My personal cultural moment of the year – OPINION

Rabbit Eating Seaweed, 1959, stencil, Kenojuak Ashevak

December 2019
By Joel Sears, Feheley Writer

I grew up with a Kenojuak Ashevak lithograph hanging on the wall. It’s still there in my mother’s dining room. But I never fully appreciated the subtle power of Inuit art until I started working with Pat Feheley. It has been a real joy to be able to see this art through Pat’s eyes and learn the history by exposure to her direct experience.

This year it was my good fortune to view more art than I have in years, including the opening of the Venice Biennale. A personal highlight for me was Edmund de Waal’s delicate and masterly ceramic pieces in his Psalm installation in Venice’s Jewish Ghetto.

But it wasn’t until this fall that I had my personal revelation. I was talking to Pat about her 60/60 exhibition, which featured a print from each of the 60 years of the Cape Dorset (Kinngait) Annual Print Collection. We started at the beginning: 1959 with Rabbit Eating Seaweed by Kenojuak Ashevak, the artist’s very first print. It’s a small work – just 22.9 x 61 cm. (9 x 24 in.) and has only one colour – a particularly deep blue.

I kept returning to Rabbit Eating Seaweed which hung just right of the entrance to Feheley Fine Arts. The closer I got, the more captivated I became by the remarkably lifelike texture of the rabbit hair. How was this achieved with a stencil? How did Kenojuak have such precise control over an unfamiliar medium? What makes these undulating shapes so arresting? I kept coming back for more answers.

For me, Rabbit Eating Seaweed stands at the intersection of Inuit culture and modern art. This far exceeds the reductive idea of Inuit art as decorative or as a craft or folk art. That was the risk of the ubiquitous explosion of the art form as it sprang into public consciousness in the 1960s and ‘70s. It was graphic and accessible. It was affordable and available.

The more I’ve thought about Rabbit Eating Seaweed the stronger my conviction that this is as important a work of Canadian art as I’ve seen. It stirs a deeply visceral reaction with its deceptive simplicity. It’s mesmerizing. And it encapsulates a way of seeing and a way of life that’s distinctly Canadian.