The work of Jessie Oonark (1906-1985) is beloved among Inuit art enthusiasts worldwide, for her distinctive wall-hangings, prints and graphics. Today the Jessie Oonark Centre in Qamani’tuaq (Baker Lake), NU, opened in 1992 in her honour, provides a space for local artists to learn and create, a space that was not available for Oonark herself during her career.
One of the things that stands out to me in Oonark’s work is how she was able to relay stories and images of old shamanic traditions while staying true to her newly adopted Christian faith. In my experience, Inuit shamanism is a difficult topic among most Christian Inuit and I was very surprised to learn that an artist whose work often depicts shamanic elements was a devout Anglican.
Her work covers a variety of themes, from Jesus on the cross, to flying shamans, to everyday scenes of Inuit life. This has always fascinated me as a modern Inuk woman, to see the transition of belief systems being navigated by Inuit artists throughout the 1950s, 60s and 70s. Oonark was living and creating during a time of great cultural upheaval, and managed to work around changing taboos while creating brilliant images and visual stories that have been celebrated for decades.
For me, Jessie Oonark is the ultimate representation of the kind of strength and agency that I have always associated with Inuit women. When looking back at this comic after I drew it, I saw elements of my own annanasiaq in Oonark’s character that made me smile. They were both strong women and I hope that someday I am able to provide that same example of fortitude and independent thinking to younger generations of Inuit.