Earthlings

Roger Aksadjuak, Shuvinai Ashoona, Pierre Aupilardjuk, Shary Boyle, Jessie Kenalogak, John Kurok, and Leo Napayok

 

January 21 – May 7, 2017

Opening reception: Friday, January 20, 6-10pm

Organized by Shary Boyle at the invitation of Esker Foundation
 
Imagination, working at full strength, can shake us out of our fatal, adoring self-absorption, and make us look up and see – with terror or with relief – that the world does not in fact belong to us at all. – Ursula K. Le Guin [1]
I’m interested in things that contribute to my survival. – Leonard Cohen [2]


Space, and how we occupy it, is a political as well as a practical concern. I wish to make small sculptures, slowly, with great care. An invitation to exhibit them at the Esker Foundation was a grand opportunity, on a generous scale. Who could I invite to join me at the table?

There are artists who work from their intuition, who channel their personal experience and cultural memory for narrative. These artists choose their subjects because they know them intimately, personally, physically. It is a way of working that is innate, and encourages a human conversation larger than art.

I think of this work, my own included, as “bridge art”; it spans between things, between people, animals, space, and the earth. It spans languages. It spans the real and the unreal. The living and the dead. The past and the future. It is art to communicate, through symbols, myths, dreams, and hybrids. It connects.

The drawings of Shuvinai Ashoona unveil an inner cosmos. Her images conduct life force and manifest stories, observed and overheard. Disturbing, funny, arcane yet revealing. Hers is a language like music; it is to be intuited, absorbed, and moved by.

The ceramics of Roger Aksadjuak, Pierre Aupilardjuk, Jessie Kenalogak, John Kurok, and Leo Napayok, solo and collaboratively made, shaped by multi-skilled hands, fired in a barrel of smoke – these objects contain the dreams and realities of artists in the Arctic. Stories and characters scroll across their surfaces – masks, figures, and vessels – containing the creative spirit of culture and endurance.

My work is compelled by what moves me most: grief, loneliness, love. A search for justice and meaning. Reckoning with history while inventing my version of reality. Living narratives.

I feel at home with these artists’ work. North and South, Inuit and white; we occupy different geography, different perspectives, different access. We do not share a first language or experience. But we make bridge art.

We believe in the vision that compels our hands. We use free association, listen to our hearts and bodies as much as our minds. These drawings and sculptures assert ideas as birthright to all, and honour imagination as a subversive force.

I would like to thank Shuvinai Ashoona, Pierre Aupilardjuk, John Kurok, and the artists of Rankin Inlet and Matchbox Studios for sharing this space with me. We thank the Esker for providing it.

– Shary Boyle


[1] Julie Phillips, “The Fantastic Ursula K. Le Guin,” The New Yorker, October 17, 2016, accessed December 12, 2016, http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2016/10/17/the-fantastic-ursula-k-le-guin

[2] David Remnick, “Leonard Cohen Makes it Darker,” The New Yorker, October 17, 2016, accessed December 12, 2016, http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2016/10/17/leonard-cohen-makes-it-darker


We are of the earth and from the stars, cooked mud and pigmented wax, soot and soda, ink, wood, tobacco, fur, fire, bronze, and acrylic nails – mortal inhabitants of the earth dreaming of our spiritual or extraterrestrial foil. Drawn from this framework of earthly conditions, the visionary ceramics and works on paper of Earthlings, produced both individually and collaboratively by seven contemporary artists, are at once transformative and otherworldly – and profoundly human.

Though making work from distinct cultural and geographical positions – from Kangiqliniq/Rankin Inlet, Kinngait/Cape Dorset, Qamani’tuaq/Baker Lake, and Toronto – the artists in Earthlings share an intuitive and labour-intensive approach to materials and narrative imagery. In these works, detailed figures are subject to transformations and transmogrifications, hybrid blendings of animal and human, reality and myth, and actual and imagined spaces. These pieces seem to emerge from phantasmagorical worlds, simultaneously fleshly and physical, sensual and spiritual, alien and familiar.

Bringing such idiosyncratic pieces together under the umbrella of a group exhibition has been an exciting opportunity to take part in a vital and ongoing history of exhibitions that have been breaking ground in positioning work from the North and the South – historically segregated into inequitable categories of craft and art – together within a contemporary gallery context. First and foremost concerned with foregrounding unique and revelatory contemporary art works in their own right, these exhibitions have also been involved in questioning cultural assumptions, overturning stereotypes, and confronting expectations of what contemporary art is and can be.[1] For Earthlings, the exhibition format has been an important occasion to present new and recent works, and also to build on existing collaborative relationships and to forge new ones.

Shuvinai Ashoona’s drawings are populated by an enormous cast of surreal and enigmatic monsters, snakes, human-creature hybrids, eggs, spiders, people, northern landscapes, everyday interiors, and anthropomorphic planets, competing, interacting, or existing together in harmony. Her environments are, in turns, playful and unsettling fantastical landscapes, but are ultimately rooted in lived and observed experience.

Internationally renowned artist Shary Boyle, known for her transgressive ceramics, paintings, performance, and drawings that ruminate on love, grief, sexuality, politics, and childhood, has been friends with and a collaborator of Ashoona’s since 2011. This exhibition presents a number of Boyle’s latest sculptures and drawings, as well as fresh collaborative works, which take up critiques of colonialism, canonical art history, and the ideological implications of materials.

The ceramics of Roger Aksadjuak, Pierre Aupilardjuk, Jessie Kenalogak, John Kurok, and Leo Napayok have emerged from the unique legacy of the Matchbox Gallery in Kangiqliniq, the only active privately-owned, artist-run, ceramics-producing studio in the North, a place that embraces a collaborative approach to making and learning. These soda or sawdust fired works emerge from personal narratives, myths, and traditions. Expressive in tone and materials, concerned with a sensuality of surface and texture, figures and vessels are built up, added to, and incised upon.

It is this cooperative spirit that beats at heart of Earthlings. Notions of shared authorship, and the fruits of creative exchange, are present throughout the exhibition. Individual creative cosmologies are arranged into an imaginative constellation that blends everyday experience with the extraordinary. In addition to the recent collaborative works made by Ashoona and Boyle, and the co-authored ceramics produced from the Matchbox Gallery, in September 2016, Aupilardjuk, Boyle, and Kurok undertook a month-long residency together at Medalta in the Historic Clay District in Medicine Hat to exchange ideas, learn from each other, and produce new works. Many of the results of these collective efforts are found here.

Approached through an ethos of openness, and a desire for mutual learning, Earthlings has been an occasion to build relationships and contexts for exchange, a space for experimental working, and a platform for intra- and inter-cultural dialogues to emerge.

– Shauna Thompson, Curator, Esker Foundation


[1] Of particular note is the series of exhibitions curator Nancy Campbell organized for the Justina M. Barnicke Gallery at the University of Toronto, which intuitively paired Inuit and Southern artists together: Noise Ghost (2009), Shuvinai Ashoona and Shary Boyle; Scream (2010), Ed Pien and Samonie Toonoo; and Blue Cloud (2012), Jack Bush and Ohotaq Mikkigak. Noise Ghost was the first time Shuvinai Ashoona and Shary Boyle’s works were curated together.


 

The artists would like to thank the Canada Council for the Arts; Department of Economic Development and Transportation, Government of Nunavut; Dorset Fine Arts; Feheley Fine Arts; Inuit Art Foundation; Matchbox Gallery; Medalta; Nunavut Arts and Crafts Association; Nunavut Development Corporation; Pierre-François Ouellette art contemporain; Jim and Sue Shirley; Marnie and Karen Schreiber; and all of the collectors who, through their loans, have made this exhibition possible.