Kenojuak Ashevak

1927Ikirasaq, Canada | 2013Kinngait, Canada
Kenojuak Ashevak — AWARE Women artists / Femmes artistes

Portrait of Kenojuak Ashevak, 1997 – Source : Wikimedia Commons

Inuk textile, print, soapstone-carving and stained-glass artist.

Kenojuak Ashevak was born at her family camp in Ikirasaq on the west coast of Qikiqtaaluk (Baffin Island) in 1927, in what is now Arctic Canada. Her Inuit family provided all that was needed in life by hunting land and sea animals, building their own housing, and raising and educating their own children as they had for millennia. Her circle of mentors, which included her parents, imparted everything from perfect-by-necessity sewing skills to carving one’s own tools, spiritual training and an aesthetic sense for storytelling. This training resulted in Kenojuak becoming one of Canada’s most prominent artists of the 20th century who, though she was a monolingual Inuktitut speaker, travelled the world sharing the wealth of her creativity.

Kenojuak was matriarch of an Inuit art movement that has been thriving in Kinngait, Canada since the early 1950s. She was the first Inuk woman from Kinngait to become a professional artist. One of the founders of the West Baffin Eskimo Cooperative, the printmaking studios of which later became Kinngait Studios, Kenojuak’s first print, titled Rabbit Eating Seaweed, was produced in 1958. In the years that followed Kenojuak produced thousands of drawings, prints, etchings and stone-cut prints that are now part of major private and public collections around the world. She had some hundred solo and group exhibitions around the world. The National Gallery of Canada, the Art Gallery of Ontario, the Burnaby Art Gallery, University of Toronto, Metropolitan Museum of Art, Brooklyn Museum, Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian, and Tate Gallery, amongst many others, boast Kenojuak pieces in their collections. Her work has become instantly recognisable as part of Canadian iconography, having been used on stamps, coins and paper currency, in murals such as for the Osaka World’s Fair (1970) and Iqaluit International Airport (2014). The Enchanted Owl is a notable print from 1960 that has been used and seen widely.

Kenojuak received two honorary doctorates, from Queen’s University and the University of Toronto. She was a member of the Order of Canada and the Order of Nunavut. She was inducted into Canada’s Walk of Fame and was also a recipient of the Governor General’s Award in Visual and Media Arts. Her gift to Canadian visual culture as it was evolving its contemporary form is immense – her many awards allowed Canadian institutions to feel a closer connection to Indigenous sensibilities.

An Inuk woman who experienced unfathomable degrees of colonial violence, having lost her father to religious strife, being forcibly removed for extremely long periods of time from her children, including a newborn, and having lost many children and grandchildren and a spouse to preventable disease, Kenojuak was world renowned for her love of family, peace, happiness and creativity as well as her exemplary Inuk humility as a human in awe of the immensity of the universe. Kenojuak passed away in her modest home, surrounded by family in Kinngait in 2013.

Laakkuluk Williamson Bathory

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

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