• Interviews

It’s a Family Affair!

Mar 16, 2022
by Nadine Ryan

Honouring a renowned, multigenerational family of Inuit artists, Ashoona: Enduring Art Stories (2022) brings together diverse artwork from 23 art makers across four generations of the Ashoona family. The exhibition is currently on view in Montreal, QC, at La Guilde from February 24 to July 3, 2022. This show is the first of its kind at La Guilde and was a collaborative effort with first-time curator Goota Ashoona.

Ashoona is a celebrated and versatile artist from Kinngait (Cape Dorset), NU. Her sculptural work is known for delicate and detailed renderings in whalebone, and she also creates striking Inuit dolls and wallhangings. She was recently commissioned to create one of the world’s largest Inuit sculptures, titled Tuniigusiia/The Gift (2020), which was unveiled in front of WAG-Qaumajuq, the new Inuit art museum connected to the Winnipeg Art Gallery, in 2021. 

La Guilde Exhibition view of Ashoona: Enduring Art Storiesfront (2022) © La Guilde

Ashoona: Enduring Art Stories features 10 panels covering various subjects, from individual artistic achievements to significant events for the family and Inuit art more broadly. More than 90 artworks are on display, and several are for sale. A few pieces are from La Guilde’s permanent collection and the bulk is on loan from private and public collections as well as from different Ashoona family members. The display is organized into several sections, following prominent themes found in the artists’ work, including representation of family; everyday life and youth; hunting; animals and transformations. A large family tree, detailing the artists’ history, spans the back wall.

Goota Ashoona and Geneviève Duval in front of the Ashoona family tree in Ashoona: Enduring Art Stories (2022) © La Guilde

Working closely with La Guilde, Ashoona brought an intimate knowledge to the exhibition, weaving her personal experiences into the larger oral history of the family, both in the show’s description and visual narrative. Reflecting well-known themes in Inuit art history, from daily life on the land to larger historical and cultural transformations, the Ashoona family itself provides a thematic thread that runs throughout. In particular, Pitseolak Ashoona’s influence is a grounding force—Pitseolak emerged as a self-taught artist and was among the first generation of Inuit printmakers from Kinngait, leading the family into the field of art. 

“It all started with my grandmother,” Ashoona says, describing the exhibit’s inception and Pitseolak’s impact on the family. “My grandmother worked so hard in the past, for us to survive, for her kids to survive, and for everybody. I’ve carried that [lesson] because it’s really important.” Art making, Ashoona adds, is not only a means to survive but also a way of passing on familial and cultural knowledge to future generations. “I didn’t understand when I was younger, what it meant to be an artist. But later on, when I was growing up, I understood what it was about.”

Goota Ashoona Detail of Kiawak Ashoona, Inuit Carver, My Father (2002) © the artist Photo La Guilde Loan from the Canada Council Art Bank
Coming from an intergenerational family of artists, Ashoona was also shaped by her parents Kiugak Ashoona and Sorroseeleetu Ashoona. “I learned something about making art from them, watching them and listening to them. I used to work with my parents when they were finishing drawings and finishing carvings, and that really carried me. I think I'm very lucky that my parents taught me. So I carry that on.”

In recognition of Pitseolak’s influence, a section of the show is dedicated to her and includes a larger-than-life image of Goota Ashoona’s doll, Pitseolak Returning from the Print Shop (2018), which is currently in the WAG’s collection. “I used to make dolls, and I made a grandmother that I really wanted to show,” Ashoona says. “It was about my grandmother taking her artwork to the co-op to sell,” she elaborates. “And because I didn't bring it, I ended up getting [a photograph] made here.” This striking sculptural doll is dressed in a decorated amauti, glasses and sealskin boots and mitts, with a wooden cane in one hand and a roll of drawings in the other.

Representation of Goota Ashoona's Pitseolak Returning from the Print Shop (2018), in Ashoona: Enduring Art Stories (2022) © La Guilde
As curator, Ashoona found putting the work together was an emotional and uplifting experience. “It was very touching for me [and] it helped me to grow as an artist,” she says. Working closely with her ancestors’ artwork, some of which she had never seen before, was moving and gave her strength. It fostered a sense of reconnection with her family members, filling the space with life and memories. 

La Guilde Exhibition view of Ashoona: Enduring Art Stories - back (2022) © La Guilde
The show came together with support from many hands. The Ashoona family was consulted, virtually for the most part, throughout the process to offer guidance. Ashoona also had help from her close friend and fellow Inuit artist Kale Sheppard, who aided with the project’s planning and visualization through drawings. Sheppard also accompanied Ashoona to the opening as her invited guest. 

La Guilde Exhibition view of Ashoona: Enduring Art Stories - family (2022) © La Guilde
“It was wonderful accompanying Goota and seeing her thrive in her element,” Sheppard says by email. “I feel I am the one who should be grateful for the opportunity to tag along and witness this important moment in her life and career, and for the wonderful learning opportunity. Seeing the artwork from multiple family members spanning many generations come together in one show was emotional, especially for Goota,” explains Sheppard. “I got a strong sense of joy and accomplishment from her seeing everything come together. The exhibition is truly a testament to their lasting family legacy.”

La Guilde Details of family section in Ashoona: Enduring Art Stories (2022) © La Guilde

An important part of sharing knowledge and advancing the arts is offering reciprocal support and mentorship. And Sheppard’s company was just that, Ashoona explains. “I was very happy that I had [Kale] beside me. That's the most important thing to grow. To be an artist, [you need] to have somebody beside you who makes you keep going,” Ashoona says.

The “Ashoona Art Show,” as Goota refers to it, marks an important moment for the Ashoona family and for Goota’s career as an artist. The show’s success further serves to continue the Ashoona family legacy of remarkable contributions to the history of Inuit art.

For more on the show, Goota Ashoona will be giving a virtual artist talk with La Guilde on March 25, 2022 from 6:00–7:00 pm EST.

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