Companion of the Order of Canada, recipient of the National Aboriginal Achievement Foundation's award for lifetime achievement, member of the Royal Academy of Arts and recent inductee into Canada's Walk of Fame: Kenojuak Ashevak is probably contemporary Inuit art's most famous personality. Born in an igloo in 1927, she is an artist who has lived in two very different worlds -- the traditional Inuit culture, and, increasingly, the twentieth-century western culture.
Kenojuak grew up travelling between hunting camps on Baffin Island and in the Nunavik region of northern Quebec. To be able to survive on the land, the Inuit had no choice but to master many skills: making their own weapons and clothing, building "qarmaqs" (sod houses) and igloos, hunting, fishing, trapping and adding ornamentation to functional everyday objects. From a young age, Kenojuak was required, under the guidance of her grandmother, to learn such skills as designing and creating handicrafts, sewing waterproof seams with caribou sinews and making repairs on skins being prepared for the Hudson's Bay Company. These manual skills proved to be transferable to her later career as an artist. Kenojuak's life was put on hold in her early twenties however, when she was diagnosed with tuberculosis and sent to recover, for three years, in a Québec City hospital.
In the late 1950s, Kenojuak and her husband, Johnniebo, met James Houston, who was then serving as a federal administrator. Houston was encouraging Inuit of the Cape Dorset area to make soapstone carvings and, later, prints and drawings, to be sold in the cities of southern Canada and abroad. Since their camp was not far away, Johnniebo and Kenojuak went into Cape Dorset regularly to obtain everyday supplies. They began to develop an interest, and take part, in the projects organized by Houston and his wife, Alma.
During this period, Kenojuak experimented with a great variety of different materials and techniques. She carved stone sculptures and made kamiks (boots), sealskin wall hangings and bags with cut-out ornamental details and beadwork. She has continued to work with all of these materials throughout her career. Kenojuak received high praise for her work, and she and Johnniebo welcomed the second source of revenue as insurance against failed hunts.
The Houstons commissioned Kenojuak to create sealskin appliqué designs, which became the basis for her artistic style. The designs' simple forms and bold outlines were particularly suited for the prints being created by the newly formed West Baffin Eskimo Co-operative, which included a busy printmaking shop. The Houstons also encouraged Kenojuak to try her hand at drawing with two foreign media -- pencil and paper. She commented about her introduction to paper in the National Film Board's 1962 film, Eskimo Artist: Kenojuak saying "a piece of paper from the outside world is as thin as the shell of a snowbird's egg."
In her first tentative drawings, Kenojuak usually portrayed subjects that were well known from her sealskin appliqués and essentially bound to tradition -- people, faces, qarmaqs and igloos, sled dogs and sleds, fish and birds. As with her previous works of art, Kenojuak's drawings proceeded directly from design to finished product. She simply put her pencil to paper and did not lift the pencil until she had completed the essential form of her image. Preliminary sketches were rarely made.
Kenojuak's drawings were among the first by an Inuk woman to be transferred to a template for printing. Interestingly, while Kenojuak is perhaps best known worldwide for her prints, she does not make them herself. Instead, the prints are made by stone cutters and printers on the basis of her drawings. Kenojuak has never been involved in the actual printing process.
Over the past forty years, Kenojuak has continued to pursue works of art that, above all else, satisfy her own aesthetic ideals. She says that her drawings, prints and sculptures are explorations of design and form and colour, rather than illustrations of events or stories. Over time she has developed some favourite subjects -- especially birds, fish and human faces -- and most of her work from the 1990s to the present includes these forms. Usually, the subject matter of her images is static; a solitary icon without any kind of background or context. She is also known for creating flowing webs of interconnected images and intricately constructed patterns of texture and colour. But there is no need to look for a deeper meaning in the interconnectedness of the images, because the overall effect of the whole image is all that concerns her.
Although she has travelled widely for exhibitions and is internationally renowned, Kenojuak insists that she puts no more importance on her art, than any other aspect of her life. She now lives in a solid house, rather than a qarmaq, but her memories of living a traditional Inuit life are strong and she still gets out fishing regularly. She has many grandchildren, with whom she spends a good deal of her time. When she does draw, her intense and powerful images continue to keep the rest of the world enchanted with the beauty of the Canadian North and its people.
Kenojuak Ashevak is a Companion of the Order of Canada, a member of the Royal Canadian Academy and the recipient of two honorary doctorates and also a 2008 winner of the Governor General's Awards in Visual and Media Arts.