Blind Contour Homage: “Talelayu Opiitlu” (Talelayu with Owl), 1979 Kenojuak Ashevak
Although her father was a shaman, prolific Inuit artist Kenojuak Ashevak does not include references to shamanism or the supernatural world in her art. For explanation, she points to a lack of knowledge and understanding about that aspect of Inuit tradition—a forgetting that may spring from several intrusions of violence and loss in her life.
Born in an igloo in Ikarasaq on the southern coast of Baffin Island, Ashevak grew up with nomadic parents, hunting and fishing the land. But when she was six, her father was assassinated, cutting off her connection to his shamanistic knowledge.
Ashevak never attended school; instead, she learned traditional crafts from her mother’s family, including sealskin repair for trade with the Hudson’s Bay Company. At 19, an arranged marriage saw her wed to Johnniebo Ashevak, an artist whom she eventually loved and with whom she frequently collaborated. She and Johnniebo had several children together but in 1950, she fell ill with tuberculosis, and was forcefully sent to Parc Savard Hospital in Quebec City. She remained there unwillingly for three years. During this “hospital arrest,” at least one of her children died. Years later, back in Cape Dorset, several of her children and grandchildren, as well as her husband, also passed away from disease.
She remarried in 1972, but her second husband died only five years later. She married a third husband in 1978. In all, Ashevak gave birth to eleven children and adopted five. Seven of her children died.
Yet, despite the tragedies that struck so deeply, and which help explain her uncertainty about the traditional Inuit mythologies she learned as a young child, Ashevak was—by all accounts—a passionate and warm figure, devoted to the arts and foundational in the development of modern Inuit art. She is known as the first Inuit person to begin drawing and selling her work through the West Baffin Co-operative. Working with a diverse range of mediums, she brought bright images from nature into all of her work, from colourful fish to radiant suns (she only ever included one supernatural figure—the goddess Sedna, or Taliilajuuq, whom Ashevak says she saw floating in the sea when she was a young child).
Her work gained such acclaim that it has been featured on Canadian stamps and coins, as well as in solo exhibitions in galleries around the world. She has received the highest accolades, from the Order of Canada to the Canadian Walk of Fame. She even designed a stained glass window for a chapel in Oakville. When presented with this new challenge, she remarked: “I had never thought of it before, but I guess I could try.” It is that enthusiastic curiosity and zest for adventure that characterizes Ashevak’s approach to all her artistic undertakings, so that—despite recurrent losses in her personal life—she remained intensely interested in representing the beauty of the natural world.
1927 – Ikirasaqa, Baffin Island, NWT
2013 – Cape Dorset, Dorset Island, Nunavut
Lewin, Michelle. “Where the Light Comes Through: A Commission in Stained Glass by Kenojuak Ashevak.” Inuit Art Quarterly, vol. 20, no. 1, 2005, pp. 16-19.
Walk, Angsar. “Kenojuak Ashevak: An Ambassador of Art.” Inuit Art Quarterly, vol. 20, no. 1, 2005, pp. 20-23.
Zavediuk, Melanie. “Kenojuak Ashevak: Sun’s Awakening.” Inuit Art Quarterly, vol. 3, no. 1, 2018, pp. 20-21.