Kenojuak Ashevak (1927 – 2013) is a Canadian Inuit artist who practices drawing, printmaking and sculpture. She is known in particular for her depictions of stylized birds.
A young orphan
Daughter of Silaqqi and Ushuakjuk, a respected shaman, Kenojuak Ashevak was born on October 3, 1927 in an igloo at an Inuit camp in Ikirasaq, on the south coast of Baffin Island, in the Arctic Archipelago of Canada. His name comes from that of his deceased maternal grandfather; a tradition which means that the love and respect granted to the deceased are now transferred to the little girl. She has a brother and a sister.
Kenojuak was born and grew up at a time when the status of the Inuit – then called “Eskimos”, an exonym now considered insulting – was fiercely debated in the House of Commons of Canada. In particular, it is a question of determining whether or not the Inuit are citizens of Canada, and whether they are not included in the Indian Act (the “Indians” Act); federal and provincial governments pass the buck to each other so they don't have to bear the blame. Although they do not have “Indian” status, the Inuit, like them, experience practices of forced sedentarization, displacement and cultural assimilation.
Kenojuak loses his father very young. Ushuakjuk, whom she remembers as a good, benevolent and learned man, able to predict the weather and good hunting seasons, comes into conflict with converted Christians. The little girl was only six years old when her father was assassinated by enemies in 1933 in a hunting camp. After his death, Kenojuak, his mother, and siblings moved in with Silaqqi's mother, Koweesa. This one transmits to her granddaughter traditional know-how, in particular the preparation of seal skins for the trade and the realization of waterproof clothing.
When Kenojuak Ashevak turned 19, her mother and stepfather, Takpaugni, arranged for her to marry an Inuit hunter four years her senior, Johnniebo Ashevak. Kenojuak first tries to resist this forced marriage; she testifies that, at first, she threw stones at him when he approached her. Thereafter, she will end up loving him for his kindness, his gentleness and his interest in art; the couple would have eleven children – Kenojuak would adopt five others, a traditional Inuit practice – many of whom would die in childhood. With her husband, she will collaborate on many artistic projects.
In 1950, a public health nurse arrived in the village of Kenojuak and examined the population, particularly for tuberculosis. Kenojuak's test being positive, she was sent against her will to a hospital in Quebec, where she was kept for three years, from 1952 to 1955. She had then just given birth to a child, from whom she was forcibly separated and which is entrusted to a neighboring family. Several of her children died while she was held in hospital. There, Kenojuak meets Harold Pfeiffer, who teaches the art to patients to help them pass the time and earn some money.
When she finally returns home, Kenojuak continues to train in art, selling sealskin dolls and crafts, then engraving, sculpting and drawing; Johnniebo experiments with art too. Kenojuak works with graphite, colored pencils, markers, sometimes watercolor or acrylic. In 1958, his first etching, Rabbit Eating Seaweed, is made from a design she created for a sealskin bag. The following year, she and other Inuit from Cape Dorset founded the West Baffin Eskimo Cooperative , a workshop for Inuit artists.
Kenojuak Ashevak quickly became successful, with his sense of design and the very personal style of his creations, and his drawings were presented in exhibitions of Inuit artists. In 1963, she was the subject of the documentary “Eskimo Artist:Kenojuak” , produced by the National Film Board of Canada, which is as interested in his art as he is in the traditional way of life of his family. The money earned from the film enables Johnniebo to purchase a canoe, become an independent hunter, and better support the family and children. Johnniebo died in 1972 and Kenojuak remarried Etyguyakjua Pee. After the death of her second husband in 1977, she remarried Joanassie Igiu.
In 1970, the Canada Post placed the engraving The Enchanted Owl of Kenojuak, made in 1960, on a stamp. In 1974, she was elected a member of the Royal Canadian Academy of Arts. She produced various designs for stamps and coins, in particular to celebrate the creation of Nunavut (meaning "our land" in Inuktitut), Canada's third federal territory created in 1999. In 2004, she created the first stained glass window with an Inuit design for the John Bell Chapel in Oakville.
Kenojuak Ashevak died on January 8, 2013 in Cape Dorset, Nunavut, at the age of 85.