“A Story in Three Parts”

Between 2012 and 2021 the Inuktut television channel Uvagut TV (meaning “Our TV”) live broadcast a series of programs titled “Inform & Consult,” chronicling the Nunavut Impact Review Board’s (NIRB) public hearings on the impact of the mining industry, including the Mary River Iron Ore Mine, on Inuit peoples. Segments of these hearings, intercut with location footage and comments from Nunavut citizenry during walkabouts in the impacted Arctic communities and landscape, were presented in the exhibition “A Story in Three Parts,” recently at the Kelowna Art Gallery (KAG). The video footage, produced by NITV and Kingulliit Productions, provided the art audience here in the Okanagan with valuable insights into the troubling disparity between the position and impact of corporate mining industries and that of Indigenous voices. I admire the curatorial decision to include this important contextual material, which also highlights work by Kenojuak Ashevak (1927–2013) and Sharni Pootoogook (1922–2003) and a 2019 experimental documentary video titled Ataguttaaluk—A Life to Live For, by the Inuit independent production company Isuma, with Levy Uttak as screenwriter, and directed, produced and edited by contemporary Inuk filmmaker Carol Kunnuk.

Carol Kunnuk, director, Ataguttaaluk— A Life to Live For (still), 2019. Photo: Nunavut Independent Television Network. Photographs courtesy Kelowna Art Gallery, Kelowna, BC.

“A Story in Three Parts” was guest curated by William Huffman, an accomplished art professional with a long-standing affiliation with the West Baffin Eskimo Cooperative, in Kinngait (Cape Dorset), Nunavut. It’s important to acknowledge that the Kelowna Art Gallery exhibition was built around a 2020 to 2022 touring exhibition titled “Kenojuak Ashevak, Life and Legacy,” organized by Dorset Fine Arts and accompanied by a catalogue with an excellent essay by Leslie Boyd. The KAG contracted Mr Huffman to expand the presentation, thus the inclusion of ink drawings by Pootoogook, the film production by Isuma and the aforementioned documentary footage, arriving at the exhibition, “A Story in Three Parts.”

Kenojuak was primarily represented by drawings in colour pencil and/or ink. The drawings featured subjects such as birds, fish, mammals and mystical figures whose contours were all defined by careful outlining, internal to which the artist placed colour and finely textured mark-making to simulate feathers, fish scales and fur. Although she is widely appreciated and discussed for her unique and often richly coloured palette, her achromatic and near-achromatic drawings often present a more rewarding graphic and aesthetic experience. By this I mean both in complexity of composition and intricacy in drawing execution. In a work such as Quivering Seagull, 2004, for example, she has described the bird’s bodily vibrations in a sequence of sharply pointed and slightly curved bold ink lines that backdrop the side-silhouetted bird. The repetitious pattern of lines features equally inventive pattern deviations that are found adjacent to the tail feathers and under the stomach area. The linear pattern design is formally connected to the drawing of the gull’s beak and the eye, and to the description of the webbed feet, exampling Kenojuak’s talent in integrating her pattern type and repetitions into her subject’s anatomies and appearance.

Kenojuak Ashevak, Between Friends, 2010, ink and coloured pencil on paper, 56 x 76 centimetres. Courtesy West Baffin Eskimo Cooperative.

Another case in point is the coloured pencil work titled Six-Part Harmony, 2011. Here the elaborate, elongated, abstract lozenge shapes that extend from the bird, fish and fox bodies not only establish the visual rhythm in the composition, they also serve to transform anatomical features of the depicted creatures, so the foxes have acquired multiple tails and grossly exaggerated claws, with each distortion formally linked to the dominant design element. This particular work, illustrational art by conservative definition, openly challenges the viewer to question prevailing opinions about illustrative arts and fine arts, of caricature and mimesis, of humour and storytelling, the role of the imagination, and their collective relationship to the representation of the real in the artist’s oeuvre. Kenojuak’s art is ontological, an art informed and inspired by a deep connection to the inhabitants of the Arctic, its vast space, intricacies of light, sound, movement, temperature, texture, colour and pattern, and their filtration into the sensorial conscious and subconscious identity of the self and artwork.

Sharni Pootoogook’s ink drawings, all 2001–02, all untitled and all from the collection of the West Baffin Eskimo Cooperative, also draw on the power of the imagination in the interpretive descriptions of observational and felt realities. In Pootoogook’s expressionistic work we can see a whimsical and occasionally satirical view of the real, as, for example, in the drawing that presents five male figures in a metaphorical tragi-comedic, semicircular balancing act, the lower three perched precariously on the crest of waves while somehow holding up the others. They appear to be priests, garmented in black uniforms and sporting white clerical collars. Their mouths are open as if in conversation, or engaged in song or prayer, or in pitiful cries for help. She has a decidedly edgy, even gothic sense of humour, which occasionally surfaces in her anatomical representations, such as certain seals might have eyes, others no eyes; three of the priests have four-fingered hands, the others no fingers or hands at all. Her artistic liberty and natural talent set her apart, and it is the ink drawings, perhaps even more than the prints, that deserve careful, critical study.

Sharni Pootoogook, Untitled, 2001, ink on paper, 51 x 66 centimetres. Courtesy West Baffin Eskimo Cooperative.

The artist’s drawing contours in this particular work, and others, evidence the importance of image making, but in comparison with Kenojuak, hers are more relaxed and frequently show line breaks and pronounced incidences of the artist’s hand in laying down the design. Most important here is the way Pootoogook “infills” the image outlines with varying degrees of attention to the solidity of tone, so at times we get rich blacks with a minimal degree of a paper/light factor, and at other times a much looser infill allowing the multiple strokes of the pen nib to be broken and illuminated by the sparkling white of the paper ground. The intriguing factural range of these drawings monopolizes graphic mark-making and the potential of dark vs light obtained in the relationships of medium and ground. What she achieves in these works, on an optical level certainly, is not unlike that of George Seurat’s much revered conté crayon on Ingres paper drawings from the 1880s.

Ataguttaaluk—A Life to Live For, a 37-minute Isuma production video, uses historical photographs, contemporary footage, Igloolik Elders’ verbal narration and re-enactments to narrate a sad yet oddly inspirational story of a woman who ate human flesh to fend off starvation, and who went on to become one of the most legendary residents of Igloolik. The story, set in the early 1900s, has been passed down through multi-generational oral traditions, acquiring an almost mythical quality in its reiterative representation of human suffering and endurance in the material and spiritual worlds. In an insightful and topical curatorial move, William Huffman has deployed this experimental documentary, and the “Inform & Consult” broadcast and complementary footage, as bookends for the presentation of the sublime artistry of drawings by Sharni Pootoogook and Kenojuak Ashevak. The “story in three parts” was read as an artistic portrayal of personal and cultural journeys into the past, present and future. ❚

“A Story in Three Parts” was exhibited at the Kelowna Art Gallery, Kelowna, from December 4, 2021, to March 27, 2022.

Gary Pearson is an artist and professor emeritus at UBC Okanagan, in Kelowna, BC.