June 16 – July 15, 2018
In the early 1960’s, pencils and papers were distributed to the fledgling artists of Cape Dorset with the aim of developing an arts and crafts program in the community. Some people took up the challenge with gusto and bravado while others approached the sheets of paper with doubt and trepidation. Looking for guidance, they were simply instructed to ‘draw your stories – draw what you know, draw whatever is in your mind.’ Many took pencil in hand and drew what they knew from experience – pedantic depictions of family members, animals and fish, memories of youth and of life on the land, the hunt. There were a few however who drew strange combinations of animals and human forms distorted and embellished into fantastic beasts, grotesque monsters and mystical beings that no one recognized from their daily lives and very few people had ever seen before.
Some of these creatures came from visualizations conjured up through oral legends and stories told by elders and shamans but many other drawings were subconscious constructions gleaned from the dark recesses of memory and imagination, almost like surreal or automatic painting. A few of the artists were not even aware of what they had created until the drawings were complete and even commented on them as if they were the work of someone (or something) else. Omalluq Oshutsiaq said about one of her first efforts, “I must have been dreaming when I drew this. My mind was blank when I started drawing.” These visions transcribed to paper had no known references other than perhaps ancient memories, the spirit world and possibly quirks of visual perception and the human instinct to seek patterns in nature. Look hard enough and variations of these drawings can be discerned in the random shapes and lines in the Baffin landscape – fissures in rocks, shadows on snow, reflections in water, etc.
Many of these weird and wondrous drawings were the genesis of what would become a definite and distinct Cape Dorset aesthetic despite the many generations of individual styles and iterations that would follow. Even when influences of Western cultures as diverse as Disney and Del Toro are added (as for instance in some of the drawings by Qavavau Manumie and Tim Pitsiulak respectively), there is still an inimitable look to Cape Dorset drawings.
The spectacular beings of contemporary artists Shuvinai Ashoona and Saimaiyu Akesuk are celebrated for their wonderful flights of fantasy. As the bold experimentations of third and fourth generation artists chart new conceptual orientations in contemporary art, they build upon a rich tradition of Inuit worldviews. In parallel to Tunirrusiangit: Kenojuak Ashevak and Tim Pitsiulak at the Art Gallery of Ontario, Spectacular Beings explores sixty years of the supernatural in the graphic tradition of Kinngait, Nunavut.
Since its inception in 1959, the artists producing works through the Kinngait’s co-operative have explored themes of transformation, shamanism, and the symbiotic relationship between humans and animals. Often designated by generation, first generation artists like Paulaussie Pootoogook (1927 – 2006) and Kenojuak Ashevak (1927 – 2013) spent their formative years living on the land, and were seminal artists involved with the co-op in its early days. Second generation artists such as Kakulu Saggiaktok (b. 1940) and Mayoreak Ashoona (b. 1946) were born on the land, but lived in Kinngait for much of their lives. Many Inuit of these generations have embraced Christianity with fervour. Depicting the supernatural may have allowed a number of artists to incorporate traditionally held notions of shamanism and transformation into their art.
The third generation of artists producing works at the Kinngait Studio refers to a cohort of familial groups who have lived their entire lives in and around the community, with ties and influence from the South. Artists like Jutai Toonoo (1959 – 2015) and Shuvinai Ashoona (b. 1961) grew up in households with significant access to global culture. A newly emergent fourth generation of artists who have lived their whole lives in town include the artists Saimaiyu Akesuk (b. 1986) and Ooloosie Saila (b. 1991). By the 1990s, the destructive effects of climate change and a creeping global capitalism grew evermore urgent as new oil reserves and shipping routes emerged in the North. Living amidst times of increasing uncertainty, many artists of these later generations are reinterpreting traditional themes. For younger artists, shamanism can provide a rich source of subject matter, from healing powers, to transformation, to the ability to fly. Depictions of these fantastic themes continue to evolve and become an important means of affirming Inuit identity.