The Inuit artist Pitseolak Ashoona was born in a skin tent between 1904 and 1908 while her family was making a spring trek from Salluit, in the Nunavik region of Arctic Québec, to the south coast of Baffin Island (Qikiqtaaluk), during an era when Europeans still had relatively little impact on the Far North and when the Inuit still lived on the land as semi-nomadic subsistence hunters and trappers. After her father died in the early 1920s, she married Ashoona, an accomplished hunter, and continued to live a traditional life, tending to the needs of her husband and children and making the parkas, footwear and shelters that are indispensable to survival in the Arctic. It was not until long after the death of her husband that, living in the relatively new settled community of Cape Dorset (Kinngait), Pitseolak got involved with the arts and crafts program spearheaded by James and Alma Houston. Pitseolak Ashoona was one of the first generation of accomplished, full-time Inuit artists, and her work harkens back to the life and legends she grew up with. Innukshuk Builders (1968), for instance, shows three men in profile building an innukshuk, or stone marker, with gulls swirling around them. The bright pen on paper drawing Summer Camp Scene (1974) shows a family relaxing around their tent, the children at play, while travellers approach from the hills behind. While Pitseolak’s acclaimed work provides a window into the now largely vanished traditional Inuit life, the art of her accomplished granddaughters, Annie Pootoogook and Shuvinai Ashoona, is rooted in the realities of contemporary Inuit life.
Annie Pootoogook’s drawings depict ordinary, day-to-day life in the Arctic, including its darker aspects — alienation, depression and addiction — which she knows well. The Homecoming (2006), for instance, features a large, multigenerational family, including old women and swaddled infants, dressed for winter and waiting in what looks like an empty bus station, with trucks visible in the snowy landscape outside the window. Memory of My Life Breaking Bottles (2001–02), on the other hand, has a stark figure smashing bottles against the wall of a house. The rage in Memory of My Life Breaking Bottles is rooted in frustration with her struggle with alcoholism and in a despairing sense of helplessness and purposelessness.
Shuvinai Ashoona’s work, by contrast, shifts between intricate, nearly abstract Arctic landscapes, surreal versions of contemporary life, and phantasmagorical mythologies — often all at the same time. In Untitled (Angel Bringing Tools) (2006–07), a yellow, winged figure holding a set of traditional Inuit tools stands in the foreground, and on a rock in the background is an eagle with outstretched wings and a white owl. The soft, ghostly Untitled (End of Worlds) (2011) portrays a small coffin with a body visible inside. The coffin is rolling on wheels, which are globes of different worlds, along the ocean floor, fish swimming above it. In an indication of the degree to which the younger generations of Inuit artists are now part of the broader Canadian and international art worlds, Ashoona has also undertaken joint exhibits and collaborative works with Toronto-based artist Shary Boyle. The elaborate and amusingly titled InaGodadavida (2015) — the title alludes to the 1968 cult acid rock song by Iron Butterfly — combines both Ashoona’s and Boyle’s taste for the fantastic and psychedelic: there is a floating octopus, a dark river, a red planet, a starry sky, and a huge woman with the dark crown of a baby’s head emerging from between her legs. Ashoona’s work is neither nostalgic nor despairing; it suggests that the powerful, shamanic worldview of the Inuit has a place in 21st century life.