An inside look at the AGO’s largest showcase of Inuit art
Everything is connected in Tunirrusiangit: Kenojuak Ashevak and Tim Pitsiulak, the first show of its kind in the Art Gallery of Ontario’s main exhibition space. Works from acclaimed modern Inuit painter Kenojuak Ashevak (1927-2013) hang alongside similarly themed pieces by her nephew Timootee Pitsiulak (1967-2016) to highlight an environment where humans, animals, the land and objects are part of the same continuum.
Tunirrusiangit runs until August 12. We asked Anna Hudson, one of the curators, to discuss some of her favourite pieces.
The Woman Who Lives in the Sun
Ashevak’s art creates a touching, whimsical portrait of Canada’s arctic. This early painting offers an introduction to her worldview. “It’s a fascinating work in context,” says Hudson. “It says everything about the connection that Inuit traditionally felt between themselves and their homelands. There’s that sense of interconnectedness where she could imagine a self-portrait of herself as the sun.”
The arctic char (a staple food in northern parts of Canada) is the vibrantly coloured star of this later piece, which depicts how Ashevak’s style evolved throughout her career. “You can see that difference—I would say it has a more refined sense of design,” says Hudson. But Ashevak’s philosophy remains consistent. “This fish and its environment become all one design.”
Pitsiulak’s art captures an appreciation for design—even in an enormous drill that may not bode well for the future of the environment. “He sees design in nature, and he sees it in machinery as well,” says Hudson. This massive work measuring nearly nine feet in length also sees Pitsiulak experimenting with scale. “Canadrill is monumental in size, just as the machine itself is monumental when you encounter it in the communities,” says Hudson.
Canada’s northern communities can seem impossibly remote, but technology is helping to bridge the gap. “If you go into one of these houses [in Canada’s northern communities], you’ll see the same sights as you would in any house in Toronto: kids on their iPads,” says Hudson. “[This piece] is a comment on the shared reality of the technology of computers and the internet.” Pitsiulak pairs these modern technologies with traditional Inuit thought. “The child is directly plugged in—the wire goes into his head. It says something about the idea that we’re all part of this energy, we’re connected,” says Hudson.
Pitsiulak puts both his philosophy and his wit on display by depicting his GoPro camera lurking near two mighty walruses. “He says, ‘I’m an artist, I’m a hunter and I’m a man of the 21st century… so I have my GoPro,’” says Hudson.
Man Raised by Two Orphan Cubs
There is no dichotomy between man and animal in Pitsiulak’s work. This pencil drawing shows a tender relationship between a human and two bears, raising the question of “who raised whom?” “The relationship with the polar bears in many cultures is the most important because they’re animals at the top of the food chain,” says Hudson. “In many communities, orphan cubs would be raised by people. It isn’t an antagonistic relationship with the polar bears, but rather a sense that we share this place.”
Pitsiulak experiments with colour and shape to capture a component of his deep relationship with Northern Canada. “This polar bear in black seawater captures perfectly how you would see his body: what is that colour, what is the effect,” says Hudson. “It’s the opposite of when you’d see a polar bear in the snow from a distance. In the water it’s white-on-black, but in the snow it’s black-on-white, because what you see is the shadow of the bear against the snow. You see the animal in a different way.”