Ashevak in 1997
October 3, 1927
Ikirasaqa, Baffin Island, Northwest Territories, Canada
|Died||January 8, 2013
Cape Dorset, Dorset Island, Nunavut, Canada
|Known for||soapstone carving, drawing, etching, stone-cut, and print-making|
|Awards||Order of Canada|
Kenojuak Ashevak, CC (Inuktitut: ᕿᓐᓄᐊᔪᐊᖅ ᐋᓯᕙᒃ Qinnuajuaq Aasivak, October 3, 1927 – January 8, 2013) was a Canadian artist. She is regarded as one of the most notable Canadian pioneers of modern Inuit art.
Kenojuak Ashevak was born in an igloo in an Inuit camp, Ikirasaq, at the southern coast of Baffin Island. Her father, Ushuakjuk, an Inuit hunter and fur trader, and her mother, Silaqqi, named Kenojuak after Silaqqi's deceased father. According to this Inuit naming tradition, the love and respect that had been accorded to her during her lifetime would now pass on to their daughter. Kenojuak also had a brother and a sister.
Kenojuak remembered Ushuakjuk as "a kind and benevolent man." Her father, a respected shaman, "had more knowledge than average mortals, and he would help all the Inuit people." According to Kenojuak, her father believed he could predict weather, predict good hunting seasons and even turn into a walrus; he also had the ability "to make fish swarm at the surface so it was easier to fish." Her father came into conflict with Christian converts, and some enemies assassinated him in a hunting camp in 1933, when she was only six.
After her father's murder, Kenojuak moved with her widowed mother Silaqqi and the rest of the family to the home of Silaqqi's mother, Koweesa, who taught her traditional crafts, including the repair of sealskins for trade with the Hudson's Bay Company and how to make waterproof clothes sewn with caribou sinew.
When she was 19, her mother, Silaqqi, and stepfather, Takpaugni, arranged for her to marry Johnniebo Ashevak (1923–1972), a local Inuit hunter. Kenojuak was reluctant, she said, even playfully throwing pebbles at him when he would approach her. In time, however, she came to love him for his kindness and gentleness, a man who developed artistic talents in his own right and who sometimes collaborated with her on projects; the National Gallery of Canada holds two of Johnniebo's works, Taleelayo with Sea Bird (1965) and Hare Spirits (1960).
In 1950 a public health nurse arrived in her Arctic village; Kenojuak, having tested positive in a tuberculosis screening, was sent against her will to Parc Savard hospital in Quebec City, where she stayed for over three years, from early 1952 to the summer of 1955. She had just given birth when she was forcibly transferred; the baby was adopted by a neighbouring family. Several of Kenojuak's children died while she confined in hospital.
In 1966, Kenojuak and Johnniebo moved to Cape Dorset. Many of their children and grandchildren succumbed to disease, as did her husband after 26 years of marriage. Three daughters of Kenojuak, Mary, Elisapee Qiqituk, and Aggeok, died in childhood, and four sons, Jamasie, her adopted son Ashevak, and Kadlarjuk and Qiqituk. The latter two were adopted at birth by another family.
The year after Johnniebo died in 1972, Kenojuak remarried, to Etyguyakjua Pee; he died in 1977. In 1978 she married Joanassie Igiu. She had 11 children by her first husband and adopted five more; seven of her children died in childhood. At the time of her death from lung cancer, she was living in a wood-frame house in Kinngait (Cape Dorset).
Kenojuak Ashevak became one of the first Inuit women in Cape Dorset to begin drawing. She worked in graphite, coloured pencils and felt-tip pens, and occasionally used poster paints, watercolours or acrylics. She created many carvings from soapstone and thousands of drawings, etchings, stonecut prints and prints — all sought after by museums and collectors. She designed several drawings for Canadian stamps and coins, and in 2004 she created the first Inuit-designed stained-glass window for the John Bell Chapel in Oakville, Ontario. In 2017, the $10 bill released in celebration of Canada’s 150th birthday features Kenojuak’s stone-cut and stencil printed work called “Owl’s Bouquet” in silver holographic foil. 
During Ashevak's stay at Parc Savard hospital in Quebec City, 1952 to 1955, she learned to make dolls from Harold Pfeiffer and to do beadwork. These crafts later attracted the attention of civil administrator and pioneer Inuit art promoter James Archibald Houston and his wife Alma. Houston introduced print-making to Cape Dorset artists in the 1950s, and he and his wife began marketing Inuit arts and crafts, including an exhibit of Inuit art in 1959. James Houston wrote about this time in 1999:
She was hesitant at first, claiming that she could not draw and that drawing was a man’s business. Yet the next time that she visited the Houstons, the sheets of paper that Alma had given her were filled with pencil sketches.
In 1958 her first print, Rabbit Eating Seaweed, was produced from one of her designs on a sealskin bag, and by 1959 Kenojuak and other Cape Dorset Inuit had formed the West Baffin Eskimo Cooperative as a senlavik (workshop) for aspiring Inuit artists, later known as Kinngait Studios. Fellow members included Pitaloosie Saila, Mayoreak Ashoona, and Napatchie Pootagook.
Her reception in southern Canada was rapidly favourable:
- Rabbit Eating Seaweed was Ashevak's first print, part of a debut exhibition of Inuit graphics. The young woman from the remote Canadian North was an immediate success, said Christine Lalonde, an expert in Inuit art with the National Gallery of Canada. 'She had her own sense of design... She was already willing to let the pencil go, because she had the hand and the eye co-ordination to make the image she already had in her head.' The National Gallery owns several copies of The Enchanted Owl, including the original pencil sketch from 1960. That sketch reveals much, said Lalonde. 'It's a very simple drawing — pencil on pulp paper. But you can see even then how confident and sure her line was as she was making the curves of the fanning feathers.'
In 1963 she was the subject of a National Film Board documentary by producer John Feeney, Eskimo Artist: Kenojuak, about Kenojuak, then 35, and her family, as well as traditional Inuit life on Baffin Island. The film showed a stonecutter carving her design into a relief block in stone, cutting away all the non-printing surfaces; she would then apply ink to the carved stone, usually in two or more colours, and carefully make 50 "shadow" prints for sale. With the money she earned from the film, Johnniebo was able to purchase his own canoe and become an independent hunter to help provide for the family, which now included a new daughter, Aggeo, and an adopted son, Ashevak.
National Gallery of Canada art expert Christine Lalonde marvelled at her confident artistry: “When you see her, you realize she doesn't use an eraser. She just sits down and she starts to draw.”
Ashevak created several pieces of work to commemorate the creation of Nunavut, the third Canadian Territory, including a piece commissioned by the Department of Indian and Northern Affairs, Nunavut Qajanatuk (Our Beautiful Land) for the signing of the Inuit Land Claim Agreement in Principle in April 1990; Nunavut, a large hand-coloured lithograph to commemorate the signing of the Final Agreement early in 1994; a large diptych titled Siilavut, Nunavut (Our Environment, Our Land) in April 1999, when the Territory officially came into being.
Kenojuak became the first Inuit artist inducted into Canada’s Walk of Fame in 2001, and traveled to Toronto with her daughter, Silaqi, to attend the ceremony.
Up until her death, Kenojuak contributed annually to the Cape Dorset Annual Print Release and continued to create new works. She was one of the last living artists from the West Baffin Eskimo Cooperative.
A CBC report of Kenojuak's death characterized her as a person of unfeigned humility and simplicity:
- Okpik Pitseolak, an artist from Cape Dorset who knew her personally, said Kenojuak Ashevak brought Inuit art to the world but was "very humble about her work." Pitseolak said that when she appeared on the radio to talk about her art, she didn't want to come across "as someone who brags" about it. But she was "thankful for the fact that she was given this gift.” — CBC News
Since her death, prices for Kenojuak's work have reached new records, including $59,000CAD paid for a copy of Rabbit Eating Seaweed.
Kenojuak described her work thusly in 1980:
I just take these things out of my thoughts and out of my imagination, and I don't really give any weight to the idea of its being an image of something.... I am just concentrating on placing it down on paper in a way that is pleasing to my own eye, whether it has anything to do with subjective reality or not. And that is how I have always tried to make my images, and that is still how I do it, and I haven't really thought about it any other way than that. That is just my style, and is the way I started and the way I am today.
In 2004, Kenojuak designed a stained glass window for a chapel at Appleby College in Oakville, Ontario. The window, of an Arctic char along with an owl against a vibrantly blue background, is the first such window made by an Inuit artist; it was suggested by two Biblical stories in which Jesus feeds a large crowd of people with two fish and a few loaves of bread, which for Kenojuak thoroughly embodied the spirit of the Inuit community, where food is always shared. The window was dedicated by the Rt. Rev. Andrew Atagotaaluk, Bishop of the Arctic, on November 9, 2004, celebrating the 75th anniversary of John Bell Chapel.
- In 1967, she was made an Officer of the Order of Canada and was promoted to Companion in 1982.
- In 1970, Canada Post placed her 1960 print Enchanted Owl on a stamp to commemorate the centennial of the Northwest Territories.
- In 1974, she was elected a member of the Royal Canadian Academy of Arts.
- In 1980, Canada Post used her 1961 print Return of the Sun on a seventeen-cent stamp as part of its Inuit postage stamp series.
- In 1982, she was appointed a Companion of the Order of Canada.
- In 1991, she received an honorary doctorate from Queen's University.
- In 1992, she was awarded an honorary doctorate from the University of Toronto.
- In 1993, Canada Post featured the 1969 drawing The Owl on a stamp for its Masterpieces of Canadian Art series.
- In 1999, a famous piece of hers, the "Red Owl" was featured on the April issue of the 1999 Millennium quarter series. Her initials in Inuktitut – ᑭᓇᐊᓯᐃ – were on the left of the design, the first time the language had appeared on circulation coinage.
- In 2001, she was inducted into Canada's Walk of Fame.
- In 2004, she created the first ever Inuit-designed stained glass window for the John Bell Chapel at Appleby College in Oakville, Ontario.
- In 2008, she received the renowned $25,000 Governor General's Award in Visual and Media Arts from the Canada Council of the Arts.
- In 2017, the Bank of Canada unveiled a commemorative $10 banknote in honour of Canada's 150th birthday; Ashevak's print Owl's Bouquet is featured on the note.
In popular culture
On October 19, 2016, a Heritage Minute was released by Historica Canada. For the first time ever, the Heritage Minute is also narrated in a language other than French or English, in this case Inuktitut. Her granddaughter narrates the Heritage Minute, as well as appearing in it with her family. It was premiered in Cape Dorset, Nunavut, where it was also filmed.
- In 1963, she was featured in the National Film Board of Canada documentary Eskimo Artist: Kenojuak, directed by John Feeney, which was nominated for an Academy Award for Documentary Short Subject in 1964. (Note on title: Feeney had suggested using the term "Inuit" in place of "Eskimo," but in 1963 it had been rejected as an unfamiliar term to non-Inuit audiences)
- 1992, archival and contemporary footage of Kenojuak was featured in Momentum, Canada’s film for Expo '92.
- Odette Leroux, Kenojuak Ashevak, Inuit, 1991, Steinbrueck Native Gallery. Accessed 9 January 2013.
- "Kenojuak". Archived from the original on July 3, 2008. Retrieved 2013-01-09. , Native American Rhymes, Rhodes Educational Publications, 2005. Accessed 8 January 2013.
- Liz Sonneborn, A to Z of American Indian Women. pp. 112-114. ISBN 1438107889.
- Meredith, America (Spring 2013). "Kenojuak Ashevak". First American Art Magazine (0). p. 77. Retrieved 2017-10-21.
- P. Cash, Kenojuak Ashevak, Artiste inuite Archived 2014-04-13 at the Wayback Machine., FSL French Biographies of Famous Canadians, 2006, Scruffy Plume Press. Accessed 9 January 2013.
- Johnniebo Ashevak, 1923 - 1972, 2013. Accessed 8 January 2013.
- "Remembering the visionary work of Kenojuak Ashevak". The Globe and Mail. 2013-01-11. Retrieved 2017-10-21.
- "Kenojuak Ashevak (1927-2013), Inuit artist biography and portfolio". Spirit Wrestler Gallery. Retrieved 2017-10-21.
- Walker, Ansgar, Kenojuak: an Inuit artit's life story, Penumbra Press, 1999, pp. 218-9
- Valerie Alia, Encyclopedia of the Arctic. Mark Nuttall, ed., pp. 1070-1072, ISBN 978-0-203-99785-7.
- See generally Jean Blodgett, Kenojuak (Toronto: Firefly Books, 1985) ISBN 0-920668-31-3
- "Canada's New $10 bill - Bank of Canada". Retrieved 2017-01-06.
- "Kenojuak Ashevak RCA (1927 – 2013) : Her History". Vincent Art Gallery. 2014-06-26. Retrieved 2017-10-21.
- Mark Lipman, "Kenojuak Ashevak, renowned Inuit artist, dies at 85", 8 January 2013, The Toronto Star. Accessed 8 January 2013.
- "Kenojuak Ashevak – Canadian Art". Canadian Art. Retrieved 2017-10-21.
- National Film Board, Eskimo Artist: Kenojuak, 1963 documentary by filmmaker John Feeney, narrated in English (19 min. 50 sec.). Accessed 9 January 2013.
- "Kenojuak Ashevak". DORSET FINE ARTS. Retrieved 2017-10-21.
- "National Gallery of Canada".
- "Art Gallery of Ontario".
- "Burnaby Art Gallery Permanent Collection".
- "Inuk artist Kenojuak Ashevak dies at 85", 8 January 2013, CBC News. Accessed 8 January 2013.
- "'Great, famous, rare, iconic': Kenojuak Ashevak print nets record-breaking price". CBC News. Retrieved 2017-10-21.
- "Kenojuak Ashevak". www.canadaswalkoffame.com. Retrieved 2017-10-21.
- Comment to "Inuk artist Kenojuak Ashevak dies at 85", 8 January 2013. Accessed 8 January 2013.
- Office of the Governor General of Canada. Order of Canada citation. Queen's Printer for Canada. Retrieved 24 May 2010
- Kenojuak Ashevak, The Enchanted Owl, 1960, National Gallery of Canada. Accessed 8 January 2013.
- "Explore the New $10 Note". www.bankofcanada.ca. Retrieved 2017-04-07.
- "Google Doodle - Kenojuak Ashevak's 87th Birthday". Google. October 3, 2014. Archived from the original on October 3, 2014. Retrieved October 3, 2014.
- "Kenojuak Ashevak Heritage Minute brings her art to life". Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. October 20, 2016. Retrieved October 22, 2016.
- Eskimo Artist: Kenojuak about the film
- Eskimo Artist: Kenojuak the actual film online at the National Film Board of Canada
- Momentum about the film
- Kenojuak Ashevak's Artist Profile at the Centre for Contemporary Canadian Art
- Image timeline view at the Centre for Contemporary Canadian Art
- Some of Kenojuak's prints appear at a Canadian government website.
- Kenojuak Ashevak's Artist Page at Feheley Fine Arts.
- Artist profile ten short videos featuring Kenojuak Ashevak speaking in Inuktitut about her artworks (15 min. 10 sec. in total)
- Brief Audioguide about Kenojuak Ashevak's life (1 min. 32 sec.)
- The Enchanted Owl video and essay in the Virtual Museum of Canada
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