November/December 2011

Shuvinai Ashoona

[Artist]

“I don’t think from newspaper.”
Films discussed in this interview:
Aliens
Batman
That one with the little kid smoking a big cigar

The Far North of Canada is a faint concept to most people. Comprising three remote, diverse territories—the Yukon, the Northwest Territories, and Nunavut—it remains, in many respects, the way it always has been: sparsely populated, prohibitively cold, and outrageously expensive. Yet the Far North is not what it was. There are its natural resources, which climate change has been making gradually, indeed dangerously, available. Communications technology continues to be a significant factor in bridging North and South. Now more than ever, it is not merely southern populations, economies, and politics that are infiltrating the Far North; southern culture is staking its claim as well.

At the same time, Far North culture—in particular, Inuit art—is being introduced to a new audience in the South, for whom it often carries textbook colonial fascinations. This is not a novel phenomenon, although it is relatively recent; Inuit art has been a major dimension of the Canadian art world since the 1950s, when postwar government initiatives instated make-work projects in the hopes of stimulating the arctic economy.

A great deal of the Inuit art that has been most popular in the South does not have unvitiated ancient origins. Most remarkably, Japanese printmaking techniques were brought to Baffin Island (now in the territory of Nunavut), to a settlement called Cape Dorset, by the mid-twentieth-century Toronto artist, writer, and educator James Archibald Houston. The local population took to printmaking like gangbusters, and the market for it has grown extensively over the years—but, unlike carving, the art form is not indigenous.

A certain model of Inuit art-making has stabilized in the region: co-operatives, or “co-ops,” have sprung up, notably at Nunavut’s Baker Lake and Cape Dorset, where people come, often with no previous experience in art, to try to make a living. At present, an older generation of artists, popular when the co-ops first emerged, in the ’60s and ’70s, is seeing another generation take hold. Since Houston’s day, Inuit art has been successful in Canadian-art circles, collected by major museums, and represented by large, specialty commercial galleries in Toronto, Vancouver, Montreal, and even internationally, but not until now has it seen such curious integration with practices in the South.

Two middle-aged cousins from Cape Dorset, Annie Pootoogook and Shuvinai Ashoona, have become the leaders of this renaissance. Pootoogook was nominated for and won Canada’s top prize for young artists, the Sobey Art Award, and, a year later, in 2007, was one of two Canadian artists to participate in Kassel, Germany’s documenta, one of the benchmarks for career achievement in contemporary art.

Ashoona’s work has shown widely, at home and abroad, including at Art Basel. In 2010, a short film was made about her by Canadian documentarian Marcia Connolly. Both Ashoona and Pootoogook were recently selected by curator Denise Markonish to participate in Oh, Canada, a show of sixty-two contemporary Canadian artists, which opens at MASS MoCA in May 2012.

What makes Ashoona and Pootoogook so dazzling to southern eyes is, perhaps, their fearlessness and creativity, which defy the homogenous regionalism for which the Houston-led movement has become known. (Inuit art depicting ice fishing, polar bears, seal-hunts, and the like still sells readily.) Both draw in a nontraditional medium, pencil crayon. Pootoogook, whose laconic, witty work can be read as social-realist, depicts things like pornography, alcoholism, and domestic abuse. She has produced no new work since she moved south after her success, and could not be reached for an interview.

Ashoona, the subject of this interview, continues to live and work in Cape Dorset. Where Pootoogook documents the outer world, Ashoona delves into the inner. She was born in Cape Dorset in 1961 to a celebrated area sculptor—her father, Kiawak Ashoona—and to an equally celebrated graphic-artist mother, Sorosilooto Ashoona. (Shuvinai and Annie’s grandmother Pitseolak Ashoona is an iconic Inuit artist.) She began drawing in the mid-’90s—first landscapes, then increasingly colorful and phantasmic vignettes conflating personal and cultural mythologies, both indigenous and Christian. (Cape Dorset was particularly affected by the dark legacy of Catholicism and its abuse-ridden residential schools.) Ashoona works almost every day at the Kinngait studios in Cape Dorset, originally founded by Houston’s successor, Terry Ryan, where her grandmother was trained.

This interview was conducted by phone, through the arrangement of Bill Ritchie, who runs the studios. On contacting him, I was told that Shuvinai’s “ability to carry on a conversation is difficult” due to “mental-health issues.” She has “good days and not-so-great days.” When I spoke with Ashoona, she was charming; her tone was warm and welcoming, regardless of how seemingly idiosyncratic her responses were, and there was a confidence to her answers, despite the language barrier (her first language being Inuktitut) and the abundantly apparent divide in sensibility and culture.

After the interview, Ritchie sent me an eloquent email urging me to keep in mind the context of Shuvinai’s personality and artwork, and not to craft her words to suit an agenda. She is, of course, by no means a spokesperson for her people or culture; no Inuit can be, despite common southern notions of the North as monolithic, perpetuated in part by popular Inuit art and its branded, telltale symbology. Like her ancestors, she and others with whom she works do not have quite the same romantic notion of creativity that southern artists do, understanding themselves more readily as part of an economy—the nature of which, however, has shifted dramatically since Houston’s day.

Ritchie left me with these words: “It is too bad you couldn’t meet Shuvinai and get to know her, because she is a complex person. She is sensitive, caring, loyal, and tough. She’s getting older, but I have seen her wandering the winter roads in the wee hours of the morning trying to find someplace to sleep, carrying her bag of pencils and a tube of mangled paper. Lately she is troubled because her father is bedridden and her mother has health issues; they have been the glue of this family and things are about to change for the children. Good luck with your piece.”

—David Balzer

I. “I COULD GO FOR THE RAINBOW”

THE BELIEVER: Maybe we can start by you telling me about why you began to make art.

SHUVINAI ASHOONA: I started because my youngest sister told me to go down, the last time. And I found out that there was another room for that area, so I started doing what I love about my youngest sister… what she told me to do. I came over and over again. She told me to do it. I said, “Yeah.” I had no chance of saying no, because I needed something to do. At least get some money out of the papers.

BLVR: She told you to go down to the co-op and start drawing?

SA: Yeah. She lent me a little piece of paper and told me to go down to the co-op. She was leaving, going to Yellowknife—back to Bob’s place. That’s when she told me to draw.

BLVR: What was the first thing you ever drew?

SA: Just the landscape. Green grass and a little bit of rocks. That’s all I can recall.

BLVR: How long ago was that?

SA:Twenty-five years ago. I was almost twenty-five or so.

BLVR: How did you become a better drawer since then?

SA: Following the ones that are drawing around me. Drawing around them. Getting the vapor out of them. Getting the vapor out of the people who are coming back and forth in the studio. Or mainly from where we work around.

BLVR: Being part of a group of people making art. Getting inspiration…

SA: Yes. Maybe from the ones who are working on soapstones, or some people doing something else besides carvings. Maybe from that vapor—that vapor from their works—that flowing away, like the ones that are flowing, like the universe that I made a few weeks ago, like the raindrops of the universe. They’re not plugged into only one paper at all, for sure.

We hope you enjoy this excerpt.

To read the full piece, please visit our store to purchase a copy of the magazine.

David Balzer is the author of Contrivances, a short-fiction collection forthcoming from Joyland/ECW Press. His writing on art and film has appeared in the Globe and Mail, Artforum.com, ARTnews, and the Walrus. He lives in Toronto.

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