Tu­nir­ru­sian­git: Keno­juak Ashe­vak and Tim Pit­si­u­lak Art Gallery of On­tario


Inuit Art Quarterly - - CONTENTS - by Lisa My­ers

Blur­ring the dis­tinc­tions be­tween artist and cu­ra­tor in an ex­hi­bi­tion is com­pelling to me. Dis­rupt­ing the con­ven­tional roles of cu­ra­tors and artists within an ex­hi­bi­tion at a ma­jor in­sti­tu­tion is also some­thing that I ap­pre­ci­ate, both as an ar tist and as a cu­ra­tor. The cu­ra­to­rial strate­gies in the land­mark ex­hi­bi­tion Tu­nir­ru­sian­git: Keno­juak Ashe­vak and Tim Pit­si­u­lak at the Art Gallery of On­tario (AGO) in Toronto, ON, ap­pear to do and undo some of this dis­rup­tion.

The ex­hi­bi­tion is or­ga­nized by a col­lab­o­ra­tive cu­ra­to­rial team com­prised of Ot­tawa-based sculp­tor Koomu­atuk (Kuzy) Curley; Kau­tokeino, Nor­way–based poet and sto­ry­teller Taqra­lik Par­tridge; Ot­tawa-based cu­ra­tor Jo­ce­lyn Pi­irainen; and Iqaluit-based artist and per­former Laakku­luk Wil­liamson Bathory, as well as AGO cu­ra­tor Ge­or­giana Uhlyarik and York Uni­ver­sity pro­fes­sor

Dr. Anna Hud­son.¹ Each mem­ber of the Inuit cu­ra­to­rial team has con­trib­uted their words— pre­sented as quotes on di­dac­tic pan­els—and in­di­vid­ual works to the ex­hi­bi­tion, along­side those of Keno­juak Ashe­vak, CC, ON, RCA (1927–2013) and Tim Pit­si­u­lak (1967–2016), which pro­vides a more per­sonal voice and con­text while con­vey­ing im­pres­sions of hunt­ing camps, an­i­mal life, Arc­tic light and more. The re­sult­ing text, au­dio and video that ac­com­pany the ret­ro­spec­tive ex­pand the con­ven­tional reper­toire of in­ter­pre­tive strate­gies that fre­quently priv­i­lege an au­thor­i­ta­tive and anony­mous in­sti­tu­tional voice as well as an ex­hi­bi­tion de­sign that of­ten or­ga­nizes work chrono­log­i­cally or the­mat­i­cally. How­ever, I was struck by how to in­ter­pret and con­sider the artis­tic ges­tures by the cu­ra­tors them­selves that are in­cluded. They are art­works, yes, but maybe they are also cu­ra­to­rial strate­gies.

As a dream­like im­mer­sive por­tal at the start of the ex­hi­bi­tion, Wil­liamson Bathory presents her video Si­laup Pu­tunga (2018). Pro­jected on a two-sided screen, the video sets a dreamy mood and pro­vides a sense of mag­i­cal re­al­ism that fore­grounds the rest of the ex­hi­bi­tion. The cam­era fol­lows en­ti­ties through a snowy Arc­tic land­scape, ac­com­pa­nied by an im­mer­sive sound­scape with vo­cal im­pro­vi­sa­tion by mu­si­cian Celina Kal­luk. More em­phatic po­lit­i­cal as­ser­tions of self-de­ter­mi­na­tion arise in Wil­liamson Bathory’s poem I am the light of hap­pi­ness

(2018), bor­row­ing from the words and work of Ashe­vak, where she ar­gues that Inuit art ex­ists beyond merely be­ing an em­blem of Cana­dian art. Wil­liamson Bathory con­veys a bird’s eye view in her poetic ap­proach that hon­ours Ashe­vak’s life, work and re­la­tion­ship to birds, par­tic­u­larly the owl.

The preva­lence of birds dur­ing Arc­tic sum­mers comes through in Ashe­vak’s work. Her litho­graph Boun­ti­ful Bird (1986) por­trays a sur­real de­sign of re­peated bird heads form­ing a halo around an owl’s face and emerg­ing from the fan of its tail feath­ers. The over­all de­sign con­veys a rhyth­mic cho­rus of winged crea­tures that is al­most au­di­ble. Two sym­met­ri­cal stone­cut pieces present two pos­si­ble self-por­traits of Ashe­vak as a “happy owl,” which the artist was quoted re­fer­ring to her­self as in Land­marks of Canada (1978). My Birds (1975) de­picts a woman’s face be­tween two owls, while Happy Lit­tle Owl (1969) shows an owl fig­ure with large eyes and talons and in­cludes the dis­tinct Ashe­vak style of em­a­nat­ing, feath­er­like loops pro­trud­ing from the owl’s head and body. These draw­ings re­veal pro­found hu­mour, yet also a deep con­nec­tion to the sym­bol­ism of sea­sonal changes. With a ca­reer span­ning five decades, Ashe­vak’s work in­spired not only her nephew Pit­si­u­lak, but also sub­se­quent gen­er­a­tions of artists— in­clud­ing po­ets, sculp­tors and per­form­ers.

Fur­ther in­side, Par­tridge’s in­stal­la­tion of a qar­maq— a tra­di­tional sod house, here lined with New York Times news­pa­per pages em­pha­siz­ing of­fen­sive lan­guage when re­fer­ring to Inuit—cre­ates a back­drop and rest­ing place for vis­i­tors to lis­ten to her com­pelling stories and po­etry, while sur­rounded by Ashe­vak’s work. Par­tridge reads her texts of camp life and eat­ing fish and cari­bou, vividly ex­pe­ri­enc­ing the places in her mem­o­ries and thoughts. Her own writ­ing and her pre­sen­ta­tion of the story Raven and Owl (2018) gives con­text for Ashe­vak’s and Pit­si­u­lak’s work, fol­low­ing the strate­gies in a cu­ra­to­rial ap­proach. But I would not re­duce this work as in­stru­men­tal or sup­ple­men­tary, as it pro­vides an im­mer­sive, aes­thetic ex­pe­ri­ence that trans­ports us in Par­tridge’s calls home.

Another in­ter­pre­tive strat­egy from the cu­ra­to­rial team comes in the form of a se­ries of video in­ter­views made by Curley, who also hap­pens to be Pit­si­u­lak’s nephew. These videos bring the per­spec­tives of both Ashe­vak’s and Pit­si­u­lak’s fam­ily, as well as com­mu­nity mem­bers, into the gallery. These per­sonal and re­flec­tive ac­counts of Pit­si­u­lak’s life as a hunter and artist em­pha­sized how ob­ser­va­tion was a key part of his draw­ing prac­tice. His use of a GoPro cam­era fur­ther ex­tended these vis­ual in­ves­ti­ga­tions. Kat­suqtu Tide (2015) shows the muted colours of kelp sway­ing in dimly lit wa­ters, re­sult­ing from an un­der­wa­ter im­age taken with his cam­era. The pas­tel draw­ing Hero 4 (2015) bor­rows its name from a spe­cific GoPro model, pic­tured here reach­ing into the scene where two wal­ruses sit back to back, hu­mor­ously sug­gest­ing the courage of the en­croach­ing cam­era. Pit­si­u­lak’s work also vi­su­al­izes the less tan­gi­ble as­pects of the world, from crea­tures in old stories to thin­ning ice, that re­veal the am­pli­fied pres­ence of cli­mate change in the cir­cum­po­lar North. To­gether, Pit­si­u­lak’s works con­vey his var­ied ex­pe­ri­ences and ob­ser­va­tions of the ma­te­rial re­al­ity and the be­liefs un­der­ly­ing Inuit life in the North, which are of­ten mis­un­der­stood in the South.

The cu­ra­to­rial voice is strongly as­serted, yet, the var­ied tone and pres­ence cre­ated by video, au­dio and in­stal­la­tion work ac­com­pa­nies rather than dis­places the fea­tured artists’ works on pa­per. This ex­hi­bi­tion marks a sig­nif­i­cant mo­ment, where only three decades ago an ex­hi­bi­tion of Inuit sculp­ture brought forth art critic John Bent­ley Mays’s ques­tion­ing of the rel­e­vance of this work to a gallery that “has been prin­ci­pally de­voted to the study and cel­e­bra­tion of West­ern art.” In his 1990 ar­ti­cle in The Globe and Mail, Bent­ley Mays goes on to query the work as sculp­ture rather than carv­ing and poses an ethno­graphic per­spec­tive to­wards Inuit art sim­i­lar to that placed on other Indige­nous art. Bent­ley Mays as­serts, “Inuit carv­ing, af­ter all, has played no part in the his­tory of West­ern ar t, ei­ther as a con­trib­u­tor to that great di­a­logue across time nor as a no­table re­cip­i­ent and trans­la­tor of it.” I men­tion this be­cause we need not take for granted the work that has been done in the past cou­ple of decades, where nu­mer­ous cu­ra­tors and artists have in­ter­vened, trans­form­ing the gallery to make space for Indige­nous ar t.² In­cre­men­tally build­ing on each ac­tion and step, this ex­hi­bi­tion’s col­lab­o­ra­tive cu­ra­to­rial team con­tin­ues this nec­es­sary work. Bring­ing to­gether artists and cu­ra­tors with ex­per­tise in art and a shared ex­pe­ri­ence of com­mu­nity makes space for Inuit pres­ence and per­spec­tives in col­lec­tions, in ex­hi­bi­tions and in cu­ra­to­rial roles.


In­stal­la­tion view of Keno­juak Ashe­vak’s The En­chanted Owl (1960) in Tu­nir­ru­sian­git: Keno­juak Ashe­vak and Tim Pit­si­u­lak,Art Gallery of On­tario, Toronto, ON, 2018

Tim Pit­si­u­lak (1967–2016 Kin­ngait) — Hero 42015Pas­tel76.2 × 111.8 cm ART GALLERY OF ON­TARIO © ES­TATE OF TIM PIT­SI­U­LAK

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