February 24 to July 3, 2022
The exhibition presents the work of twenty-three artists from the Ashoona family, originally from Kinngait (Cape Dorset, Nunavut):
This Ashoona family exhibition is dedicated to the unique cultural and artistic heritage of one of the most prolific and recognized family’s of Inuit art. Pitseolak Ashoona emerged as one of the premier graphic artists from Kinngait (Cape Dorset, NU) but also as the catalyst for the family, influencing and motivating a vast body of work. Part of this exhibition is a homage to Pitseolak Ashoona in subject, composition, and style. At the heart of the exhibition is a vast diversity of mediums, projects, and works from the Ashoona family throughout the years. The family’s artistic production also presents a historic relationship reflected in La Guilde’s collection and as a venue for the sale of contemporary Inuit art. The exhibition is curated by one of the artists of the family, Goota Ashoona and marks important historical moments of the family work and their ongoing contemporary art production through the work of 23 members of the family.
Goota Ashoona: “I grew up in an Inuit art making home. My home, Cape Dorset on Baffin Island. Today I speak to that life–those experiences and memories, and so much since then. I speak of my family and about lives and contributions as Inuit artists–artists of great talent, acclaim, and achievement. Our family uses art to tell Inuit stories, today work surrounds me that celebrates my family and it is their Inuit art that tells our stories. All my parents' children wanted to do what mom and dad were doing on the land and as artists. Kids picking up dads cut-offs stone bits, sneaking away with his files and chisels and making little fish and birds. Sometimes by myself, sometimes with other family members. We were curious and wanted to try–and the more we tried, the more we found opportunities to play with the stone. The more I explored, the more I enjoyed carving stone and the more I wanted to continue. My learning was deepened immensely when I helped the women in my family finish, sand, and polish my father's sculptures. My fingers and eyes absorbed each of their shapes, cuts, limbs, balance, content, and my father's dedication to the expressiveness and detail of his work.”
Since La Guilde has played an instrumental role in the modern Inuit art movement and the family’s artistic careers as a commercial space for Inuit art, this exhibition celebrates the multigenerational family of Inuit art making. Many of the references or themes in the exhibition reflect trends in Inuit art history like animals, daily life, hunting, representations of women, and transformations. The truly wide variety of mediums and materials–like soapstone, whalebone, paper, and metal–demonstrates dynamic contemporary artists developing their own unique practice. This is a unique occasion to appreciate the rich work of the Ashoona family, who have been distinguished by the Order of Canada, Canadian Council for the Arts Molson Prize, and the National Aboriginal Achievement Award.
Kiugak Ashoona is revered by his daughter Goota Ashoona as a prolific and devoted carver. He played a prominent role in the modern story of Inuit art in Kinngait (Cape Dorset, NU) as a young man. Alongside his brother Qaqaq, Goota Ashoona’s uncle, the two men were accomplished sculptors and embedded within the ... mcommercial Inuit art movement. In 1959, Kiugak Ashoona and his brother in law, Eseevadluk Pootoogook travelled to Stratford (ON) for an exhibition and met the British royal family. Together they were two of the first artists to introduce Inuit art forms to the public. Kiugak’s sculptures from the 1960s to 1980s are found in numerous museum collections and reflect his ability to transcend the subjects of his work with an elevated presentation. Another aspect of his talent was the narrative and fine expressive elements of his work like the faces of his subjects.
Goota recalls her father’s love of carving and family photos of a happy, proud, confident man, often with his latest piece nearby. He was often personal with his carvings, talking to and with them as they emerged while his wife or daughters would sand and polish them infusing even more life into the work. Kiugak cradled and handled the works delicately as if they were alive to him. When preparing a work to be shipped out of Kinngait, Goota saw numerous times the parting moments, the look on her father’s face and a kiss farewell to the work. When talking of her father, Goota added: “Now as a mature artist I truly appreciate his story, his art, and how it has had such an impact and influence. The child of an artist has an interesting life, the children of a family of acclaimed and talented artists experience and draw sometimes upon the unimaginable. To carve beside my father over many years meant we enjoyed the moment and the work. As a family of artists, we found strength and affection as we worked the carving materials of the professional Inuit artist. I remember the first few times people compared my works to those of my father–it was a bit surprising. But when my father said the same and suggested more and better was before me, I felt comforted that what and who I was, was being seen by my father.”
GOOTA ASHOONA AND THE ASHOONA STUDIO
When reflecting on her life, Goota Ashoona tells: “We looked up to our older family members as role models, successful Inuit artists, and we set our eyes or hearts to the task before us, to do what they did and find purpose and meaning along the way. I learned the stories from my family, the older generations mostly, and saw how they brought the stories to life from the first touch to last in the materials they worked with. And that is how I commenced. From my father, I learned the mysterious nature of stone and from my mother, I learned how to master the needle, thread, scissors, fabrics, and skins, and how to tell stories on paper with pencils and ink. This was what it was like for me growing up. Years later, most often far from Cape Dorset, my career, my love of art would begin to evolve and improve with each ‘grown-up’ engagement. I have had many enriching experiences as an Inuit art maker, in the Northwest Territories, in Haida Gwaii, in Manitoba, on the road nationally and internationally, and amongst some of the loveliest people one could ever hope to meet in the course of a lifetime. Along the way we learn much, see much, and hear much.”
Goota Ashoona and Bob Kussy met in Yellowknife (NT) and he realized what a gifted carver she was when she made a hunting bow while camping. Bob was an English tutor at a correctional facility and saw other carvers but knew Goota was more talented. They founded the Ashoona Studio together when Goota was 27. It seemed out of place in Yellowknife amongst sports fields, a location selected for the enjoyment of their sons, Joe Jaw and Sam. The two of them learned to carve and sell their works to buyers in Ottawa (ON) and elsewhere. They networked the available galleries and resources in Yellowknife to move their art career forward along with lots of other encouragement. Because of the family links and the names of Kiugak Ashoona or Sorroseeleetu Pootoogook in the background, Goota was a popular artistic fixture. Together they have supported one another, both giving and receiving the care needed to be artists. Another supportive figure has been their son Joe Jaw who has helped with the studio and all the other family needs. Family is at the core of their practice and what is going on at the studio.
On this supportive family environment Goota reflected: “When my mother and my father didn’t finish their work, I was helping them finish the carving, helping, covering her drawing, and taking the colour pencil because we were rushing before the co-op closed. The fact that I started carving, it influenced my sons. It encouraged them to do the same.” The family carries the sculpting tradition forward, similar to hunting. Bob recalled that when Kiugak was still alive, the boys wanted to hunt and carve with their grandfather. They would help prepare for shows carrying boxes and other preparations. Joe Jaw was about ten when he hunted his first caribou, ”it was like a gift”, a tradition to share with the family and the community.
WOMEN OF THE FAMILY
Pitseoak Ashoona emerged as the matriarch of an art dynasty, being the only female artist in the family raised without a mother, aunt, or grandmother producing art. She established this tradition providing inspiration and a pathway for future generations of Ashoona women. Pitseolak Ashoona encouraged her female family members to take up drawing (or sculpture), and one by one they did. Being an artist provided flexibility to the rigorous daily demands of life in the North and raising a family. Each female Ashoona artist has spoken about what they saw and experienced around them in their life. These women have shared and continued to share their personal experiences as part of a larger contribution to the modern story of Inuit art-making.
Goota and her mother Sorroseeleetu Ashoona, are an example of this: “My mother was the best because she used to carry me with her until I was five, even in the camp. She was teaching me how to sew and how to prepare polar bear skin and fox skin, and how to cook in the country. She was drawing in Cape Dorset. She was trying anything. When she was drawing, I concentrated to see her at work. Her drawings were awesome to me. They were at the school’s library, I was six years old when I was told that it was her drawing, and I was amazed by them. That’s how I learned carving (the shapes and so on). The drawings of my mother were always moving. They are alive, and they are moving. I remember that I was living in the camp when my aunt Napachie Pootoogook started drawing, and when my mother and Mayoreak Ashoona were drawing.”
Although Goota cannot recall Sorroseeleetu working with some of the other women in the family like Napachie Pootoogook or Mayoreak Ashoona, she had an impact on all of the people around her. The women were amicable, shared meals, and ate seals together as part of the large art family. When Pitseolak Ashoona had to go to the shop, other family members would deliver her artwork to the co-operative to lend a hand. For more recent generations, family gatherings meant daughters could see each other drawing and work. It was an environment where women were encouraged to make art, they forged these careers together and brought success and achievement to their families.
MEN OF THE FAMILY
The Ashoona men are Pitseolak’s sons and their descendants. These boys grew into men with hunting and carving as dominant features of their lives. Most of Pitseolak Ashoona’s sons found themselves as artists producing vast bodies of work in paper, pencil, stone, walrus tusk, antlers, and more. Each of them played with different mediums and materials over the decades. The first generation of Ashoona men had been carving when the modern Inuit art movement was in its infancy. They all developed an artistic style that reflected their personality and their nature. Many of the sculptures made by these men are referenced as some of the most vibrant of the first quarter-century of Inuit art. Some of these works were reproduced in various popular mediums like gifts or postage stamps but also taken home to distinguished guests as gifts to Popes and various heads of state.
RELATIONS BETWEEN ARTISTS
Goota’s grandmother, Pitseolak encouraged Sorroseeleetu, and Napachie Pootoogook: “Go get a paper from the co-op and start drawing”. Daughters grew up watching female family members drawing, or helping by bringing finished works to the co-op. They were encouraged to pursue art and often found ways to work together. Goota Ashoona had encouraged Shuvinai Ashoona to draw. She thought that Shuvinai might find it hard to stay in the house. She was gifted at telling stories on paper in English, in impactful ways with little space. Drawing for these women was a way to earn a living with limited employment opportunities and support families with the help of the co-operatives. Early drawings sometimes paid nine dollars at a time. “All the works were paid a small price. That’s why I stopped selling my carvings for a while. I would continue to carve. Then, I met Bob, and I knew that I was safe financially, so I started to sell my work again. I remember that I was living in the camp when my aunt Napachie Pootoogook started drawing, and when my mother and Mayoreak were drawing.” Her husband, Bob Kussy shares that “every time Goota looks at a drawing, she feels the kinship there. She feels a big affection for them, these are strong connections.”
The Ashoona family history is intertwined with the birth of modern Inuit art punctuated by the involvement of James Houston, and the early death of Ashoona “the hunter”. Little is recorded in southern history about the man who bore the Ashoona name. Pitseolak and Ashoona knew each other as children in the semi-nomadic Baffin Island camps. After her father Ottochie died around 1920-21, her uncle Kavaavow arranged for the two to marry since Ashoona was respected as a skilled hunter. In a biography Pitseolak remembers:
“When Ashoona came to camp I didn’t know why he came. I didn’t know he came for me. I thought he’d just come for a visit—until he started to take me to the sledge. I got scared. I was crying and Ashoona was pushing and sometimes picking me up to try to put me on the [sledge].… The first time I was sleeping beside my husband his breath was so heavy, his skin so hard. But after I got used to my husband I was really happy; we had a good life together.” Christine Lalone, “Biography”, Pitseolak Ashoona: Life and Work (Art Canada Institute, 2015)
She recalled always being provided with furs to construct warm and beautiful clothing for her family. The two married in a ceremony in Kinngait (Cape Dorset, NU) in 1922 or 23. The couple moved camps up to ten times a year in the early days. In her biography, Pitseolak recalled long periods at distant, isolated camps like Netsilik where the family lived alone for a year even delivering her son Kumwartok with only her mother and husband’s help. Ashoona’s skilled knowledge of the land sometimes gained him employment as a guide, like for naturalist J. Dewey Soper searching for blue goose nests. Kiugak Ashoona recalled that his father may have worked at the weather station on Tujakjuak and helped with mapping at the start of WWII. Over their marriage, Pitseolak bore 17 children, but she would only raise six to adulthood with some being adopted out and many dying in their early years. Sometime in the early-mid 1940s, Ashoona died of an illness at camp alone or out hunting. Pitseolak moved permanently to Kinngait to be near family support having lost the primary hunter of the family. The impact on Pitseolak Ashoona and the fatherless children in a nomadic lifestyle was enormous with stories of hunger, dependence, coping, and survival. The grief and unanswered questions marked the family and have settled like a dark memory and experience for them. The absent figure of Ashoona impacted the lives of many and he lives on in the family’s proud name.
PITSEOLAK ASHOONA RESTING
La Guilde first received the miniature sculpture Pitseolak Ashoona Resting by Ning Ashoona for the gallery. It depicts Pitseolak Ashoona sitting on a bench
This piece attracted our team’s attention while preparing the exhibition for its subject matter. Following a discussion with the curator, Goota Ashoona and her husband, Bob Kussy, La Guilde's team discovered that this sculpture was actually a maquette for an impressive public art sculpture in Kinngait (Cape Dorset, NU). Under Goota and Bob's recommendation, La Guilde acquired the work for its permanent collection. We later learned that Kuzy Curley, in collaboration with Ning Ashoona and Kelly Ashoona, unveiled the monument of Pitseolak’s resting atop a hill overlooking Kinngait in July 2021. These beautiful objects, the monument and maquettes alike, celebrate Pitseolak Ashoona as an accomplished and foundational woman to Kinngait graphic arts. Both designs prominently feature the seated figure on a bench with a walking cane and eyeglasses. The iconic grandmother’s glasses have also been memorialized by Annie Pootoogook.
In 1980 as Inuit art continued to grow in public visibility, the Canada Bank Note Company finished a four year series of Inuit art inspired stamps. The series featured famed Inuit prints and sculptures as annual collections from 1977 to 1980. The Ashoona family was featured in the second collection and the last with Pitseolak Ashoona’s Woman Walking in 1978 and Kiugak Ashoona’s green Sednasculpture in 1980. The Pitseolak Ashoona Woman Walking stamp from the 1978 series was designed by Reinhard Derreth and features a woman with long braids, a blue amauti with a child in the hood, a pack on her back with kamik (boots) hanging while she holds a spear and bucket. The stamp was issued together with Joe Talirunili’s Migration as part of an Inuit Travel series. The other works included Aeroplane by Pudlo Pudlat and Dogsled by Abraham Kingmeatook.
The Sedna sculpture is part of La Guilde’s permanent collection and is featured in this exhibition celebrating the family. Its stamp design also done by Reinhard Derreth is almost filled edge to edge by the sculpture with a complimentary green serpentine background. The 1980 series also was also available as double stamps with Kiugak Ashoona’s Sedna and Kenojuak Ashevak’s Return of the Sun printed together while Simon Tookoome’s Shaman and Doris Hagiolok’s Bird Spirit paired as a double stamp. Inuit artworks have continued to be celebrated and circulated in various ways. National collections like these mobilize and make visible the cultural achievements of Inuit art production.
In 1993 three milestones were marked with a collection of four portrait stamps titled Prominent Canadian Women. The stamps marked the centennial of the National Office of the Young Women’s Christian Association (YWCA), the centennial of the National Council of Women in Canada (NCWC), and the 50th anniversary of the first federally appointed female judge in Canada. The series was designed by Heather J. Cooper and features intricate portrait frames and a shoulder profile of the women. Pitseolak Ashoona is among the company of outstanding women in Canadian history within the collection. The borders of these frames are decorated with art deco, organic, or geometric forms in complimentary green, pink, purple, blue, or red. Pitseolak Ashoona is pictured in a white coat with dark fur trim and red piping, simple black hair, and a distinguished smirk. The other featured women were Adelaide Sophia Hoodless (1857-1910) a family educator, social reformer Marie-Joséphine Gérin-Lajoie (1890-1971), and legal pioneer Helen Alice Kinnear (1894-1970). Pitseolak Ashoona’s inclusion was justified because of her prolific contribution to the art world and as a key figure in the early James Houston commercial Inuit art movement. Her children and grandchildren have continued her artistic legacy celebrated within collections like La Guilde collection and this exhibition.
BEGINNING OF THE INUIT ART MARKET
Although Inuit people have been making art in various forms since time immemorial, post-war Canada was a backdrop for the audience of their culture to expand. James Houston petitioned La Guilde–then known as The Canadian Handicrafts Guild–in Montreal to explore Northern Canada in search of artistic inspiration and art to bring back south. Pitseolak Ashoona, like many of the inhabitants of Kinngait (Cape Dorset, NU), was asked to put pen to paper and produce art by their new supporter Saumik, James Houston–meaning the left-handed one. What unfolded was the birth of the modern Inuit art market as artists documented their experiences and worldview, and translated these expressions into art forms like sculpture, print, and later drawing. What might have happened when Pitseolak Ashoona and her children first met James and Alma Houston? With the support and encouragement of the visitors, Pitseolak Ashoona and other Kinngarmiut (Kinngait residents) did the unimaginable by becoming career artists producing huge bodies of work. Inuit art is now a cornerstone to Canadian cultural identity both domestic and abroad. The success of the art form would be felt internationally and by the community and Pitseolak Ashoona back home.
The Ashoona family presents their carvings and prints as a presentation of personal experiences unique to each individual artist as well as common cultural themes. Some of these artworks are Inuit stories contemporary or mythic, and the family’s art has developed the ability to almost talk as an artwork, and speak to being Inuit. Many works from the family are masterful and technical explorations of personal perspectives and interpretations of Inuit narrative and reality.
LIFE AND ART: POST CAMP, HUNTING, CARVING, SURVIVAL
Everyone in the Ashoona family draws from their collective experiences as well as personal ones. These include times out on the land, the water, the snow, settlement life, and outpost camping. Goota Ashoona added: “We have a history on the land and within Inuit culture which remains essential and is intergenerational. We felt the draw of the ages and the land, of the lifestyle time and time again. We lived in Cape Dorset, and in our outpost camps on remote bays and inlets along the southern shores of Baffin Island. This was where we answered the call or pull of Inuit family life on the land. We were all there over many years–my grandma Pitseolak, her sons and daughter, their spouses, and families–all were finding unique personal experiences on the land. As children we loved it! It brought us together and helped us grow. We learned many lessons then that prepared us for today.” The experiences of living on the land include family life, hunting, fishing, boating, carving, sewing, childhood adventures, and occasionally tough times. From these moments at camp and on the land, great artworks emerged from the camps of Kiugak and Qaqaq Ashoona, little boys who emulated their father hunting in soapstone with a chisel, and files. For the older generations, experiencing camping made the transition to settlement life easier. Contemporary generations have been taught to survive a new way of life, with different values, skills, and applications for today.
Of her grandmother Pitseolak Ashoona, Goota remembers: “I go back to that (camping trips) sometimes when I think about my grandmother, what I can eat on the land. I ate fish in summertime and seal, anything that moved in the camp could be eaten! (laughter) I took it home and my mother took care of the cooking. In summertime, we could walk on the beach and get a lot of small fish and from the land, we would get caribou, geese, berries, and roots from the flowers. My grandmother taught me what plants to eat when I went for a walk and I had nothing with me.”
In 1959, Kiugak Ashoona and Eegeevudluk Pootoogook were invited down from Kinngait (Cape Dorset, NU), to southern Ontario as part of an exhibition of their artwork. At the Stratford Shakespeare Festival, they displayed their soapstone carvings to a large audience in the south for the first time. This exhibition was an early landmark for the export of Inuit art. Kiugak and Eegeevudluk even met Queen Elizabeth and Prince Phillip, presenting them with personalized gifts as part of their reception. The inclusion of the two artists also personalized their artwork, instead of being seen as anonymous, distant figures or cultures. The exhibition also included clothing, toys, domestic objects, and hunting tools alongside numerous soapstone carvings. The stone sculptures of the exhibition remain treasured cornerstones of Canadian and Inuit art collections. The two men are Goota Ashoona’s father and uncle, part of the Pitseolak Ashoona tree and key links in the family’s artistic legacy.