Shuvinai Ashoona's printed works reveal an extraordinary range of vision


Shuvinai Ashoona: The Printed Works
At Marion Scott Gallery from September 8 to 29

When I first encountered Shuvinai Ashoona’s drawings in 2007, I was knocked out by the way this middle-aged Inuit artist could slide so readily from closely observed depictions of northern life and landscape to vividly rendered scenes of the fantastical, the monstrous, and the strange. The Marion Scott Gallery survey of her printed works, from little black-and-white etchings created in 1997 to recent large-scale, vividly coloured lithographs and stonecuts, reveals the same extraordinary range of vision.

Born in Cape Dorset on the southern tip of Baffin Island, Ashoona comes from a family in which art-making seems to be both a genetic prerogative and a social inevitability. (This is not entirely surprising, given that carving and printmaking are economic mainstays of her community.) Her grandmother was the famed graphic artist Pitseolak Ashoona; her father is the accomplished carver Kiugak (sometimes spelled Kiawak) Ashoona; and her mother is also a respected graphic artist, Sorosilooto Ashoona. Her cousin is Annie Pootoogook, the Sobey award–winning creator of tough, unsentimental drawings of domestic abuse and alcoholism. Still, Shuvinai Ashoona’s imagery stands apart. Her vision, inflected by her mental illness and complicated past, is that of an outsider.

The prints on view demonstrate her experience of time spent in hunting camps “on the land” and winters endured in prefab houses in Cape Dorset. They also show the impact of Inuit tales of human-animal transformation, Christian legends of angels and martyrs, and many aspects of North American pop culture, from comic books to playing cards to the portraits found on coins. According to Marion Scott Gallery’s Robert Kardosh, Ashoona also has a special fondness for horror movies. They seem to speak to some darkness within her—seen, for instance, in the huge spiders and tiny ghouls crawling all over the fair-skinned subject of Exotic Woman.

Even more frightening is her most famous print, Scary Dream. This 2006 litho features two overlapping green monsters with horns, fins, spikes, and ravening, fang-filled mouths. The foreground monster clutches a small, parka-clad person in its blood-red claws: this hapless, childlike human being, little pink tongue protruding, seems too stunned, too powerless to attempt escape. It’s like a trauma victim’s recurring nightmare.

Eggs are a notable motif in Ashoona’s work, represented in clusters on grassy nests (Quilt of Dreams); broken open and emitting a phantasmagoric light (Hatched); or standing upright against a blank ground and decorated with dozens upon dozens of tiny knives, axes, and ulus (Egg). In some instances, eggs are depicted as a natural part of the northern environment. In others, they are oddly and inexplicably inserted into a private narrative, part of Ashoona’s mysterious vocabulary of form.

A number of images are rendered from above, suggestive of ecstatic visions and astral projection, but also disconcerting in the way they abolish the horizon line. Aerial views of Cape Dorset include Angel in Town, an etching with aquatint in which a tall, angelic figure with big, white wings and a beatific expression walks (in sandals) among raised, prefab houses. In this miraculous scene, the little tracks of mere mortals are strewn like toy necklaces across the snow and the angel’s glow disperses the winter darkness—if only for a moment.

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