Jessie Oonark, OC, RCA (1906–1985) began her artistic career in her late fifties and left an indelible mark on the contemporary Inuit art world. She started her 20-year artistic journey in Qamani’tuaq (Baker Lake), NU, suggesting that, if given the chance, she could draw better than the local school children, a remarkable statement considering that, as a child, her grandmother had warned her against making drawings for fear they would come to life in the darkness of night. Putting these admonishments aside, she beautifully translated her sewing skills, honed in the isolated camps northwest of Hudson Bay, into large-scale wall hangings.
In this untitled piece from 1973, we see a young woman, her figure composed of six green crescent shapes vertically dividing a black-edged, blue circular background. She is surrounded by alternating red and white horizontal rows of human figures, interspersed with birds of varying sizes and markings.
For this deceptively symmetrical work, Oonark uses embroidery thread in a similar way as the coloured pencils for her drawings, adding detail and texture to the fabric cut-outs. Oonark’s interest in the variations of Inuit clothing styles and facial tattoos is subtly expressed through these fine lines.
The work exemplifies Oonark’s use of recurring motifs in her wall hangings that reflect objects or practices associated with women. The ulu, a crescent-shaped knife commonly used by Inuit women, is transformed into the body of a young woman. This transformation possibly signifies the importance of the ulu in fulfilling the woman’s family and community responsibilities. Another notable feature is her hair sticks, the embroidery thread effortlessly defining the spiral pattern created when wrapping hair and hide around the sticks.
Many of the figures surrounding the young woman are paired off, facing each other, and appear to be touching because of the manner in which the fabric has been cut. This immediately reminded me of katajjaq—another practice specific to Inuit women—which requires partners to be in intimate relation to one another, standing close enough to hold each other’s arms at the elbows as they sway together in their shared vocal rhythms.
This depiction of closeness within community is especially poignant in today’s context as we all strive to keep our connections strong through a pandemic that forces us to be, temporarily, apart.
This Choice was originally published in the Spring 2021 Issue of the Inuit Art Quarterly.
This series was made possible with the generous support of the Ontario Arts Council.