I was ready to be very sad when it came to planning this comic, the last in the Inuit Art Icons in Comics series, but when I searched images and stories for Karoo Ashevak I was immediately delighted and awed. In the Art Gallery of Ontario Karoo Ashevak exhibition overview, which opened in August 2019, his work is described as “rooted in humor and unease,” a favourite combination of mine in my own life and work. Ashevak’s creatures, so internationally beloved, were inspired by stories and nightmares from his own childhood. Though frightening to him as a child, as an adult he saw those figures as comical. One of the key methods Ashevak used to create his monstrous figures was by following the natural shapes of his favourite medium, whalebone, to guide his artistic vision.
Despite only working as an artist for four years before his tragic death in a 1974 house fire, Ashevak managed to create over 250 sculptures. He has become a true icon, inspiring generations of Inuit artists with his unique collection of expressionist sculptures. To give a little insight into the deep insult Ashevak’s figures feel at being called primitivist art, let me explain briefly the difference between primitivism and expressionism: primitivism arose during the Enlightenment era, when European philosophers and artists began reworking their world view to include a hitherto unknown hemisphere full of Indigenous people which began to unravel the worldview presented by the Catholic Church prior to Contact.
At the time, many people followed John Dryden’s “noble savage” ideology, where peoples untainted by the evils of European civilization were touted as an ideal. Primitivism in art is the borrowing of non-European motifs to give the work a sense of primitiveness, a style widely criticized today for its reproduction of racist stereotypes and the implications of cultural appropriation tied to its practise.
Ashevak’s work was not primitivist art, firstly because he was an Inuk man drawing from his own culture., and secondly because he was working to express his emotions and dreams in figures that defied the strict parameters of realism. His carvings evoke powerful emotions because of his chosen artistic expression, and that is what makes his work popular outside of the bounds of colonial expectations of what Inuit art is or can be.
Doing this series on Inuit art icons has been a fantastic learning experience. I’ve had the chance to do research on the people behind the art, which has been so familiar to me throughout my life. Looking back now, my knowledge of Inuit art up until very recently feels embarrassingly shallow. Reading about the artists' lives and recreating elements of their work through my own has given me a sense of connection to them, as though I have had the privilege of sitting down with my Elders and serving them tea and bannock while they share stories with me.
When drawing this series, I have often worried about what the artists might think if they saw my rudimentary renditions of their beautiful work. Of all the artists I have covered, I think Ashevak would have been the most receptive to seeing his creatures defending themselves as crude outlines. The playfulness of Ashevak’s work and distinct personality of each carving makes me think that he would appreciate the sassy and headstrong voices I’ve given his creations.
See the other Inuit Art Icons in Comics:
Tivi Etook Pudlo Pudlat Jessie Oonark
Joe Talirunili Helen Kalvak Kenojuak Ashevak