A Story in Three Parts presents Kenojuak Ashevak’s drawings and prints (Life and Legacy, 1998–2013), Sharni Pootoogook’s works on paper (Creatures, Shadows and Dreams, 2001–02), and a thirty-seven-minute film by the Isuma Collective directed by Carol Kunnuk (Ataguttaluk—A Life to Live For, 2019). The works, like linchpins, span generations—familial resemblance emanates from them. Building upon an Ashevak travelling exhibition, this show came to Kelowna Art Gallery thanks to its director Nataley Nagy, in conjunction with William Huffman of the West Baffin Eskimo Cooperative. Set in a specific iconic landscape, tendrils of geographic experience, like the appendages reaching out from the creatures in Ashevak’s drawings, form connections between a brave remote way of being and the idea of sustenance through a common recognition of beauty. Those in the South call it “art.” 

In these probing mixes of there and here, then and now, generational and geographic differences are bridged by a practice that originated from a European tradition—drawing on paper and printmaking—introduced by James and Alma Houston, a Canadian couple who established the arts and crafts cooperative in Cape Dorset in 1959. “I was afraid to begin drawing because I had no idea in mind,” Ashevak noted. Then, from a sealskin appliqué she had made, with her natural sense of aesthetics and predilection for bright colours, came the seminal Rabbit Eating Seaweed (1959). Prints were made from her drawings by Inuit male master printmakers. The women of her generation, needed at home in their communities, would pick up paper, pencils and pens and then bring back their drawings, once a year; over the years, selected drawings were eventually made into prints and sold to collectors internationally.

Courtesy of the West Baffin Eskimo Cooperative

Unlike Ashevak’s, many of Pootoogook’s fantastical works were not made into prints. Her original drawings, clean and precise renderings, often in geometric configurations of three to five figures, are confident with steadfast conviction. Ashevak (born 1927) and Pootoogook (born 1922), were propelled from a traditional society into a futuristic present as their exposure to modern living increased. When Ashevak was a child, her family’s way of life in Nunavik and Nunavut was much like that in the historical scenes from Isuma’s film. The photograph Life and Legacy (between 1940 and 1949) shows her in a traditional dress and amauti. Ashevak relates that her father, prone to unruly behaviour, was shot and killed by members of his community and thrown into the sea, along with his possessions and dogs. Her comment: “Inuit justice was used solely to maintain the harmony and stability of the group.”  

Isuma’s film is shown in a gallery that is sectioned off yet always visible when touring the drawings and prints, which act as a counterpoint to the flickering moving images. The subject, “The woman who ate her husband,” is introduced through a story told by an Inuit elder before a present-day congregation on a summer hillside. In these scenes, a woman aims a cell phone at the elder, who is presumably standing in front of the film cameras rolling in Igloolik—scenes that we now watch in southwestern British Columbia. 

Photo : Joshua Desnoyers

The historical tale is told cinematically through a family in traditional clothing, similar to that in the 1940s photograph of Ashevak. The bundled-up family moves on foot, with or without purpose, over snowy white expanses where cairns of rocks partially covered by drifts appear morbidly statuesque. A child plays with a carved doll and a make-believe sled of moss, with bones standing in for sled dogs. Time changes to the present as an elderly woman, granddaughter of “the woman who ate her husband,” leaks out the storyline in repetitive crucial phrases. The enigmatic story is contested by a group of Inuit in ski jackets, sunglasses, and ball caps, eating bagged snacks or spooning warm liquid from a mug. Then, back to the past as scenes of ice being broken by a series of knocks from a stone doll’s feet are backed by breathy audio. The family is starving. Wind whistles, a language—Inuktitut—is spoken and a muffled Christian hymn evokes a place far, far away.

Photo : Joshua Desnoyers
Photo : Joshua Desnoyers

A young man states that the action of survival taken by the woman was approved by the village, which adopted her, and that she, and her generations, contributed to the collective survival. Without naïve romanticism, A Life to Live For serves as a glimpse into the indigenous mechanics of collective governance.  

Ashevak’s father comes to mind. A live-stream television feed from Isuma TV offers further testament to the integral, fruitful collusion of past and present. A Story in Three Parts offers a deep, thoughtful visit.

For another chapter from the West Baffin Eskimo Cooperative, works by Shuvinai Ashoona will be at the 59th Venice Biennale central exhibition, curated by Cecilia Alemani. 

A Story in Three Parts
Kenojuak Ashevak, Sharni Pootoogook, and Isuma
Curator: William Huffman 
Kelowna Art Gallery 
December 4, 2021–March 27, 2022