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Challenging Convention: The Expressive World of Karoo Ashevak

Legendary Carvers

Mar 04, 2020
by Leslie Boyd

Karoo Ashevak (1940-1974) was an Inuit art sensation. In his brief career, he had solo exhibitions at major galleries in Toronto, Montreal and New York. His work had a dramatic impact on the southern art world, challenging the popular consensus about Inuit art and breaking boundaries between Inuit and contemporary Canadian sculptors. Canadian writer and art collector George Elliott exclaimed that Ashevak’s works in the 1973 exhibition at the American Indian Arts Center in New York “stood up with the best in the world, in the toughest city in the world” [1].

The critical and financial success of this exhibition launched Ashevak’s brilliant but short-lived career. Tragically he and his wife, Doris, were killed in a house fire in their home community of Talurjuaq (Taloyoak), NU, in 1974. They were both in their early thirties, and Ashevak had been carving for only five years.

AshevakKarooFigure

Karoo Ashevak
Figure (c. 1973) Whalebone, ivory, antler and stone 29.2 x 68.5 x 153 cm
national gallery of Canada

The name Taloyoak means “the big hiding place” in Inuktut, referring to the large hunting blinds that were built with piled stones along the caribou migration routes. Many of these stone formations still mark the landscape’s rocky terrain, along with boulder-strewn coastlines and an abundance of small lakes and rivers. Ashevak was born and raised on this land in 1940, learning to hunt and fish, which he loved but which would not sustain him for long. Radical social and economic changes were sweeping through the North in the 1950’s and 60’s, causing Ashevak and his wife to move permanently to the settlement at Talurjuaq (known then as Spence Bay) in 1968.

Ashevak took up carving as a source of income and quickly developed an exceptional skill and a unique style. There was no deposit of suitable carving stone in the area, so caribou antler was shipped in from Bathurst Inlet and whalebone from Kuuganajuup Nunanga (Somerset Island), left by the prehistoric Thule people and later by the European whalers. The weathered and bleached bone quickly became the material of choice for Ashevak. He was, according to Judy McGrath, “a man completely at home with his materials” [2].

AshevakKarooFlyingShaman

Karoo Ashevak
Flying Shaman (c.1972) Whalebone, antler, ivory and baleen 23.5 x 58 x 14.5 cm
td bank collection photo toni harkenscheid

For Ashevak the idea for a sculpture was inextricably tied to the particular piece of whalebone he chose to represent it. The idea came first, followed by the search for the right materials. Whalebone is difficult to predict and control: it is porous and fragile in some places and then so hard in others as to make it impossible to carve. It can also crack or split at any time, defying even the most skilled technician. This was all part of the intrigue and the challenge for Ashevak. He made use of the bone’s natural shape and even its flaws, ingeniously transforming it to correspond with his overall vision.

Ashevak most enjoyed the “fine finishing touches of his pieces” and had “a passion for tools and what he could do with them,” as McGrath relates [3]. The artist used stone, ivory, antler, bone, string, sinew and even wood to make eyes, teeth, tusks, appendages and various hand-held objects, all of which were vital to the final conception of his work. There were no half measures for Ashevak; a work wasn’t finished until all the fine detailing and polishing were complete. His approach and his work were respected by his contemporaries—if not always liked—and imitated by some, which irritated Ashevak. The length of time it took him to finish a work certainly affected his output and his income, which were important to Ashevak but, in the end, were not the main factors in his motivation. For Ashevak carving was a deep-rooted, creative impulse, and the care and pride he took in his work were simply part of the painstaking process of bringing his ideas to life.

AshevakKarooSpirit1

Karoo Ashevak
Spirit (1972) Bone and stone 38.1 x 20.3 x 10.2 cm
Courtesy Winnipeg art gallery

Human, or human-like, forms and faces predominate in Ashevak’s body of work. Most of these forms stand alone, rarely in relation to other people or animals—a feature that is so characteristic of Inuit art. From the beginning, Ashevak’s work invited distinction from the usual conventions of Inuit art. According to George Swinton (whose 1972 book Sculpture of the Eskimo became a seminal reference) Inuit sculptors tended to work in a narrative tradition, illustrating events or activities of their daily lives or legends from their oral traditions [4]. Ashevak’s ability to communicate beyond the specific narrative was exceptional and astounding. His faces are emotionally charged with expressions of angst, fear, astonishment, confusion, menace and awe. Eyes are concentric circles in contrasting materials, lopsided and unmatched, wide and frequently wild. Nostrils and mouths are open, gaping, showing a tongue and rows of pegged teeth that are carved from bone or ivory and laid in like implants. Ashevak’s work has been variously described as grotesque, surreal, bizarre and fantastic, and these exaggerated features certainly evoke a disquieting supernatural eeriness. As art historian Ingo Hessel has observed, Ashevak’s style was ideally suited to works depicting shamanism and the spirit world, “and whalebone, with its unusual natural shapes and porous, weathered textures, seems the perfect material to express existence on an otherworldly plane” [5].

Ashevak spoke openly of spirit helpers and other stories related to shamanism. He told McGrath about a known shaman near Talurjuaq who had one large eye and one small eye, which was the basis for this unusual feature in his work. In interviews with curator Darlene Coward Wight of the Winnipeg Art Gallery, Ashevak’s sister, Eeteemunga Niviaqsiaq, provided rich insight into his thinking and imagination:

“Before the Qabloona [non-Inuit] came, there were a lot of angakkuqs (shamans) and spirits. Our father talked a lot about angakkuqs and ghosts when we were small, and I know Ashevak was afraid of them. After he grew up, he laughed at what he used to be afraid of. He would carve those spirits and angakkuqs that he was afraid of.” [6]

AshevakKarooSpiritFigure

Karoo Ashevak
Spirit Figure (c. 1972) Whalebone, ivory, antler and stone 32.7 x 65.5 x 10.5 cm
The Samuel and Esther Sarick Collection, Art gallery of Ontario

Ashevak liked to concentrate on a certain mode or effect, working through a subject repeatedly before moving on to a new idea. He worked in phases, and in addition to faces and figures, subjects included drum dancers, “so rhythmically sensitive it is almost possible to watch the carvings move”; nesting birds, “protecting beautiful whalebone eggs and screaming in rage at the intrusion of a removable lemming in a hole near the nest”[7]; the occasional bear; and carvings that could be manipulated and played with. According to McGrath, Ashevak loved gadgets, and these inspired his lighter side. These pieces were made strictly for fun, “like when you see something you really like at the Bay store and you get really happy about it,” [8] McGrath writes. Ashevak had enough command of his tools and materials to handle moving parts with ease, creating faces you could feed, teeth out of sinew that you could pull and works such as Eskimo Man Can Do Anything (date unknown) in which the head, body, arms and legs are all interchangeable.

AshevakKarooBirdGaurdingNestofEggs

Karoo Ashevak
Bird Guarding Nest of Eggs (1972) Whalebone 45.1 x 27.9 x 27.9 cm
courtesy waddingtons

Recurring themes run throughout Ashevak’s work, motivated it seems by his innate drive toward mastering the possibilities of his medium. Once the elements of the original idea were established, Ashevak would bring in fine-tuned changes that altered the tone of the work—sometimes subtly, sometimes dramatically, but always retaining the essential unity of the piece. McGrath observes that “each phase seemed . . . to be thoroughly worked through—usually six to eight carvings, all variations on a particular idea, all of them different from one another and the latter ones usually being the strongest” [9]. Illustrating this approach are several works created between 1972 and 1973, featuring a single outstretched arm. Variously composed of elements made from ivory, antler, stone and whalebone, the series demonstrates Ashevak’s propensity to work and rework certain motifs. All are similarly sized, some sporting booties or clawed feet, others with incised or sculpted mitted hands. As always, expressive faces with contorted elements and flared nostrils are present. Each asymmetrical work balances gingerly on one or more posts. Viewed together, they offer a striking portrait of the artist at work, or rather working through a concept as well as a composition.

AshevakKarooShaman

Karoo Ashevak
Shaman (1972) Whalebone, antler and stone 59.5 x 26 x 26 cm
Winnipeg art gallery photo ernest mayer

One word stands out in all of the objective commentary on Ashevak’s work: expressive. The word is also used to describe the man himself. He had an exuberant personality and was open with his emotions. Both his life and his art were characterized by boldness and risk-taking. McGrath recalls Ashevak “hopping up and down like a jumping jack at good news and joyfully chasing airplanes summer and winter with his Ski-Do . . . driving the Ski-Doo sitting backwards or standing on the seat or upside down just for the entertainment of it” [10]. According to McGrath, he could be aggressive and antagonistic but was most often loving, loyal and generous. Carving seemed to focus his enormous energy and express the full range of his personality; he poured his whole being into his work. His sister recalls,

“He was always so full of joy as he worked away on a new piece. He was always so proud of himself. He would pause and study a piece that he was working on, as if he was thinking or meditating. Sometimes he would put it to the side for a while and glance at it from a distance. Then a day or two later he would be inspired to finish it. When he finished he’d be pouring with sweat and looking joyful and exuberant!” [11]

Karoo Ashevak’s art inspired an entire generation of artists working in the Kitikmeot Region and is highly prized—and priced—in the Inuit art market today [12]. It is clear from the personal accounts of those close to him that the man is missed as much as his work. In all of those accounts, a feeling of joy comes through. Ashevak’s zest for life and passion for his work gave Inuit art one of its brightest stars.

 

This article was originally published in the Spring 2018 issue of the Inuit Art Quarterly.

NOTES

1 Robin McNeill, “The Spirit World of Karoo Ashevak,” North 22, no. 6 (1975): 3.

2 Judy McGrath, Karoo Ashevak 1940––1974: Sculpture (Winnipeg: The Upstairs Gallery, 1977), unpaginated. McGrath, a sculptural weaver, came to Talurjuaq in 1971 with her husband, John, who was the GNWT Area Industrial Development Officer. The McGraths were particularly interested in the work of Karoo Ashevak and developed a close personal relationship with him and his family. Much of our insight into the nature of the man and the inspiration behind his work comes from the McGraths’ published accounts and interviews.

3 Ibid.

4 McNeill, “The Spirit World of Karoo Ashevak,” 5.

5 Ingo Hessel, Arctic Spirit: Inuit Art from the Albrecht Collection at the Heard Museum (Vancouver: Douglas & McIntyre, 2006), 203.

6 Darlene Coward Wight, Art & Expression of the Netsilik (Winnipeg: Winnipeg Art

Gallery, 2000), 66.

7 McGrath, Karoo Ashevak 1940––1975, unpaginated.

8 Ibid.

9 Ibid.

10 Ibid.

11 Wight, Art & Expression of the Netsilik, 64.

12 Writing in 1990, Marie Routledge and Ingo Hessel noted that “probably the most important factor in the establishment of [the sculptural style in Talurjuaq] was the work of one remarkable talent, Karoo Ashevak. Nowhere else has the carving of a whole community been so dominated by the work of a single artist.” Marie Routledge and Ingo Hessel, “Regional Diversity in Contemporary Inuit Sculpture,” Inuit Art Quarterly 5, no. 3 (Summer 1990): 21.