In this time, when we cannot easily travel, Shuvinai Ashoona’s exhibit at the Yukon Arts Centre offers to take you to imagined worlds you never knew existed. The Yukon Arts Centre Gallery is now open for drop-in visitors from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Monday to Friday. You can fill out a simple contact tracing form either online, before you get there, or on a tablet on the way in. When I visited on a Friday, I was the only one in the gallery for most of the time I was there.
It’s more than worth the trip up the hill, because it’s a trip that will take you far beyond the YAC. Ashoona works in the Kinngait Studios, part of the Western Baffin Eskimo Co-operative, which recently celebrated 60 years of operations. Kinngait was formerly known as Cape Dorset, a mountainous island just off the south eastern coast of Baffin Island, on the way into Hudson Bay. Co-operatives in the Eastern Arctic have played important roles in the economic lives of Inuit people. Artists can work there and access printmaking tools and materials. The co-operative brings in food and gasoline at better prices. It also sells the artists’ work. The drawings at YAC were created by Ashoona as she listened to older women artists working and talking all around her (as a sidenote, you can see an exhibition drawn from the life work of one of these elder artists, Kenojuak Ahsevak, at the ODD Gallery in Dawson City until Dec. 10).
You seldom see a drawing done in coloured pencils and Pilot fineliner on a surface measuring five feet. Rendered at this scale, individual pencil strokes are visible, building up large areas of colour. It’s clear how much time is committed to each work, many of which are untitled. There’s a vulnerability and intimacy that brings you closer to the pieces. I often found myself taking off my glasses so my middle-aged eyes could make out the details that drew me in.
In Ashoona’s Sinking Titanic, the enormous side of the ship steepens, covered with almost abstract circles and rectangles, a geometric pattern that expresses the power of the boat’s enormity. People fall off the side, arms spread, some in tucked position. Most of them miss the lifeboats.
At about eye level, the band plays on—a tiny band, making reference to the one that famously played as the Titanic sank. Unlike in 1912 though, this band includes guitars plugged into enormous amps, as well as a fiddle player. And if you peek at the bottom right hand corner, you see two people calmly untying their boats. They wear brimmed caps. They remind me of boat pilots I have seen in Moosenee or Tuktoyaktuk. I imagine them as Inuk. The capsizing of the Titanic doesn’t matter to them. They have skills and tools and they can handle it.
Many of the other works include tentacled monsters, with more than eight tentacles above and human or furry legs below. They also play with scale. Smaller monsters gambol at the feet of large ones. People with yellow hair take their pictures while a furry foot steps on their heads. Spoons turn into fish, knives and forks into axes and rifles. Fish and animals encircle globes of green earth and blue water. These globes crowd the streets of Kinngait in a drawing that turns a detailed gaze on the buildings from above. This is more than a map. It’s a bewildering multiplicity of worlds. But even the person screaming between the monsters seems calm. Images of women in childbirth, birthing worlds, or monsters, or humans with large genitals delineate intimate relationships in this space of many worlds. Hands grasp each other, or tentacles. Ashoona’s understated and utterly committed use of coloured pencils expresses tactile tales.
Ashoona’s work has been increasingly celebrated in international contemporary art circles, featured at large exhibitions in the United States. I remember seeing her drawings in the Oh Canada show at MASS MoCA in Massachusetts and in Santa Fe, New Mexico. I remember encountering it among the soapstone carvings in the Musée des Beaux Arts in Montreal. It always reassures me that I don’t completely understand what’s going on.
This exhibition was curated and is being toured by the Power Plant Contemporary Art Gallery in Toronto. Because we have the Yukon Arts Centre with its high-quality exhibiting facilities, ours is the only gallery north of 60 where this touring exhibition can be seen. Her works exist in their own right. I have tried here, but do not trust my translations. Go see them.