Blind Contour Homage #27 – “Riding the Sea Goddess” – Jessie Oonark
Environmental and socio-historical calamities combined to produce the conditions from which one of the most celebrated Inuit artists would emerge. Jessie Oonark, born in 1906 in Chantrey Inlet on the Arctic coast, spent the first five decades of her life travelling Nunavut with her nomadic hunter family. She married her husband Qabluunaq when she was quite young, and together they had twelve children. But their difficult living conditions—impacted by the collapse of fur prices in a declining European trade market—became untenable in the 1950s, when the caribou population dwindled. During this time, Oonark lost her husband and four children to illness and starvation.
Responding to the emergency, the Canadian government airlifted the Inuit of Chantrey Inlet to Baker Lake, where Oonark worked various odd jobs, such as cleaning and sewing. It was in Baker Lake that a visiting biologist recognized Oonark’s drawing skills—the story goes that Oonark saw some children’s drawings and, upon announcing that she could do better, accepted the challenge to prove it. The biologist gave her paper and a set of pencils. Over the next couple of years, Oonark would send her drawings to the biologist’s home in Ottawa, and he would send more art supplies. Despite her late start, Oonark quickly gained renown as an outstanding artist within the Baker Lake community, and her work was sent by other residents to the West Baffin Co-operative in Cape Dorset, where her drawings were turned into prints—an essential shift that meant wider distribution, broader recognition, and archival potentials for Oonark’s artwork.
In 1966, the Department of Indian and Northern Affairs provided Oonark with studio space and a small salary, enabling her to continue drawing, as well as to create textile arts (Oonark’s acclaimed untitled tapestry, measuring at over 22 square meters, hangs at the National Arts Centre). She gradually became recognized as among the most important and influential Inuit artists, celebrated by galleries across Canada and inducted into the Order of Canada in 1984, a year before her death in Churchill, Manitoba.
Often drawn as fragmentary forms and shaped into non-linear images, Oonark’s drawings and wall hangings consistently represent stories of shamanism and dreaming. Although Oonark didn’t practice shamanism herself, she had witnessed her father’s work as a shaman, and perhaps she used these memories to fulfill what Josephine Withers describes as the responsibility of shamans and artists “to record and give shape to the personal and collective memories of the community.” A shaman’s role is to summon spirit helpers, such as a bird, bear, walrus, or caribou, and seek guidance in the search for game. Many of Oonark’s drawings—Flight of the Shaman and A Shaman’s Helping Spirits are two examples—represent the shaman’s spiritual work.
Indeed, the significance within Oonark’s pieces is layered and complicated. They suggest multiple meanings and, from different angles, suggest new narratives. Her drawings implicitly acknowledge the mutable nature of the oral stories from which she draws, and which she intentionally alters. For instance, speaking of her piece Big Woman, Oonark notes that she changed the common version of a story about a stone woman: “This woman who is turning into a stone, in Chantrey Inlet. The Stone itself is really colourful because this woman has a fancy parka… She turned into stone… because she never wanted to get married to anybody, not anyone at all. The woman is supposed to be in a kneeling position, but I just drew it in a standing position anyway.” Here, Oonark’s remark reveals how her art resists single interpretations, so that many of her pieces have a shape-shifting quality, with non-linear narrative suggestions indicating ambiguity.
Although it has been over thirty years since Oonark’s death, her work continues to influence Inuit art produced today. All of her eight living children are also artists.
Born: 1906, Chantrey Inlet, Nunavut
Died: 1985, Churchill, Manitoba
Billson, Janet Mancini and Kyra Mancini. Inuit Women: Their Powerful Spirit in a Century of Change. Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2007.
Bonesteel, Sarah. “Canada’s Relationship with Inuit: A History of Policy and Program Development.” Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada. June 2006. https://www.aadnc-aandc.gc.ca/eng/1100100016900/1100100016908#chp2
Fowler Museum at UCLA. “Power of Thought: The Art of Jessie Oonark.” Press Release, February 8, 2004. https://www.fowler.ucla.edu/wp-content/uploads/2016/08/PowerOfThought-release.pdf
“Jessie Oonark.” North American Women Artists of the Twentieth Century: A Biographical Dictionary. Edited by Jules Heller and Nancy G. Heller. Routledge, 1995, pp. 420.
The National, CBC Television. “A Tapestry from the Late Inuit Artist Jessie Oonark Getting New Life.” News Release. April 4, 2014. https://search-proquest-com.ezproxy.kpu.ca:2443/docview/1324596840/fulltext/F60F055876C943FEPQ/1?accountid=35875
National Arts Centre. “The National Arts Centre Celebrates the Return of the Magnificent Oonark Tapestry.” News Release, April 4, 2013. https://nac-cna.ca/en/media/newsrelease/6120
Withers, Josephine. “Inuit Women Artists: An Art Essay.” Feminist Studies, 1984, vol. 10, no. 1, pp. 84 – 96.