Shuvinai Ashoona, Leonard & Bina Ellen Art Gallery, Concordia University, Montréal | esse arts + opinions

Shuvinai Ashoona, Leonard & Bina Ellen Art Gallery, Concordia University, Montréal

Galerie Leonard & Bina Ellen
  • Installation view, Leonard & Bina Ellen Art Gallery, Montréal, 2019. Photo: Paul Litherland
  • Installation view, Leonard & Bina Ellen Art Gallery, Montréal, 2019. Photo: Paul Litherland
  • Installation view, Leonard & Bina Ellen Art Gallery, Montréal, 2019. Photo: Paul Litherland
  • Shuvinai Ashoona, (left to right) Untitled, 2016; Composition (Clams and Globes), 2010. Photo: Paul Litherland
  • Shuvinai Ashoona, Satan the Polar Bear, 2011. Photo: Paul Litherland
  • Shuvinai Ashoona, (from left to right) Untitled, 2016; Untitled (Birthing Scene), 2013. Photo: Paul Litherland
  • Shuvinai Ashoona, Untitled (Woman Giving Birth to the World), 2010. Photo : Toni Hafkenscheid

[En anglais]

Shuvinai Ashoona: Mapping Worlds
Leonard & Bina Ellen Art Gallery, Concordia University, Montréal
October 30, 2019–January 18, 2020

With the exhibition Shuvinai Ashoona: Mapping Worlds, curated by Nancy Campbell with assistance from Justine Kohleal, Concordia University continues to build its reputation as an institution that supports and exhibits the work of living Inuit artists. The gallery also hosted the 2018 show Among All These Tundras, which brought together Inuit artists from around the globe who contributed works in a range of media, including video, sculpture, textiles, and photography. More recently, Iqaluit multi-media artist Jesse Tungilik was an artist-in-residence at Concordia in the winter of 2019, creating a sealskin spacesuit in collaboration with local Inuit students, including emerging Inuk artist Jason Sikoak.

Shuvinai Ashoona: Mapping Worlds is the artist’s first major solo exhibition and was organized by the Power Plant Contemporary Art Gallery in Toronto. The show fits seamlessly and elegantly into the three rooms (two large and one small) of the Leonard & Bina Ellen Art Gallery. The minimalist installation allows Ashoona’s large-scale, vibrant drawings to fill the space without any distractions. These colourful works are perfectly suited for the space, and the curators did well to let the drawings speak for themselves.

The exhibition is comprised of a selection of Ashoona’s works on paper produced over the last twenty years, and the drawings vary in subject matter from solo portraits of men and women wearing parkas and t-shirts, to fighting bears, as in Untitled (Two Bears) (2010). The polar bear, one of the symbols of Nunavut, appears in several drawings, including Bear Mountain (2016). In this large drawing, different kinds of bears, including what looks like two panda bears, are dog-piled on top of each other in a great mound; at the bottom of the mountain are scattered bear bones. The artist’s intention is ambiguous: is this image intended to be humorous or anxiety-producing? Ambiguity is a characteristic of many of Ashoona’s drawings; her works are never didactic or moralizing. They represent animal subjects with as much respect and attention to detail as she gives to her human subjects, and monstrous creatures are not sources of fear, but rather coexisting beings.

In Satan the Polar Bear (2011), Ashoona depicts a polar bear standing on his two hind legs, wearing mittens and a shirt that enigmatically reads: “Satan the Polar Bear no brain just white white white.” To the left of the polar bear is a large brown bird and an androgynous human figure wearing a striped dress, and on the right is another large bird with a neon green beak. A snake appears to be coming out of the brown bird’s colourful breast, and it winds its way across the background of the immense drawing. These artworks are surrealist brain-teasers that frustrate settler colonial iconographical readings that expect a “logical” hidden meaning to surface. The works speak of complex Inuit epistemologies that transcend linear or Western interpretations.

Ashoona’s interest in representing everyday life in Kinngait (formerly Cape Dorset), Nunavut recalls her cousin Annie Pootoogook’s drawings of men, women, and children going about their daily, and nightly, routines: shopping for groceries, watching television, eating, fighting, and being intimate. To these scenes of daily life, however, Ashoona adds powerfully evocative images of hybrid-monstrous beings as in Untitled (2016). Her iconography in this work is beautifully complex; it demands close looking and allows space for multiple readings. Among other things in this work, there is a walrus with five human heads protruding from its back. The most powerful vignette involves the central female subject: a large globe appears to be tearing through the woman’s pubis, replacing her torso and reaching upwards towards a second globe.

Importantly, women are not threatening in their monstrosity in these works; rather, they are powerful beings that birth worlds. Untitled (Woman Giving Birth to the World) (2010) depicts a small woman in the lower left corner wearing a pink parka whose pregnant belly is drawn to look like the earth, with green signifying land and blue for bodies of water. Her arms are attenuated and stretch across the paper, morphing into feather-like hands. Between her arms is a large globe with visible architectural structures (houses, offices, apartment buildings); a claw protrudes from the right side of the globe. Above the woman’s left arm is another globe with tools (including a pink and yellow axe) floating along its surface. This globe is being circled by a school of fish, and a giant eye gazes at us from the upper left corner of the image.

These are not doom-and-gloom images. They are fascinating, thought-provoking explorations of possible worlds. Many of the artworks demand things from us: time, close reading of details, and an acknowledgment of both Inuit resilience and the sanctity of land. The simple curatorial vision for the exhibition—usually one large drawing per wall—allows space for looking closely and carefully without distracting text, imagery, or didactic labels. Each of these works on paper asks us to stay: to stay quiet, to stay still, to stay with the trouble. In other words, Ashoona’s drawings make us work to see, and to think, if not to understand. These works are both playful and challenging, and they speak to Ashoona’s powerful talent to communicate many things in a single drawing. Shuvinai Ashoona: Mapping Worlds is a must-see exhibition that concretizes Ashoona as a major force in contemporary Inuit art.

Published online on January 6, 2020.


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