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 
I’m interested in things that contribute to my survival. – Leonard Cohen 
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
 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
 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. 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
 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.
Roger Aksadjuak worked with the Matchbox Gallery, Kangiqliniq (Rankin Inlet) since it began its ceramics program in the late eighties, early nineties. He first learned ceramics working under the direction of his father, Laurent Aksadjuak, a veteran of the government-run ceramics workshop in the area, which closed in the early 1970s.
Aksadjuak’s work is complex, inventive, and embraces multiple forms and playful imagery, while respecting traditional narratives. It can be found in many public and private collections across North America, including the Winnipeg Art Gallery. His work, Square Dance, had the honour of being selected as the first artwork purchased by the Nunavut Legislative Assembly in Iqaluit. Recently, his works were included in a showing at the National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa, and have since become a part in their permanent collection. Roger Aksadjuak passed away in early 2014.
Shuvinai Ashoona began to draw in the early 1990s. Although never formally trained, Ashoona’s family and the Kinngait Studios in Cape Dorset have provided her with a creative atmosphere. Her family includes important artists like her grandmother, Pitseolak Ashoona, her sculptor father, Kiawak Ashoona, and her graphic artist cousin, Annie Pootoogook.
In the past, Ashoona’s work tended to focus on the Arctic landscape. Today, her work explores a new dynamism through compositions that depict human figures and other creatures with cleverly hidden imagery, and utilizes a wide colour spectrum. Her often-unusual creatures, animals, and monsters are balanced by a very careful and detailed drawing technique. Her graphics are often a combination of reality and the imaginative in which she creates her own abstract outlook of northern life. Through continuous experimentation with subject matter, Ashoona’s inventive drawings are consistently at the forefront of contemporary Inuit art.
Ashoona’s work continues to gain momentum and exposure; her most recent solo exhibition was Woven Thoughts at Feheley Fine Arts, Toronto, in September 2014. Her work has been exhibited alongside the work of Annie Pootoogook, Sobey Art Award winner, and Shary Boyle, who represented Canada at the Venice Biennale in 2013. At Art Toronto the Art Gallery of Ontario purchased her drawings, Shoveling Worlds and Cape Dorset From Above for their permanent collection, in 2013 and 2014, respectively.
Most recently, Ashoona’s work was chosen to be a part of SITElines Santa Fe: New Perspectives on Art of the Americas, running July 2014 – January 2015. Other major international exhibitions include: Stadthimmel (City Sky) project in Basel (2008), the Sydney Biennale (2012), and the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art’s major exhibition O, Canada (2012).
Ashoona is a leading contemporary Canadian artist and is in numerous collections of major art institutions, including the Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto; BMO Financial Group; Canada Council Art Bank; Canadian Museum of History, Gatineau; Fidelity Investments Corporate Art Collection; Macdonald Stewart Art Centre, Guelph; MacKenzie Art Gallery, Regina; National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa; TD Bank Group; and Winnipeg Art Gallery.
Pierre Aupilardjuk has been with the Matchbox ceramics program, Kangiqliniq (Rankin Inlet), since it began in the late eighties. From 1990 to 2000, he worked as the Assistant Manager, coordinating most aspects of production, and working closely with all of the artists of the Matchbox. He has also served as an instructor. Aupilardjuk maintains an active life on the land and much of his time is spent hunting to provide for the needs of his family.
His style of work represents his strong roots in a traditional aesthetic, which predominated in the days when the legendary figures of Inuit art were at work in the ceramics program, which was being run by Claude Grenier. Aupilardjuk’s father, Mariano, a brilliant and articulate spokesman on behalf of traditional knowledge and practice, is a renowned sculptor and elder whose artistic works and words are highly respected in Nunavut.
Aupilardjuk’s works are included in the ceramics collection of the Prince of Wales Northern Heritage Center, Yellowknife; the permanent collection of the National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa; as well as in private collections throughout North America. His work was included in several exhibitions, including Modern Echoes: Contemporary Inuit Ceramics and Sculpture at Native American Trading Company Gallery, Denver. In June 2001, Pierre was the Kivalliq representative at the Greenland Arts Festival, Nuuk. His work has also been shown at the Winnipeg Art Gallery in 2001, and the Canadian Clay and Glass Gallery, Waterloo, in the summer of 2006.
Jessie Kenalogak was born in Back River in the early 1950s and currently lives and works in Qamani’tuaq (Baker Lake). Working primarily in drawing, her most meaningful artistic influences came from her grandfather Angushadluk, one of the most important and respected artists ever to work in Baker Lake, and her aunt, Mary Singaqti, another highly respected Baker Lake artist. The titles of her drawings, her very personal interpretations of her art, serve as an expressive element of the overall work.
One of the younger ceramists working with the Matchbox Gallery, Kangiqliniq (Rankin Inlet), John Kurok has been working with the gallery since he was in junior high school. An artist whose skills in drawing were apparent even as a young teenager, he began working full-time as a ceramist in 1996. Kurok’s work reflects the inner focus of younger artists who have not grown up in a land-based tradition. An Inuk artist very much rooted in the contemporary world, his ceramic works deal with states of mind, rather than experiences drawn from the past.
In Kurok’s works, the story is often secondary. The emphasis is on the relationship of the forms, and the visual movements created by those forms over the surface of the vase. Most of his work uses the human face as a base for his creative expression.
Kurok has presented his works at the Winnipeg Art Gallery; Canadian Clay and Glass Gallery, Waterloo; Cerny Inuit Collection, Bern; and in arts festivals throughout Nunavut, southern Canada, and the United States. His work is included in the permanent collections of the National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa, and the Museum of Inuit Art, Toronto.
Born in the early sixties, Leo Napayok spent most of his time growing up in the towns of Salliq (Coral Harbour) and Kangiqliniq (Rankin Inlet). A devoted father, he and his wife have seven children. Napayok’s artistic upbringing began early on in his life. His father and mother were both artists, and they gave him some of the foundational skills he has drawn on in his remarkable works as a carver in soapstone, ivory, and antler. He has long been established as one of the most talented carvers ever to come out of the region. Napayok came to ceramics recently and took to it immediately, applying his own brand of creative discovery to the medium. He has superb drawing skills, which provide him with the tools necessary to visualize and bring his outstanding works into reality. Working in collaboration with the other ceramicists who prepare the vessel or sculptural shape, his extraordinary carvings cover and completely explore the surface of whatever shape he is working with. In stunning detail he depicts images of traditional events, which intermix with each other and blend like a tapestry, or a dreams in which events melt into each other. Working in collaboration with John Kurok and Jack Nuviyak, his works have since become a part of the permanent collection of the National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa.