In 2011, artist Tim Pitsiulak spoke at the Art Gallery of Ontario about the great gifts he was given by his aunt—Kenojuak Ashevak, the most popular Inuit artist of her time. Her work inspired him to create. And her success, which brought Inuit printmaking and drawing to the world, helped provide him the opportunity to do that for a living.
This summer, a retrospective of these two giants of Inuit art is showing in the largest exhibition space at the gallery in downtown Toronto. Curators hope Ashevak and Pitsiulak’s works will inspire visitors to ask what preconceived notions they hold about Inuit.
Pitsiulak was born in Kimmirut, Nunavut, in 1967 and later lived in Cape Dorset. He was a hunter and his intricate coloured pencil drawings captured the natural and unnatural world. He documented the big changes he saw occurring around him. Ashevak, born in 1927 in a camp on southern Baffin Island, moved to Cape Dorset in 1966. An entire room of the AGO exhibition space is filled with her iconic bird prints, her owls with vibrant colours and trademark long feathers that encircle their bodies. “There is just an overwhelming amount of her work that focuses on birds and they are all so gorgeous,” says co-curator Laakkuluk Williamson Bathory. “Why not let them dance together?”
The exhibition is called Tunirrusiangit: Kenojuak Ashevak and Tim Pitsiulak. In Inuktitut, tunirrusiangit means “their gifts.”
“They gave us whole worlds to look at, not just something beautiful,” says Williamson Bathory, herself a performance artist based in Iqaluit. “That’s such a gift for Inuit artists,” she says, adding people often rely on stereotypes to understand who Inuit are. “Kenojuak and Tim very much gave us the opportunity to broaden our horizons, and the horizons of our audience.”
Last fall, the curator of Canadian art at the AGO—one of the largest galleries in North America with the second-largest collection of Indigenous art in the country—resigned and publicly criticized the way the gallery upholds a tradition of marginalizing, excluding and speaking for Indigenous people. This retrospective heralds a change in the way the gallery operates, says Georgiana Uhlyarik, the curator of Canadian art who worked with the team of artist-curators on this exhibit under the newly formed department of Indigenous and Canadian Art. “We’ve decided very much for this to be an invitation,“ says Uhlyarik. “We offer this space, the material and whatever support and professional expertise there might be at the museum and let them guide us in terms of what it is that they want to say.” Williamson Bathory was joined by carver Koomuatuk (Kuzy) Curley, spoken word artist and throatsinger Taqralik Partridge, and curator Jocelyn Piirainen, with the assistance of Uhlyarik and Anna Hudson of York University’s Mobilizing Inuit Cultural Heritage project. In November, the curators met in Toronto to dive into Ashevak and Pitsiulak’s oeuvre, and narrowed it down to 100 pieces.
Tunirrusiangit is the result. “We came up with this consensus vision of what we wanted to showcase,” says Piirainen. “The exhibit is a retrospective of the work of Kenojuak and Tim, but it’s also told through this new kind of contemporary vision of the four Inuit curators.”
“It’s through the imagery that she always seems to present her life around her at that moment" - Jocelyn Piirainen
Their own work and reflections on how Ashevak and Pitsiulak influenced them as artists and curators are a part of the exhibit in different forms. As you enter, you experience a soundscape combining nature and machinery and layered videos of the landscape outside Iqaluit, created by Williamson Bathory and Iqaluit-based digital media artist Jamie Griffiths. Inside, Partridge has built a qarmaq (sod house) in which vestiges of the age of exploration are hung on the walls. Partridge shares five original stories recorded on iPads that visitors can pick up and listen to. “She really nails in the fact that Inuit have been exoticized and stereotyped and subjected to extreme racism for the entire time that we’ve been in contact with Europeans,” says Williamson Bathory. Curley, a nephew of Pitsiulak’s, has recorded interviews with family members of the artists that are broadcast throughout the exhibit.
And, of course, there is the work of Pitsiulak and Ashevak.
There is Pitsiulak’s massive and intricate Canadrill (2015), a coloured pencil drawing of the machine used to drive holes into the ground to secure structural pilings for the large buildings that now mark Arctic communities. “It just showcased a lot of his talent and it also represented completely our ideas of what the show represented—the modern life, the contemporary Inuit life,” says Piirainen. “It’s got these vivid yellow and blue colours against very bright white paper. When you’re standing there looking at it, it’s just incredible, just amazing to see in person.”
And there is Ashevak’s The Woman Who Lives in the Sun (1960)—a stonecut print of a woman’s face, with traditional tattooing on her chin and the sun’s rays streaming out from it. Inuit stories tell that the sun is the sister and the moon is the brother. “It’s just so powerful, it’s so centred and asymmetrical at the same time. It’s so red that it, to me, can’t be anything else but female,” says Williamson Bathory. “That piece has moved me my whole life.”
The exhibit contains early drawings of Ashevak’s, going back to the ‘50s and ‘60s. “It’s through the imagery that she always seems to present her life around her at that moment and that is one of the themes that continues throughout the exhibit,” says Piirainen.
Williamson Bathory hopes the exhibit sparks an interest in visitors—that they take it upon themselves to learn about Inuit culture. “I hope they walk away with more questions than they walked in with. For me, that’s a sign they’ve been awoken artistically, culturally and politically and that they feel empowered to do research on their own,” she says. “That in itself is such a gift that Kenojuak and Tim have given us—a huge gallery, filled with incredible art that allows a person to ask more questions.”
Tunirrusiangit: Kenojuak Ashevak and Tim Pitsiulak runs from June 16 to August 12 at the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto.