Kenojuak Ashevak RCA (1927 – 2013) : Her History

World-renowned Inuit artist Kenojuak Ashevak passed away on January 8th 2013 leaving behind a legacy of remarkable artworks and multitude of accomplishments for herself as well as for all aboriginal female artists of Canada. She is a pioneer in the establishment of Inuit modern art. While she is mostly known for her prints she was also an accomplished carver and seamstress.

Her Life at the Heart of Traditions


Kenojuak was born on October 3, 1927 in Ikarasaq, a camp on the south coast of Baffin Island, Nunavut. Her parents Silaqqi and Ushuakjuk were important members of their community; her father was the leader of the camp, a powerful shaman and a skilled hunter and fur trader.

At the age of 6, Ushuakjuk passed away and her mother moved away from Ikarasaq to live with her grandmother. Her grandmother was a very traditional woman and taught young Kenojuak many skills and crafts which she later used in trading with the Hudson’s Bay Company.

Arranged by her mother and stepfather, Kenojuak married a local hunter Johnniebo Ashevak (1923-1972) at the age of 19. Originally the artist did not see this as a good match but she quickly fell in love with this man who she described fondly as sweet and kind.

Several years after Kenojuak’s artistic career began, the National Film Board of Canada created a documentary film entitled Eskimo Artist: Kenojuak, 1963 directed by John Feeney.

A Great Artist Emerges

Kenojuak began to discover her artistic side in 1952 while she was being treating for tuberculosis in a hospital in Quebec City. She remained there for 3 years and learned the art of doll-making from artist Harold Pfeiffer. Her talent attracted the attention of James Houston, who was then working as a federal administrator. He had begun to work with Inuit artists in Cape Dorset, encouraging them to create soapstone carvings and prints to be sold to the southern market.

“She was hesitant at first, claiming that she could not draw and that drawing was a man’s business. Yet the next time that she visited the Houstons, the sheets of paper that Alma [James Houston’s wife] had given her were filled with pencil sketches” – James Houston, 1999

When Kenojuak and Johnniebo returned home, they continued to work closely with James Houston and his wife Alma Houston creating traditional handicrafts, sculptures and prints until Johnniebo’s passing in 1972. This event was quite tragic for Kenojuak but she continued on her artistic path becoming increasingly more popular as time wore on.

film 3

Although Kenojuak experimented with sculpture and handicrafts, she preferred drawing and printmaking and focused most of her time on this discipline. Kenojuak’s drawings were among the first by an Inuk woman to be made into print form. Kenojuak contributed artworks to the Cape Dorset Annual Print Release every year from its inception in 1959 to the year of her passing in 2013.

Her prints and drawings have been exhibited worldwide and are in the permanent collections of countless renowned institutions and museums such as the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia, Art Gallery of Ontario, Art Gallery of York University, Beaverbrook Art Gallery, Canada Council Art Bank, Canadian Guild of Crafts Quebec, Confederation Centre of the Arts, Department of External Affairs, Alberta Art Gallery, Glenbow Museum, Haffenreffer Museum of Anthropology, Inuit Cultural Institute, Kitchener-Waterloo Art Gallery, Macdonald Stewart Art Centre, Mark and Helen Osterlin Library, McMaster Museum of Art, McMichael Canadian Art Collection, Mendel Art Gallery, Musée des beaux-arts de Montreal, National Gallery of Canada, New Brunswick Museum, Royal Ontario Museum, Simon Fraser Gallery, Tate Gallery, Toronto-Dominion Bank Collection, University of Michigan Museum of Art, Vancouver Art Gallery, Winnipeg Art Gallery, and the World Wildlife Fund Collection.

“When I first started to make a few lines on paper, my love, Johnniebo, smiled at me and said ‘Inumn,’ Which means ‘I love you.’ I just knew inside his heart that he almost cried knowing that I was trying my best to say something on a piece of paper that would bring food to the family. I guess I was thinking of the animals and the beautiful flowers that covered our beautiful, untouched land” – Kenojuak Ashevak, 2008

Kenojuak Ashevak
Kenojuak Ashevak

A Multitude of Awards

The exceptional talent of this artist did not go unnoticed, over her career she won a host of awards and honours for her artwork:

In 1962, Documentary film Eskimo Artist: Kenojuak is produced by the National Film Board of Canada.

In 1967, Kenojuak is named an Officer of the Order of Canada.

In 1970, the print Enchanted Owl (The Enchanted Owl) is reproduced on a series of stamps to commemorate the centennial of the Northwest Territories.

In 1974, she was elected member of the Royal Canadian Academy of Arts.

In 1980, the print Return of the Sun (The Return of the Sun) is reproduced on a series of stamps.

In 1982, Kenojuak is promoted to Companion of the Order of Canada.

In 1991, Kenojuak recieves an honorary doctorate from Queen’s University

In 1992, Kenojuak receives an honorary doctorate in law from the University of Toronto

In 1993, Canada Post features Kenojuak’s 1969 drawing The Owl for its Masterpieces of Canadian Art series.

In 1995, Kenojuak is presented with a Lifetime Achievement Award at the National Aboriginal Achievement Awards in Vancouver.

In 1999, Kenojuak’s artwork Red Owl was featured on the April issue of the 1999 Millennium quarter series. Her initials in Inuktitut – ᑭᓇᐊᓯᐃ – were on the left of the design, the first time the language had appeared on circulation coinage.

In 2001, Kenojuak is inducted into Canada’s Walk of Fame.

In 2008, Kenojuak became the first Inuit artist to receive the renowned $25,000 Governor General’s Award in Visual and Media Arts from the Canada Council of the Arts.

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For more artwork by Kenojuack, please click here.

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