Boutilier, Alicia, Bruce, Tobi, The Artist Herself: Self-portraits by Canadian Historical Women Artists, exh. cat., Agnes Etherington Art Centre, Queen’s University, Kingston, ON, [May 2 – August 9, 2015] ; Art Gallery of Greater Victoria, Victoria, BC, [October 2, 2015 – January 3, 2016] ; Kelowna Art Gallery, Kelowna, BC, [January 23 – April 3, 2016] ; Art Gallery of Hamilton, Hamilton, ON, [May 28 – September 11, 2016], Kingston, Agnes Etherington Art Centre ; Hamilton, Art Gallery of Hamilton, 2015→
Blodgett, Jean, Bouchard, Marie, Jessie Oonark, a Retrospective, exh. cat., the Winnipeg Art Gallery. Inuit Art Centre, Winnipeg [November 16, 1986 – February 15, 1987], Winnipeg, Winnipeg Art Gallery, 1986
Double vision: Jessie Oonark, Janet Kigusiuq, and Victoria Mamnguqsualuk,Textile museum of Canada, Toronto, March 9, 2022 – March 31, 2023→
Power of Thought: The Art of Jessie Oonark, the Marsh Art Gallery, University of Richmond Museums, Richmond, February 8 – May 30, 2004
Born near the Haningayok (Back River), Nunavut, Jessie Oonark, OC, spent the vast majority of her life living a traditional, semi-nomadic way in seasonal camps with her family. She settled in Qamani’tuaq (Baker Lake), Nunavut, in the 1950s where she began her artmaking practice. Having spent her adult life as a seamstress creating clothing from sealskin and caribou, her skills translated easily into the wall hangings for which she became famous. She is also widely known for her prints and drawings, and was the first artist not from Cape Dorset to be included in a Cape Dorset print release in 1960 and 1961.
J. Oonark’s distinctive style is hallmarked by her use of symmetry and bold colour, often centred on the lives and stories of Inuit women. Her 1970 print Woman was selected as the cover image for the inaugural Baker Lake Print Collection that year; in it, the impressive figure of a woman in a yellow parka with colourful accents and fringe gazes from the page, as if confronting the viewer. J. Oonark’s work was frequently inspired by and features the distinctive lines and construction of garments from her region.
Her compositions also frequently border on the monumental, such as her drawing When the Days are Long and the Sun Shines into the Night (1966-1969), which at 126.8 x 317.8 cm is a spectacular celebration of Inuit life during the summer solstice. The scene is vibrant and joyous, with families gathering to hunt, fish, play and generally enjoy the warmer days with one another. This same spirit is also captured in her wall hangings made of colour-blocked felt and duffel, often accented and appliqued with herringbone-stitched embroidery thread.
J. Oonark was recognised and celebrated during her lifetime and was elected to the Royal Academy of Arts in 1975, prior to being named an Officer of the Order of Canada in 1984. She also received several high-profile commissions, such as a wall hanging commission for the Legislative Assembly of the Northwest Territories in 1969 and another for the lobby of the National Arts Centre in Ottawa, Ontario in 1973. One of her wall hangings was presented as a gift to Queen Elizabeth II during a royal tour that same year. Her eight children also maintained her legacy of artmaking: several of them have become well-known artists in their own right, including William Noah, Janet Kigusiuq and Victoria Mamnguqsualuk.
In 1992, seven years after her passing, the Jessie Oonark Center was opened in Qamani’tuaq. It includes workspaces for artists and artisans, as well as a shop that sells local artwork and textiles.
A biography produced as part of the “AWARE x Canada” research programme, in partnership with the UQAM Gallery, with the support of the Canadian Cultural Centre – Paris© Archives of Women Artists, Research and Exhibitions
Jessie Oonark, Sans titre (Deux femmes et un homme avec seaux et écope), vers 1966–69, felt pen and graphite on wove paper, prined in turquoise, 29 x 45.7 cm, Musée des beaux-arts du Canada Ottawa, Estate of Jessie Oonark
Jessie Oonark, Days are Long and the Sun Shines into the Night, 1966-69, felt pen and graphite on wove paper, 126.8 x 317.8 cm, Musée des beaux-arts du Canada, Ottawa, © photo: Public Trustee for Nunavut, Estate of Jessie Oonark
Jessie Oonark, Proud Fisherman, 1969, stonecut, stencil, 85.4 x 62.1 cm, Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, Public Trustee of Nunavut, Estate of Jessie Oonark
Jessie Oonark, The People Within, 1970, stonecut in red and black on wove paper, 30 x 48.9 cm, Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, Public Trustee of Nunavut, Estate of Jessie Oonark
Jessie Oonark, Spring Break-up II, 1970, stonecut stencil, 54.8 x 79 cm, Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, Public Trustee of Nunavut, Estate of Jessie Oonark
Jessie Oonark, The Great Hunter, 1975, silkscreen on paper, 24 ½ x 33 in., 62,2 x 83,3 cm, Hood Museum of Art, Dartmouth College Public Trustee for Nunavut, estate of Jessie Oonark
Jessie Oonark, Untitled, 1977, embroidery and appliqué on felt, Public Trustee for Nunavut, estate of Jessie Oonark
Jessie Oonark, Magic Circle, 1971, stonecut stencil, 78.9 x 54.7 cm, Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, Public Trustee of Nunavut, Estate of Jessie Oonark