In a Toronto restaurant of some status but little reputation, Kenojuak prepared to lunch. She pulled her chair in tight to the table, lifted the end of the red linen tablecloth and carefully spread it on her lap. Throughout the meal, when the need arose, she wiped her mouth with it. The waiters, with all their supercilious urbanity, took note. Had Andy Warhol done the same thing, say, at Elaine’s in New York, the practice might have become fashionable. But one man’s style is another’s stigma, and for Kenojuak, Canada’s foremost Inuit artist, the reaction meant only one thing: she was a long way from home.
Kenojuak now earns about $30,000 yearly, still rolls her own cigarettes and lives in a modern frame house in Cape Dorset on the southwest coast of Baffin Island. It is there, as artist and breadwinner (she is twice a widow), she draws and carves, and as mother, takes on the unassuming role of chief cook and bottle washer for her six children. The house is filled with knick-knacks— Kewpie dolls and souvenir ashtrays; a snowmobile is parked out back. But despite this domesticity, Kenojuak is not really at home. She complains that the house is a misery. “I don’t like it,” she says, through an Inuit interpreter, her animated face as smooth as polished soapstone.
Her disaffection with the house is perhaps symbolic of a deeper feeling which decries modernity in its many manifestations. Although she admits to being hooked on CBC TV’s The National (even though she doesn’t understand English), it is a small aberration, for Kenojuak’s world is not one of satellites and Coca-Cola imported from the south. Her life, like her art, owes much to a simpler age. This may explain why Kenojuak’s primitive icons give a sense of instinctively re-creating the life that has now vanished. To this day, she is still as skilled with a fish spear as she is with the tools of lithography.
The traditional, sometimes brutal lifestyle of trapping, hunting, of just surviving on the fruits of that begrudging land was still flourishing when Kenojuak was born on Baffin Island 53 years ago. It was a time when Inuit families, like markers on a vast war board, moved nomadically over the Arctic wastes. Marriages, like Kenojuak’s first to her late husband-artist Johnniebo, were arranged. “The woman’s life was with the children in the home,” says Kenojuak. “We were responsible for stretching and cleaning skins for market, making sure the fire was always going and preparing the food that the men would hunt. It was a full and interesting life.” But it was also a sinister life. Kenojuak lost six children due to their lack of immunity to disease and the absence of medical attention.
Although many of today’s young Inuit have little truck with the myths of their elders, Kenojuak still talks of her grandfather who was a shaman, a strong man with prophetic, curative powers who could “turn himself into a walrus spirit or make himself disappear.” As a child, she saw a mermaid cruising through the arctic waters: “We were in a boat and I saw her hair blowing backwards in the wind and her scales tossing in the water.”
It is this lyric cultural memory that Kenojuak has called upon in the thousands of drawings, prints and carvings which have been exhibited as far away as the Netherlands. Like many Inuit artists who have made their mark, Kenojuak was discovered by Torontonian James Houston who, in 1948, shelved his southern civility, moved to the Arctic and taught the Inuit the art of printmaking and merchandising. In 1956, Houston was sufficiently impressed with Kenojuak’s seal skin appliqué designs that he gave her a set of colored pencils with simple instructions: draw. “At first, I didn’t know what to draw,” she says, “so I just began to draw what I liked.” From this inauspicious start, Kenojuak has risen to pre-eminence in the world of Eskimo art. Her work earned her one of the first Order of Canada medals in 1967, and recently, one of her prints brought down the gavel for $15,000 at a public auction, the highest price ever for an Eskimo print.
That her art has changed her life is not in doubt. She has travelled widely, been feted by governments, touched the lives of many through her guileless images. But what has been the greatest effect of all her artistry? She says without blinking: “It has meant that my children will not be poor, that I can buy food and give my son gas money for the snowmobile.”
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