Jessie Oonark’s repatriated drawings
In 2015 a remarkable collection of more than two dozen drawings by the late artist were discovered in the most unlikely of places: New York City. Their long journey, which began in the Sanavik Co-operative studio in Qamani’tuaq (Baker Lake), NU, some five
In the study of art, a seam in time can sometimes unexpectedly open, spilling a packet of the past. All the spark and vitality of a moment long passed has somehow been saved and can now be relived afresh. Such was the experience of eighty-two-year-old, New York-based writer and educator Richard Lewis, who was quietly performing that most monotonous of domestic chores—cleaning his basement— when he came across a manila envelope containing a blast from his past. Inside were 27 pristine drawings on coloured card stock, the work of the Qamani’tuaq (Baker Lake), NU, artist Jessie Oonark, OC, RCA (1906–1985), drawings made with coloured pens when the artist was in her prime, in the late 1960s. Oonark died in 1985, having received the Order of Canada the year before. Though she only began making her drawings and hangings at the age of 59, she quickly established herself as a trailblazer in the field of Inuit visual art, with her work shown in exhibitions at the Art Gallery of Ontario, the National Museum of Man (now the Canadian Museum of History), Av Isaacs’ Innuit Gallery of Eskimo Art in Toronto, ON, and, after her death, in a major 1986 retrospective at the Winnipeg Art Gallery (WAG). Oonark was also den mother—both literally and figuratively—to a whole generation of artists in her adopted hometown. (Eight of her children would become artists, and her work would lay the foundations for the discipline of artmaking in that remote community.) One of the generation of Inuit who began life on the land—in her case in the remote Back River area, 200 kilometers northwest of Qamani’tuaq— she and her children were relocated by the RCMP to Qamani’tuaq in 1958, barely surviving the caribou starvations. It was decades after those harrowing years that Lewis encountered Oonark’s work for the first time in the Toronto apartment of Alma Houston, founder of Canadian Arctic Producers. “I couldn’t believe what I was seeing,” Lewis said to me when we met to talk about Oonark at a diner in New York. “My mouth was literally hanging open. There were just stacks of her works there. Alma said, take some.” Oonark was already gaining a southern following, and Lewis was looking for drawings to illustrate a book that he was working on, I Breathe a New Song: Poems of the Eskimo (1971), which gathered songs from sources as wide-ranging as the Danish explorer Knud Rasmussen to the German-American anthropologist Franz Boas. Edmund Carpenter, a noted anthropologist and communications theorist, wrote the forward. What Lewis found in that envelope, returned now to the care of Canadian Arctic Producers, was irrefutable evidence of Oonark’s artistic mastery, expressed in its most condensed, expressive form. Many of Oonark’s drawings were made into prints over the years, both in Qamani’tuaq and at the famous printshop in Kinngait (Cape Dorset), NU, where her first prints were published in 1961. But those compositions have often been cropped and their colours altered by the printmaker, who has their own vision to express. Sometimes these alterations were made with an eye to the imagined preferences of the white, buying audience down south. The drawings Lewis saw that day were likely made at the encouragement of Boris Kotelewetz, who still lives in Qamani’tuaq, and who supplied Oonark with brightly coloured paper and pens. But they take us back to the core of her vision, having come into being with the minimum of material impediment or interference. During her lifetime, Oonark was much revered as a textile artist, building on her well-honed skills as a seamstress, and that craft would inform her image making in all media. Sewing garments, she would often create decorative embellishments by cutting away material and creating snugly fitted inserts of contrasting skin—
Jessie Oonark (1906–1985 Qamani’tuaq) — PREVIOUS SPREAD Untitled (Goats Climbing a Rock) c. 1967 Felt-tip pen 27.9 × 45.7 cm BELOW Untitled (Four Women with Ulus) c. 1967 Felt-tip pen 27.9 × 45.7 cm
Oonark with her family, c. 1973 standing from left: Martha Noah, unidentified, William Noah Seated from left: Jessie Oonark, Victoria Mamnguqsualuk, and Samson Kayuryuk, Oonark’s grandchildren unidentified PHOTO JACK BUTLER UNIVERSITY OF MANITOBA...