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

Inuit Art Quarterly - - CONTENTS - by Sarah Mil­roy

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...

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Canada

© PressReader. All rights reserved.