Tunirrusiangit: Kenojuak Ashevak and Tim Pitsiulak

By January 29, 2019Review

Installation view of three versions of Kenojuak Ashevak’s The Enchanted Owl (1960) in Tunirrusiangit: Kenojuak Ashevak and Tim Pitsiulak, Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto, ON, 2018 ART GALLERY OF ONTARIO PHOTO DEAN TOMLINSON

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 artist 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.

Tim Pitsiulak (1967–2016 Kinngait) Hero 4  (2015) COURTESY ART GALLERY OF ONTARIO © ESTATE OF TIM PITSIULAK

As a dreamlike immersive portal at the start of the exhibition, Williamson Bathory presents the video Silaup Putunga (2018), a collaboration with Jamie Griffiths. 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.

Installation view of works by Tim Pitsiulak in Tunirrusiangit: Kenojuak Ashevak and Tim Pitsiulak, Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto, ON, 2018 ART GALLERY OF ONTARIO PHOTO DEAN TOMLINSON

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 art, 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 art.[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.

 

NOTES

[1] Williamson Bathory’s connections to the AGO run quite deep. Her father, Bob Williamson, donated a collection of Inuit sculptures to the gallery in the 1980s, and Williamson Bathory also co-curated the exhibition Inuit Art in Motion (2004) with Dr. Anna Hudson (then AGO Associate Curator of Canadian Art).

[2] While not an exhaustive list this includes curators Richard Hill, Michelle Jacques, Anna Hudson, Gerald McMaster and, most recently, Wanda Nanibush and Georgiana Uhlyarik, launching the Department of Indigenous and Canadian Art, as well as artists Carl Beam, Robert Houle, Bonnie Devine and many more who were instrumental in these transformations.

 

This is a review from the Winter 2018 issue of the Inuit Art Quarterly.

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