A new show has just opened at the Art Gallery of Ontario that is likely to travel across Canada. The title is TUNIRRUSIANGIT: KENOJUAK ASHEVAK and TIM PITSIULAK. I rushed to see the advance Members Opening last week, because I am a worshipful admirer of Kenojuak……and I KNEW HER, AND ONCE GOT TO SEE HER AT WORK.
The story begins, like all of my Arctic stories, with my friend James Houston. After he came home from the War (and interesting times studying art in Paris, until his Toronto mother got suspicious) he made a living as an artist in rural Quebec, his deliveries handled by a local kid named Jean Chretien. He was roaming around Moose Factory on a sketching trip when an emergency medical flight took him north. He was astonished to find that his new Inuit friends in Inukjuak, on the east side of Hudson’s Bay, were casually producing excellent soapstone carvings. He took a sack-full south to Montreal, where the art world snapped them up.
Soon James was back in Baffin Island, officially travelling to spread the message that being an artist could provide a good living to Inuit hunters and their families.
James was an astounding success in this art-missionary role, attracting dozens of fine artists to the new trade. He even created the Cape Dorset Co-op, in Kingait, and encouraged the artists there to branch out into print-making. One American authority even said: “No James Houston, no Inuit art.”
He stayed in the Arctic until 1962, raising a family there. His tales of life in the Old North (travelling by dog-team, living in igloos, eating raw seal meat) were so fascinating that I persuaded him to put them down for me in a book for M&S..
You’ll find my account of James Houston’s remarkable life (perhaps it should be “lives”) in the chapter about him in my book, STORIES ABOUT STORYTELLERS. Then, in his own classic memoir of the old days in the North, CONFESSIONS OF AN IGLOO DWELLER, you’ll find out how he discovered one of Canada’s greatest artists, Kenojuak.
The chapter is entitled, “Rabbit Eating Seaweed”.
“The old trap boat came in at low tide and touched Kingait’s summer beach, a vast, dark stretch strewn with slippery, skull-sized rocks woven over in places by long fronds of seaweed. I saw Kenojuak climb out and help several of her younger children down. She had that familiar bump of another infant in the back of her parka. Two of her older children followed her out of the boat….
I continued along the beach toward Kenoujuak, a bright-eyed, cheerful woman whom I had always liked. She seemed remarkably young and healthy with a great deal of bounce considering that at that time she had already borne eight children – she was to have sixteen in all.
“Kunoipiit?” she called in greeting.
I noticed that she was carrying a sealskin bag on her shoulder. It was not unlike other bags I had seen Inuit carrying, but hers had something on it. I asked Kenojuak to show me. The bag had a dark, scraped outer sealskin image carefully cut and sinew-sewn onto the bag itself which was sealskin reversed, the inside being light tan in colour.
“What is this?” I asked, listening carefully to hear her answer.
“Okalik isumalook kikkoyuk memuktualuk. Rabbit thinking of eating seaweed,” she said in a way that she knew I would understand.
Kenojuak went out into the tide and showed me one particular kind of seaweed. “ Mumungitok! Not good eating. Here, this kind, “ she said and gathered some. “Take this with you to Amakotak. Get her to cook it for you. It’s good. Rabbits come down to the shore to eat it.”
I wasn’t as interested in the seaweed as I was the startling image on her work bag. Why had she gone to that trouble?”
(And here, having raised the basic question about what drives any artist, Jim Houston inserts his own expert sketch of the “Rabbit Eating Seaweed bag”). The text continues:
“After Kenojuak and her family had set up their summer tent, we all went a few nights later to a large dance. It was one of their typical mid-summer pleasures where the families ate, then slept and rose refreshed and ready to start the dancing at about 11p.m., and could carry on until they tired, when the morning sun came up again.
I purposely took a pencil and two rolled sheets of paper to the dance and gave them to Kenojuak, asking her to make a drawing of her rabbit eating seaweed. She stuck the paper in her parka hood, then gave the parka and her current infant to an elder daughter when she heard the button accordion start to wheeze, then play. She leapt into the local version of a wild, Scottish whalers’ reel.
A few days later, when everyone had recovered from the muscular activities inherent in these dances, Kenojuak came to me with both sheets of paper I had given her. They were covered with pencil drawings of very different subjects. These were rolled for protection in the very piece of sealskin from which she had cut her rabbit eating seaweed….”
Kenojuak’s artistic journey had begun. It was to take her to world fame, as she became a Companion of the Order of Canada, and her 1960 print “The Enchanted Owl” became an official Canadian stamp. Now her works appear in art galleries around the world.
She is a superb artist, so this joint show with her young relative Tim Pitsiulak (a fine artist, gone before his time) is well worth seeing. You can wander the A.G.O. rooms enjoying one superb print after another.
The show itself, however, is far from perfect. It is resolutely bilingual, in English and Inuktitut. Any French-speaking visitor seeking a text to read is out of luck. In awkward English the organizers boast that the show was organized by “a curatorial team comprising of (sic) Inuit artists and creators”. That’s fine. But I found the information attached to the exhibits rarely helpful, when I was keen to learn more. In fact, the show has the sense of being “over-curated”, with the partners apparently all too aware that they are part of “ a brave new kind of curatorial partnership”.
Usually this doesn’t matter. But in the case of Laakuluk Williamson Bathory, it allows her to take over the start of the exhibition with her “Greenlandic” oratory and hand-waving performance as her filmed self misleads the entering public with nonsense. If you think I’m being unfair, go back and watch her earnestly inform you that there was no Canadian Art before 1960.
But the excellence of the art overcomes these curatorial annoyances. It’s a fine show, and I hope you’ll get to see it.
So, you wonder, how did I get to know Kenojuak?
After James Houston died I spoke at the funeral his wife, Alice, organized in Connecticut, near his Stonington home. There his ashes were scattered. Then Mathew Swan of Adventure Canada had the brilliant idea of organising an Arctic Cruise in Jim Houston’s wake. Jim’s son John suggested that I should be added to the tour, to speak on board as part of the crew. I would travel along with others excited to make the voyage in Jim’s honour, and to scatter his remaining ashes at a cliff outside Cape Dorset.
Kenoujuak was one of these honoured guests.
As Staff we both wore our Adventure Canada name-badges. We mingled all the time, on board or ashore. Her English was a thousand times better than my Inuktitut, but conversation was not easy. She was always cheerful (“an elfin sprite” someone once called her) although her years and her life (sixteen children!) meant that climbing out of boats or up rough slopes was a slow business, and I was among those companions whose arm she was glad to take. We became friends.
Three specific memories.
First, when we reached the Cape Dorset Art co-op at the end of the cruise Kenoujuak had been kept away from her art for several days. So she came bustling in eagerly to the desk where a sheet of paper awaited her. She tore off her coat, grabbed a pen with her left hand, and began to draw in quick, confident sweeps, as I stood gaping behind her. James Houston once asked her how she could draw so fast, and she told him that she “was just following a little blue line”, ahead of her pen. The magical blue line was apparently there, that day in Cape Dorset.
Second, when we trailed to the base of a cliff outside Cape Dorset, Kenoujuak stood proudly among an array of fine Inuit artists, all there to pay tribute to James Houston, their old friend known as Saumi, the Left-Handed One. She played a major part in scattering the ashes, while Jim’s young grandson, Dorset, played nearby, creating a little inukshuk.
Finally, on the last day of the cruise, Kenoujuak and I were in a little group relaxing before we went ashore, in my case to fly south. Both of us were wearing our Adventure Canada name-badges. I pointed to mine, and hers, and suggested that we should make a swap. She laughed happily at the idea, and the exchange was made. I suspect that the “Doug Gibson” badge did not last long in her possession, but I was fiercely proud of her tag. It was like having a calling card from Monet, or Picasso. And when Kenoujuak passed away I cradled her card with thoughtful affection, remembering happy times.
A sad ending to this story. I made a point of showing the historic badge to the friends who visited our house, encouraging them to hold it in their hands. At some point the badge stuck to the fingers of one visitor, and it disappeared, never to return. So far…..
Finally, about the seaweed that Kenoujuak gave to James, whose wife, Allie, cooked it as she had suggested. “It had gone into the water first as an unattractive rusty brown and had emerged on the second blanching as a glorious shamrock green. It turned out to be the only Arctic vegetable we ever knew, and it was delicious!”