New Toronto exhibit features two of Cape Dorset’s late, great artists
The Art Gallery of Ontario's new Tunirrusiangit exhibit was curated by four Inuit artists
TORONTO—As you turn into the corridor that leads to the Art Gallery of Ontario’s newest exhibit, you’re met with the daily sounds of a busy Arctic community: the beep of the water truck backing up or the whooshing noise of a plane taking off.
The soundtrack isn’t meant to distract you from the body of work that awaits. Rather, the audio is there to help immerse visitors in Inuit life and culture as they peruse some of Nunavut’s finest contemporary art.
The new exhibit, called Tunirrusiangit, features the work of two of Cape Dorset’s most acclaimed artists, the late Kenojuak Ashevak and the late Timootee Pitsiulak.
Ashevak, who settled in Cape Dorset in her youth, rose to fame with her 1960 print The Enchanted Owl, which went on to appear on a Canadian stamp, and helped to put Cape Dorset printmaking on the map.
Ashevak continued to create until her death in 2013 at age 85.
Pitsiulak, Ashevak’s nephew, was arguably still a rising star in Canada’s art industry when he died of pneumonia in late 2016.
The 49-year-old artist had grown an international reputation for his prints and his larger-than-life coloured-pencil drawings depicting wildlife and simple scenes from the landscape around him.
The family relationship was one reason curators said the two artists’ work was jointly exhibited in Tunirrusiangit, which means “their gifts.”
“We believe too that they were vey much contemporary artists and had many similarities in style,” said Jocelyn Piirainen, one of the four Inuit exhibit curators who hosted a media preview of the show on June 11.
“The relationship to the land, and really, their ability to be themselves.”
Through the process, Piirainen couldn’t help but choose favourite pieces.
One of Ashevak’s largest prints, titled Two Fish, hangs on a gallery wall; it’s simple and symmetrical, Piirainen notes, using negative space to make a statement.
Above it, a quote from the artist reads: “I cannot image life without art.”
Two Fish was Ashevak’s last piece, created at age 85. After her death, Ashevak’s son Adamie had to finish some of the ink work.
Piirainen is also partial to a massive coloured-pencil drawing of Pitsiulak’s titled Grazing Musk Ox (2014), because of the movement she felt he was able to create among the two giant beasts. “It’s just lovely,” she said.
Piirainen grew up in Cambridge Bay but has called Ottawa home for many years. She studied film at Carleton University and has more recently begun doing more curatorial work; this is her second major show.
Her co-curators Laakkuluk Williamson Bathory, Kuzy Curley and Taqralik Partridge each bring an element of their own art focus or expertise to the show. (The AGO’s Georgiana Uhlyarik and York University art professor Anna Hudson also helped curate the show.)
In the corner of one gallery room is an open qarmaq, wallpapered in newsprint, with a window looking out into an Arctic community.
Partridge explained that she went back into newspaper archives, mostly those of the New York Times, to find references to Eskimos and other news coverage of the North to cover the qarmaq.
“When Inuit first had access to news media, they would paper their walls in newsprint,” Partridge said.
“My idea was to try and create some questions about how Inuit are portrayed in our media.”
Elsewhere, Williamson Bathory appears in a 25-minute video on Greenlandic uajeerneeq or mask dancing, which is broadcast from another room of the Toronto gallery.
Piirainen said she’s optimistic that the curatorial talent behind the exhibit helps bring out the best of Ashevak and Pitsiulak’s work.
“It’s definitely a positive thing,” she said. “And hopefully it inspires a lot of younger [Inuit] artists to continue to create.
“There are only a very small number of Inuit curators and I hope this inspires more of that too. It’s important.”
Tunirrusiangit will host its public launch, including a feast of seal meat, on June 13 from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. at the AGO in Toronto.
The exhibit is open to the public from June 16 to August 12.