MacAllaster House

Kenojuak Ashevak


Kenojuak Ashevak (1927-2013) was a soapstone carver, drawer, and printmaker who came to be known in her lifetime as one of the most prominent and renowned Inuit artists in the world — mainly for her graphic arts. She used paper and pencils at the beginning of her drawing career, and later watercolors, acrylics, and poster paints to create her stylistic drawings of birds, animals, humans and spirits of her surrounding environment. In fact, a number of her works feature birds with elongated feathers that curl around their bodies like rays of the sun. If her prints are not black and white, her subjects are adorned to some degree with brilliant colors and anthropomorphic eyes. Kenojuak has a way of creating captivating images of the natural using small line marks, stippling, and other discrete but effective drawing techniques.  

Her work lives on in collections internationally, has been shown in exhibitions throughout Canada, Europe, and Asia. Several of her drawings have provided imagery for Canadian stamps and coins. Kenojuak was a “cultural ambassador and a role model for women” who “opened the eyes of many to the rich cultural life of the Canadian Arctic” through her many achievements, such as the 1963 National Film Board production Eskimo Artist: Kenojuak, which featured her life and her creative process. In 1967, she was awarded the Order of Canada and in 1982 became a Companion of the Order of Canada. In 2008 she was awarded the Governor General’s Award in Visual Arts and in the ’90s she received honorary doctorates through the University of Toronto and Queen’s University.

Born on October 3, 1927, in Ikirasaq, an outpost camp on the southern coast of Baffin Island in Canada, Kenojuak grew up alongside her father, Ushuakjuk and her mother, Silaqqi, as well as her brother, sister, and grandmother, Koweesa. From the day she was born, the artist was exposed to nature. Ushuakjuk was an Inuit hunter, fur trader, and angakkuq, or shaman, known for his capability to predict weather and successful hunting seasons, among other intellectual and spiritual intuitions. In 1933, when Kenojuak was just six years old, Ushuakjuk was assassinated in a hunting camp following a conflict with Christian converts. At this time, Kenojuak moved with her mother into Koweesa’s home, where she learned a series of traditional crafts, such as the making of waterproof clothing with caribou sinew and sealskin repair to be used for trade.  

At the age of 19, she wed local Inuit hunter Johnniebo Ashevak in an arranged marriage, and over the years the couple engaged in similar artistic interests and occasional collaborative projects. Together, they had 11 children and additionally adopted five, although seven of their children passed away in their early years. From early 1952 to the summer of 1955, during this first marriage, she was forced to move to Parc Savard hospital in Quebec City after testing positive for tuberculosis. Here, she began to draw in earnest and continued drawing as she left Quebec and moved to Kinngait (Cape Dorset) with Johnniebo.  

Once in Cape Dorset, she met Canadian artist James Houston who assisted in introducing printmaking to the Inuit and encouraged Kenojuak to create graphic arts — despite the fact that she turned him down initially. Her prints became recognized in the late 1960s and continue to be celebrated today. Her work has been featured in almost every Annual Cape Dorset Print Collection since 1960.

– Research and writing by Eva Yeo, SLU Class of 2023