Inuit art is about to occupy the main exhibition space at Toronto’s Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO) for the first time.

Kenojuak Ashevak was known as the “grandmother of Inuit art.” She created world-renowned prints and was fond of colourful felt-tipped pens.
Couvrette/Ottawa photo

Works by Cape Dorset’s late artists Kenojuak Ashevak and her nephew Timootee (Tim) Pitsiulak will comprise the featured summer exhibition called Tunirrusiangit – “their gifts” in Inuktitut – from June 16 – Aug. 12. There will be a free opening night gala for the public on June 13.

While Ashevak earned the Order of Canada and was one of the country’s better known Inuit artists, the summer show – comprising 110 drawings and sketches – will mark the first major retrospective of Pitsiulak’s work, according to the AGO.

“Tim has this amazing detail to how he describes hunting, the relationship that hunters have with animals, especially the walrus. Also, the detail put into how a hunter prepares, how his boat is packed and what exactly is in there – the attention to detail is beautiful to me,” said Iqaluit’s Laakkuluk Williamson Bathory, one of the exhibition’s curators. “Tim Pitsiulak was a superstar in the Inuit art world.”

Curator Georgiana Uhlyarik, with the AGO’s Indigenous and Canadian art department, added that Pitsiulak also offered a profound look at the way the North has been transformed by modern machinery.

Williamson Bathory said both artists had a gift for compelling interplay between what’s real and surreal.

“Kenojuak had such a strong female presence. I always talk about how the arcs that come outside of her (drawn) birds seem like power bulbs to me,” she said. “I find that so evocative.”

Ashevak passed away in 2013, Pitsiulak in 2016.

Tim Pitsiulak works on a piece while serving as artist-in-residence at Open Studio in Toronto. Pitsiulak’s sketches of Nunavut wildlife brought him critical acclaim.
Cheryl Rondeau photo

Uhlyarik said she hopes gallery visitors are inspired by the works and the way they are presented.

“To understand that these gifts are a challenge to all of us to live in honouring accomplishment and also a responsibility to the future,” she said. “I think this will be a new perspective for them. They’ll be able to see through the lived experience of the (curatorial) team… they’ll walk in a space and see a room filled with every imaginable bird that Kenojuak could conjure up. I think that will be a new way of thinking about the North.”

Other curators participating in the Tunirrusiangit project are: Koomuatuk (Kuzy) Curley of Ottawa; Taqralik Partridge, who’s residing in Kautokeino, Norway; Jocelyn Piirainen of Ottawa; and Anna Hudson of Toronto.

As for Cape Dorset’s reputation for its prominent artists, reinforced by Ashevak and Pitsiulak, Williamson Bathory said the community has made an investment in marketing art as part of the economy since the 1950s. As well, families have played a key role as several generations of artists “learn from one another and mentor one another,” she added.

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