Earth & Sky: Shuvinai Ashoona and John Noestheden

Exhibition opened June 3, 2008

In February 2008, Canadian artists Shuvinai Ashoona and John Noestheden were invited by Wayne Baerwaldt to Calgary’s Illingworth Kerr Gallery, at the Alberta College of Art and Design (ACAD). Shuvinai and John were brought together in order to collaborate on a drawing measuring 28x488cm that would be reproduced to scale on a 6x43m horizontal outdoor banner. The banner, which comprises signature elements of both their artistic styles, was first installed in Basel, Switzerland, as part of ‘Stadthimmel’, a premier European outdoor art project, before being reproduced again on another 6x43m banner for Toronto’s 2008 Nuit Blanche.

Individually, Shuvinai’s visual and artistic interests are situated in the land and its surface – often viewed from disjointed angles producing multiple aerial views. Complimentarily, John’s interests rest in the sky, particularly universal space and the constellations, often gluing on crystals to create his star-studded designs. In order to begin their work, they first initiated independent sections of a drawing and came together to join their two halves into one piece. The two artists understood each other, with both creating fictitious spaces – Shuvinai of the earth and John of the cosmos. While Shuvinai drew with fine tip pens, John drew digitally by manipulating drawings done by 15th-century German astronomer, Peter Appian, and then transferring them to their shared paper, along with his own meticulous depictions of stars. They negotiated where Shuvinai’s earth would end and John’s stars would begin, and where some of John’s stars would find themselves in both worlds. Shuvinai saw the stars as snowflakes and requested that they be placed on her stone outcroppings. As a result, Shuvinai developed five horizons and decided that the stars could exist within the multiple realms.

Ambiguity, experimentation, daring and playfulness assume their roles here in a collaborative effort, melding into a unified whole. Shuvinai and John are two contemporary artists sharing a common vision where artistic integrity and respectfulness become partners in their shared world, beautifully presented as a public art project.

Earth and Sky marks an unprecedented collaboration between an Inuit and a non-Inuit artist, in which the artists conceived of the work together for the purposes of the banner, on the same sheet.


Curatorial Statement
Wayne Baerwaldt

Cape Dorset-based Shuvinai Ashoona’s quirky, converging horizon lines and perspectives of the Arctic landscape suggest the evolution of a new visual paradigm. The drawings, in single or multiple panels, consistently reflect the diversity and unpredictability of an evolving Inuit culture particularly in relation to the South. The manner in which Ashoona represents solid objects on a flat, extended white surface and minutely pebbled landscape conveys a unique tension between line and form that skewers a sense of height, width, depth and relative distance. It is a unique, deft arrangement of objects in space. The sense of unease in depicting the mundane on an ever-flattening white surface is quietly effective, almost sublime.

Ashoona’s forms are harshly and erratically flattened, becoming cinematic in scope, to suggest a point of sudden cultural collision. But the overlapping landscapes that are formed are somehow stylistically and utterly familiar. The studied perspectives of her drawings are recognizable from various sources including television, which Ashoona often cites when questioned about her work and ideas. The dominance of ‘order’ comes to bear on the work. Order is a prerequisite of survival; therefore the impulse to produce orderly arrangements is inbred by evolution. Ashoona’s multi-panel bird’s eye view drawing of Cape Dorset is a remarkable example. The spatial layout of buildings and makeshift roads reflects and serves the distribution and interconnections of various functions; the groupings or the shapes and colours of a drawing symbolize the interaction of meaningful entities.

Such demonstrations show that orderly form will come about as the visible result of physical forces establishing the most balanced configuration possible. This is true for inorganic as well as organic systems, from the symmetries of crystals as well as those of flowers or animal bodies. What can we make of this similarity of organic and inorganic striving? It is by mere coincidence that order, developing everywhere in organic evolution as a condition for survival and realized in mental and physical activities, is also striven for by inanimate nature, which knows no purpose.

The recurring vision of flatness is less studied and more intuitive of infinite spaces, perhaps related more to the optics of television media than observational drawing as a chronicle of life, an approach to which Inuit artists such as Rhoda Opidjoyak Allooloo and Parr are linked. The relational importance of objects in Ashoona’s drawings suggest her world, as depicted in a form of cinemascope, is stylistically related to the world’s most commonly shared fictional landscape.

Likewise, John Noestheden’s unconventional revisioning of the night sky, referencing astronomy sources (such as 15th-century German astronomer, Peter Apian) and art history, brings new conceptual breadth to his painted, drawn or crystal encrusted surfaces. The artist maintains, “…My recent and current bodies of work are based on a variety of media representations of the stars and the universe – especially star guides and NASA’s various telescopic views of the universe. The images are then super inflated and the printing process of their reproduction becomes extremely visible. I look at the diagrams as closely as an astronomer looks at the stars. Like that astronomer, I super enlarge images to make them visible. In these works I interrogate the reliability of scientific information and imaging. My work is not about the universe but it is about representing the universe. I extract images from all manner of historical and current astronomical documents (collapsing time) in order to investigate visualization itself.”

Noestheden further comments on the referencing process when he assimilates the powerful work of Vincent Van Gogh:

“I have done many sections of his skies that I interpret to represent both atmosphere and deep space. First of all, Vincent and I share Netherlandish origins. His remarkable work as a draftsman is profoundly beautiful, inventive and expressive. Van Gogh’s inked dots are photo-mechanically enlarged 1,000 times from the original reproductions of his drawings in art books. Thus, his highly inflated ink-dotted skies became perfect, unsentimental tapestries into which astronomy’s visual artifacts could be suspended. This contextualization is much more interesting, satisfying and conceptually charged than the white of the paper or the blackness of the heavens.”

Both Ashoona and Noestheden attempt to reconcile the disturbing contradiction between striving for order in nature and the principle of entropy, between the tendency toward greater organization and the general trend of the material universe toward death and disorder.  Since both artists live above Canada’s 49th parallel, I felt two things were imminent: first, that latitude directly influences their graphic interpretation of the sky and landscape and, two, their approaches to drawing are the means to frame concerns with order/entropy. Ashoona and Noestheden reveal an almost desperate need to wrest order from a chaotic environment, even at the most elemental level, and the deliberate bankruptcy and sterility wrought by the same environments they approach graphically.

To view available artworks by Shuvinai Ashoona, click here.