Dorset, have been leading a renaissance. In 2006, Pootoogook was a nominee for Canada’s prestigious Sobey Art Award, and she won it.
The following year, she was one of two Canadian artists to be featured at Kassel, Germany’s renowned event for modern art, documenta.
Ashoona’s art has been featured around the world, including at Art Basel, and was the subject of a 2010 Canadian documentary by Marcia Connolly.
Ashoona and Pootoogook were recently chosen by curator Denise Markonish to take part in the Oh, Canada exhibition, which will be held at MASS MoCA this May and will feature sixty-two contemporary Canadian artists.
The boldness and innovation of Ashoona and Pootoogook stand out to southerners and challenge the more uniform Houston-led movement. Even so, Inuit art that portrays activities such as ice fishing, hunting polar bears, and seal-hunting remains popular.
Both artists use pencil crayon to create their pieces. Pootoogook’s minimalistic yet humorous art is a type of social realism, featuring such topics as pornography, alcohol abuse, and domestic violence.
Since her success, Pootoogook has not produced any new art and could not be reached for an interview.
Ashoona, the focus of this interview, still resides and works in Cape Dorset. While Pootoogook captures the external world, Ashoona concentrates on the internal.
Born in 1961 in Cape Dorset to renowned sculptor Kiawak Ashoona and similarly celebrated graphic artist Sorosilooto Ashoona.
Ashoona began sketching in the mid-’90s, starting with landscapes and then progressing to vibrant, dream-like images, merging personal and cultural legends, both Inuit and Christian.
The area was noticeably influenced by the dark history of Catholicism and its troubled residential schools. Every day, Ashoona works in the Kinngait studios in Cape Dorset, which was set up by Terry Ryan, the successor to Houston, where her grandmother was trained.
Bill Ritchie, the studio manager, set up the phone interview with Shuvinai. I was informed that due to her mental-health issues, it was hard for her to talk. There were days when she was doing well, and days when she was not.
When I talked to Ashoona, she was friendly and welcoming despite the language barrier (Inuktitut being her native language) and the obvious difference in culture and mentality.
After the interview, Ritchie sent an email emphasizing to me the importance of not manipulating Shuvinai’s words to match an agenda.
She is not a representative for her people or culture; it is a misconception that Inuit are a homogeneous group, which is reinforced by the well-known symbols associated with Inuit artwork.
Similarly to their ancestors, Shuvinai and other artists she works with do not have the same idea of creativity as southern creators, rather they are part of a changing economy, unlike the one that existed during Houston’s time.
Ritchie’s parting words to me were: “It’s a shame you weren’t able to meet Shuvinai and understand her better. She is a multifaceted individual; she can be both gentle and tough.
Recently she has been troubled, as her father is ill and her mother is having health problems. These two have been the foundation of the family, and soon the children will be facing a new reality. I wish you luck with your article.”
— According to David Balzer
I’m curious, what motivated you to start creating art?
Shuvinai Ashoona began her journey because her youngest sister suggested it. She discovered another space to which she could return, and started to do what her youngest sister had asked her to do.
She visited many times, feeling as if she had no choice but to accept the task, in order to get some money out of the papers.
BLVR asked if the individual had been instructed to go to the cooperative and start sketching.
SA revealed that someone had given them a sheet of paper and asked them to go to the co-op. This person was departing for Yellowknife and going back to Bob’s place. It was then that they were instructed to draw.
BLVR: What was the first creation you ever put to paper?
SA: All I can remember is the scenery; lush grass and a few stones.
BLVR asked when the event had taken place.
SA:Around a quarter of a century ago, I was close to being twenty-five years old.
BLVR: What steps did you take to become a more proficient artist?
SA: Surrounding myself with artists. Extracting the smoke from them. Extracting the smoke from the people who are constantly in and out of the studio. Mostly from the place where we work.
It is thrilling to be part of a collective of creative individuals, finding motivation from one another.
SA: Absolutely. It could be from people who carve soap stones or do something different besides carving.
It’s likely from the vapor that’s given off from their work, the same way the universe I created a few weeks ago made the raindrops. Certainly, they are not confined to just one piece of paper.
BLVR: Instead of carving in soapstone, you opt to draw with pencil crayon. What inspired you to choose drawing over carving?
SA: The difficulty level of creating carvings out of rock is greater than that of paper. It almost feels like the cravings are telling me to abandon them and focus more on drawings.
That tends to be what I hear most often. I’d still like to attempt carving, but apparently paper is a much simpler medium.
An image of Shuvani Ashoona can be seen in this picture uploaded to the Culture website in 2011. She is being interviewed in the photograph.
What is easier: to accomplish or to promote? BLVR
Selling is the goal.
BLVR: The vibrancy of your drawings indicates a fondness for color.
Sometimes, I find myself wanting to go for the rainbow. I think I could do it.
Do you find the rainbow appealing?
SA: Not precisely. Though I would. I’d do it for the community’s rainbows. The genuine ones. I don’t feel I’d bother with rainbows in any way.
Many inhabitants of the Southern region view the North as a land of limited color, only consisting of white snow.
SA: Black and white are my favorite colors; they are even more desirable to me than the others. Although I do like the other colors besides red, I would still prefer the non-red shades.
Could you elaborate on the dichotomy of black and white?
Yes, that is correct.
BLVR: Those happen to be the ones you like the most.
SA suggested that if they formed it, they could add black and white on top of what they do. He added that he had no sight like red cars, like the people he had seen on television running around.
He then continued, saying that it would be a great idea if they were to put it through invisible eyes, so that no one would have red eyes anymore.
BLVR: Do you create illustrations based on experiences you’ve had or do you imagine scenarios that may not be based on reality?
SA expressed that they often run away from the occurrences next door, and to cope they turn to drawing, repeatedly, until the memory of the friendship fades away.
BLVR: Is the reason you create art so that you can move on from the experience?
SA agreed that attempting to return to their prior state was a good idea if they were having difficulties.
BLVR inquired if understanding is facilitated by the process.
An image of Shuvani Ashoona is presented, as featured on the Culture.org website. This portrait depicts the individual dressed in a traditional Inuit outfit.
SA: It certainly helps. For instance, when the monarch was present in our region, other rulers also turned up. I had to sketch then, and that could be the case.
Do you ever share the drawings you make of people with the people that you draw?
No, I have not done that. I only make representations of what I’ve witnessed, and they come out looking like cartoons far behind the actual images. It’s like newspaper clippings covering up our artwork. That’s what it would be like.
Do you ever take a glance at the newspaper and then use the content to create a drawing?
SA: That’s not quite accurate. No, I don’t believe it’s from a newspaper.
BLVR: Do you attend religious services?
Sometimes I do pray, though I’m not sure I’m a true believer. I’ve been praying in my own way, which I heard from somewhere. But apparently that’s not what people should do when they pray. That’s what I heard this morning.
BLVR: You don’t go there as often as you used to.
SA: No, I have not succeeded. My attempts have been futile; I feel like I’m sinking deeper and deeper. That’s the sensation I experience when I try to contemplate a church. I occasionally think that if…
Whenever I contemplate the church, I find myself going there but I can feel the pressure of it bearing down on me. This is a typical experience which has left me not wanting to go if it’s like this.
BLVR: Even so, many of your illustrations contain elements of Christianity, particularly references to the Bible.
SA: Yes, there have been times when I’ve gone through all of them. On one occasion, I began to work my way through them.
BLVR: Are there certain tales that you prefer over the rest?
SA: Are you referring to the artworks priced between one thousand and one thousand one hundred? I think I would be interested in purchasing them. The sculptures are located in that area, each costing a thousand or a bit more. All the coins up there.
BLVR queried, “Are we in the afterlife?”
SA: No, they don’t ascend to the heavens. They remain on the ground, not making their way up to the sky. They are aware of the fact that they don’t go to heaven. Or, if they do, it is with them. They understand this.
Do you make a daily visit to the studio?
SA: I tend to go here every day Bill is around, based on what the females near us are doing. They usually scatter, usually the younger ones. That’s not necessarily true, although we often end up in the same vicinity or somewhere nearby.
BLVR: Are you a more experienced artist in the recording space?
SA: To some extent. I would be. I believe I’m older. It’s possible that I’m not. It’s possible that I’m not as old as her, based on her strength.
Are people seeking your counsel and looking to you as a role model?
SA asserted that they agreed.
Do they inquire of Shuvinai if the drawing is satisfactory? and does she reply?
SA: My recollection does not include me having said that. It’s not something I remember saying.
BLV:What is the duration of time it takes to complete a drawing of yours?
SA: I’m not certain. There appears to be a surplus of optimism in the area, where snowflakes have gathered. They’re vanishing as the darkness prevails. It’s snowing at this very moment. Large snowflakes.
BLVR asked if the conversation would continue outside.
SA: The snow is incredibly damp.
The temperature where I am is scorching.
SA: Is it warm out?
On a steaming, sultry day, BLVR was present.
SA: This is a scorching day. Are there a lot of trees around?
Question: Are the trees green?
BLVR: Indeed, a great number of verdant trees and a profusion of blooms.
SA: There is an abundance of white snow.
BLVR asked if it was still the same even in June.
SA observed that the snowflakes were becoming smaller in size.
III. “I’D DO ANYTHING TO ESCAPE THE DRAWING PORTION”
Did you have your origin in Cape Dorset?
SA: I heard from Mom that I came into the world in a medical facility, yet I’m not sure I trust anything she says. Unless my sister affirms it… I’d need to go inside her womb and witness my mom there.
I’m a combination of a half-sibling and half-breath. I recognize which sister it is, but they’re not similar.
BLVR: How many siblings do you possess?
SA: I’m capable of counting up to five. I have a daughter and a granddaughter from my father’s side, yet I’m unconvinced they’re related to him. Despite that, he continues to claim they are. However, this isn’t accurate.
BLVR: Are there any other activities that you enjoy apart from drawing?
SA: Absolutely. I’m willing to go to any lengths to succeed. To avoid being stagnant, I’m prepared to do whatever it takes.
BLVR: What activities do you enjoy?
SA: Going camping is something I enjoy doing.
BLVR: Camping is not pleasant to me. It is not something I enjoy due to the lack of comfort.
SA mentioned that they enjoy camping and find it less intimidating when accompanied by others.
Do you ever have visitors from the South come to see you?
SA affirmed that it is mostly the case that they do; it was clearly understood.
BLVR: Do the people who view your drawings ever make any comments or remarks?
SA: Not particularly. They appear in spurts. They may come and go, but I’m not sure. I’m not in charge of museums, nor am I aware of the people who buy them or travel back and forth. It’s difficult to keep up with it. It’s a recurrent thing.
Do the drawings that you have become so skilled at making reflect any part of you?
SA: Absolutely not when it comes to those coins.
At times, creators of artworks become disheartened when they must part with the drawings they have crafted.
SA: Absolutely, that thought has crossed my mind. Previously, I imagined my artworks would sorrowfully slide off the paper like a walrus. That used to be my perspective! Nevertheless, I no longer hold that conviction.
Do you ever reminisce about some of the drawings you used to have, but no longer possess?
SA: No, I don’t believe I would have any kind of longing for them even if I have to do something else as well.
An image of Shuvani Ashoona is presented, which was captured in an interview in 2011, shown on the website of Culture.org.
I would never return to paper drawings if I had to become a coal worker or a ship captain who transports food.
BLVR queried if the person never desired for their drawings to be returned to them.
SA: In a way, yes. I would definitely make an effort to acquire some of them, should I ever do so. I’d go shopping to purchase them. If I had a real fondness for what I had created, I would try to reclaim them.
Market it in that region and make an effort to recover it. I’m not familiar with the topic, but I believe I’d try.
BLVR: But you have not had the opportunity to be that close.
SA emphatically denied the statement.
BLVR commented approvingly, expressing a positive outlook.
SA: The kind of home I’m looking for is one that is brimming with all sorts of amenities. For sure, I know exactly the house I want; it’s void of any red walls.
BLVR: Are you a reader of comic books?
SA: Every so often I’ll try to read them, but they lack the human element, so I just end up tossing them aside. Even so, I still enjoy the way the characters interact with each other. Especially when it comes to kung-fu comics – I’m a big fan.
When I check out your artwork, it makes me think of films. Are you a fan of movies?
SA: I usually find bad movies enjoyable. Marcia and I went to the cinema a lot. Batman and the one with the cigar smoke and the children.
The one with the kid smoking a large cigar and challenging the older boys to come down off their feet, that was an amusing but also frightening flick. Those tiny boys.
BLVR inquires if people often tell the artist that their drawings appear frightening to them.
SA: Not really. However, the papers I usually churn out have a spooky element to them now. I’m slowly becoming accustomed to such documents. [ Grins ]
BLVR: Yet, your amusement indicates that it doesn’t frighten you greatly. You’re famous for making a multitude of monsters.
SA is currently sketching monsters. A heart with just a penis was their first attempt, but it wound up resembling a potato instead. They had desired to make many more, however they couldn’t remember how after the heart. It seemed that “HEART” and “EARTH” were all they could recall.
BLVR: Are you a fan of horror films?
An image of Shuvani Ashoona is featured in the illustration, obtained from culture.org, that was uploaded in 2011.
Yes, I do indeed. If I’m supposed to watch horror movies and I enjoy them, I always make sure I have someone nearby for the initial viewing. Then I can watch the movie again, this time without fear. So, I first experience fear when I’m watching it, then watch it again without being scared.
BLVR: Are you in need of someone to accompany you?
SA: It’s not frightening to be cut off, harmed, or take one’s own life; however, it’s still terrifying once it has happened. I’d probably just watch movies that have been mentioned and observe what goes on. There may not be any movies, but I’d still probably watch them.
BLVR: Do you possess a DVD player?
SA replied negatively, not believing it to be true.
Do you attend the cinema?
SA: There is an abundance of TVs and videos available.
BLVR: Could you tell me which movie is your favorite?
SA suggested that something like aliens could be the cause.
BLVR gave a thumbs up to the film, indicating it was a great one.
I enjoy a variety of extraterrestrial beings and Bill is checking the time. It’s nearly five o’clock, so I need to make my exit.
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