Against an ice-blue wall, nine ceramic faces look outward: a man with snow goggles, a hunter, a smiling woman, one with tattoos, another with a pinniped fin hairstyle, a smiling girl, an angry woman and two women with geese, one with it atop her head and the other with it emerging from her mouth. Created by Kangiqliniq (Rankin Inlet)-based John Kurok, these exuberant and predominantly feminine faces are surrounded by other women: a university graduate, an idol, a web-spinning spider and faceless, hollow and veiled figures. Large-scale graphite and coloured pencil drawings by Kinngait (Cape Dorset)-based Shuvinai Ashoona, RCA, depicting alluring camouflaged, coded and transparent vulvas, fill the walls.
They are joined by colourful, detail-oriented drawings of caves, grottos and canals, clear references to female biology. Ashoona’s feminine cosmos weave throughout many of her works in the show and are poignantly articulated in Untitled (Birthing Scene) (2013), which features a woman giving birth to a universe, surrounded by her children. This focus on familial bonds is also taken up in the work of Pierre Aupilardjuk. In a recent piece, Nuliajuk (2016), the connection between traditional Inuit iconography and the importance of relations is made tangible. The work depicts the artist and his father watching, with elated anticipation, as several seals emerge from various vantages across the smoke-fired vessel.
Curated by Shauna Thompson, Earthlings presents “space, and how we occupy it, [as] a political as well as a practical concern.” These comments are particularly resonant in light of the inclusion of works by Ashoona, Aupilardjuk and Kurok, as well as Roger Aksadjuak, Jessie Kenalogak and Leo Napayok, alongside Shary Boyle, who expanded the scope of what was to be a solo exhibition to include these artists. This was a wise choice given the vitality and aesthetic strength of the works by these northern artists. Practically, Earthlings is beautifully executed. Plinths are made taller so sculptures meet the viewer’s eye. But the political gesture(s) are perhaps more coded. My experience of this space is that it is occupied not only by the significant presence and skill of the Inuit artists, but by works by, for and about women.
At the artist talk for Earthlings on the afternoon following the opening reception, the seating choices were slim, a feat I considered remarkable with the talk scheduled in conflict with the International Women’s March. As Calgary’s crowd of 6,000 marchers assembled, the Esker attendees listened to a generous conversation between Ashoona, Aupilardjuk, Boyle and Kurok. Despite the distance from the crowds outside, the gallery echoed the power of inclusionary politics with Boyle’s shirt unapologetically emblazoned ‘FEMINIST AS FUCK,’ and while Kurok’s ceramic women looked on. Inside the gallery, these important works host their own march, claiming a space uniquely their own in relation to the fabric of our larger arts community in Canada.
Installation view of masks by John Kurok