Kenojuak Ashevak: The Inuit Art of a Modern Printmaker

Kenojuak Ashevak once told an interviewer that she aimed to make viewers happy with her colorful prints and drawings, a modest aspiration for an artist who has been referred to as a “national treasure” in Canada. Kenojuak rose to prominence in the late 1950s with her experimental printmaking, which seemed to white audiences in Southern Canada to be emblematic of the Inuit artistic aesthetic. To the extent that she drew from traditional Inuit artistic processes, basic subject matter, and stylistic tendencies, one might classify her as a quintessential Inuit artist. And yet, the artworks that generated romantic analyses by a distant audience of outsiders were in fact influenced by outsider styles and methods such as Japanese printmaking and modernist abstraction. Narratives of primitivism have clouded objective analyses of Kenojuak’s work and that of her contemporary Inuit printmakers. At the least, one must acknowledge that these artists and their work were part of a vast network of aesthetic experimentation and exchange.

Animals and, predominantly, birds, as well as women and children, are central to her imagery.

Unlike some Inuit artists who favored certain traditional themes such as shamanism and transformation or spiritual metamorphosis, Kenojuak eschewed complex narratives. Instead, she depicted  a small number of simple motifs, opting for basic forms that might be repeated or expanded upon. Animals and, predominantly, birds, as well as women and children, are central to her imagery. For example, owls and ravens are omnipresent, whether in her small sculptures, drawings, or prints. She used patterning, silhouettes, and abstract designs that were already familiar to her via her experience with sewing traditional Inuit clothing and bags. 

Versions of some of Kenojuak’s best known works were selected by Pomegranate for a 2024 calendar. FF2 Media has partnered with Pomegranate, a publishing and printing company that offers its customers “art you can bring home.” In celebration of Pomegranate’s commitment to inclusivity, we’re proud to spotlight some of the brilliant women artists in their catalog: in this instance, Kenojuak Ashevak.

The calendar features an assortment of her works on paper–both prints and drawings. The cover image, from Kenojuak’s Spectacular Ravens series, is a drawing in colored pencil and ink on paper. However, there are variations of this stone-cut and stencil print composition. The latter is brilliantly colored in rich red, yellow, orange, green and blue. In contrast, the calendar piece features more naturalistic colors. The birds seem pinned to a center axis; if one moves, they all move as a whole. The bright hues of the other piece activate the simplified forms of the ravens; each bird seems to be independent of the others, on a course of its very own. 

Click image to enlarge.

In Tapestry of Owls (1999), Kenojuak eliminated the white space of the previous compositions. Instead, using colored pencil and black ink to outline the simplified forms of the owls in the upper and lower registers and to extend elegantly the plumage of the larger owl. This image is evocative of the artist’s textile work, which preceded her foray into printmaking and it has been suggested that both her palette and style owe much to traditional Inuit textile decoration. 

The simple, monochromatic linearity of this image calls to mind Inuit carvings, which are notably economical in description yet satisfyingly concise.

Another work reproduced in the calendar, Quivering Seagull (2004), is a stylized, minimalist depiction of the eponymous bird. Bristling feathers spaced regularly and culminating in sharp points emanate from the seagull, producing a sort of full-body nimbus. The creature strides forward perhaps toward its prey. The simple, monochromatic linearity of this image calls to mind Inuit carvings, which are notably economical in description yet satisfyingly concise. It also alludes to monochromatic, simplified, and linear Japanese prints where negative space is activated and powerful.

Prior to the late 1950s, Inuit artists were not printmakers. However, the graphic tradition had existed for centuries as seen in works on stone, ivory, horn, and with textiles such as caribou and seal skin. That changed in the late 1940s and the 1950s when Toronto native and World War II veteran, James Houston, fled city life – first, for northern Québec, then the Canadian Arctic. In the 14 years that followed, he lived and traveled in the region. He served as a civil administrator at Cape Dorset, known as Kinngait (“high mountain” or “where the hills are” in Inuktitut), which is an Inuit settlement at the southern end of Baffin Island in Nunavut, Canada. 

An artist and filmmaker as well, James Houston is credited with popularizing Inuit art throughout Canada and well beyond, including organizing a major exhibition of Inuit art in the late 1950s. In concert with the Canadian government and Inuit artists, including Kenojuak, he acted as a broker between white collectors in the South and Inuit artists. He was tasked by the Canadian Handicrafts Guild, the Hudson Bay Company, and the Canadian government with launching an indigenous arts program in Cape Dorset to provide a source of desperately-needed income for the Inuit. 

With the nascent printmaking movement, artists such as Kenojuak, Kananginak Pootoogook (1935-2010), Osuitok Ipeelee (1922-2005), and others began using linoleum tiles, stencils, and other basic processes to produce prints on paper. By the end of the decade, the Cape Dorset artists’ rich experimental efforts yielded the first collection of cataloged prints, which were exhibited at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts in 1960. 

Importantly, James Houston’s Cape Dorset printmaking project was developed within the scope of Western colonialist ideologies and aesthetics. Under the pretext of providing the Inuit with a potential source of income and disseminating Inuit culture, including traditional art forms, via his project, the Canadian government asserted its sovereignty in Inuit territory, over that portion of the Arctic. As Suzy Kopf with the Baltimore Museum of Art explains, “At first, this project was considered a symbiotic ‘win-win game’ for both the Western and native participants, as all stakeholders contributed to the formation of a primitive and exotic representation of Inuit culture to the outside world.” 

The West Baffin Eskimo Cooperative founded in Cape Dorset, spearheaded by outsiders such as Houston, established an infrastructure for the production and marketing of Inuit art to European and American collectors. The cooperative created a demand for prints, steering artists away from sewing and carving and other traditional media. It marketed the art as “primitive” and “timeless,” the product of a people and culture allegedly “untouched” and “authentic,” notes Jiete Li of Smith College. Accordingly, consumers of the art, especially the prints, expected the works to reflect these qualities.

James Houston had visited Japan in 1958 to study printmaking with an artist, Un’ichi Hiratsuka, who, writes Hannah Gadboi of the Rhode Island School of Design Museum, “emphasized the artist’s hand in creating the woodblock prints, a departure from the tradition of artists outsourcing the plate-making process.” In turn, he taught the Cape Dorset artists this method, adapting it to carved stone print blocks based on drawings of traditional Inuit visual forms and themes. Houston’s influence was powerful, imposing distinctly Western, “modern art concepts” on the prints while insisting that the Inuit artists nevertheless worked and lived outside of time.

Kenojuak met James Houston and his wife, Alma, both of whom urged her to develop her printmaking abilities

Kenojuak met James Houston and his wife, Alma, both of whom urged her to develop her printmaking abilities. Already skilled in drawing and sculpting, her prints garnered her national and international recognition. In particular, The Enchanted Owl, which she created in 1960, has come to represent Inuit art, not least because of its wider release on a Canadian postage stamp. 

Kenojuak’s Inuit heritage has in some ways limited assessments of her work within the context of modern and contemporary artistic developments. Early critical responses to the Cape Dorset prints were mixed but almost universally focused on the interventions of outsiders and modernity itself on the “purity” of the work and, more importantly, the artists as though they had an obligation to resist outside influences. 

Some critics saw the prints, particularly the prevailing themes relating to an increasingly anachronistic way of life preceding “the introduction of modern amenities,” as dishonest at best. Overwhelmingly, though, assessments of the emergent Cape Dorset printmaking movement were couched in the paternalism of colonialism, ignoring, argues Gadboi, “the agency of Inuit artists to create works based in either their modern reality or their history.”

In Kenojuak’s work, whether sculpture, drawing, print, or otherwise, we can observe one artist’s efforts to explore, as Gadboi puts it, “lived personal experiences and deep cultural histories.” At the same time, underpinning traditional themes and imagery, we may detect in the works of Kenojuak and other Cape Dorset artists evidence of the complex process of negotiating with one’s colonizer in the face of cultural repression and forced assimilation. 

Indeed, Kenojuak’s art reflects this process of constant negotiation with forms and forces both internal and external, acutely personal and communal, and so forth. 

The Denver Art Museum has described this complicated dynamic succinctly: “In the 1950s artists embraced the opportunity to expand in new directions with government-sponsored formal art training.” Indeed, Kenojuak’s art reflects this process of constant negotiation with forms and forces both internal and external, acutely personal and communal, and so forth. 

Emily Auger, historian of Inuit art, has argued convincingly in favor of a reconsideration of the contributions of Inuit artists in the larger context of Canadian (and global) art. Auger explains that, in the course of researching and writing her book, The Inuit Way of Art: Aesthetics and History in and Beyond the Arctic (2005), she “explored the ways in which contemporary Inuit art demonstrates cultural influences and has, in turn, influenced both non-Inuit artists and scholars. 

Perhaps the takeaway here, including in relation to Pomegranate’s splendid calendar representation of Kenojuak’s work, is that inclusivity also involves releasing indigenous artists from expectations that they show us something ostensibly “pure” and “primitive,” pre-dating colonization and forced assimilation. In a similar vein, we must resist regarding work by Kenojuak and her contemporaries as “primitive,” not least because they were very much of their time, producing their bold, experimental prints with full awareness of artistic trends beyond their borders. 

© Debra Thimmesch (11/20/23) Special for FF2 Media


PomCom offers fans of Kenojuak Ashevak’s art the ability to incorporate them into their daily lives through gorgeous calendars, jigsaw puzzles, and note cards. Shop PomCom’s Kenojuak Ashevak collection here.

Check out more history on Inuit art at the Denver Art Museum, the Canadian Museum of History, the Baltimore Museum of Art, and the Rhode Island School of Design Museum.

Hannah Gadboi of the Rhode Island School of Design Museum writes about the concept of purity found in Inuit printmaking.

Read more about Kenojuak from Jiete Li of Smith College.

Read The Inuit Way of Art: Aesthetics and History in and Beyond the Arctic by Emily E. Auger


Featured Photo/Middle Photo: Images of Pomegranate’s 2024 Kenojuak Ashevak calendar have been provided by Pomegranate, and are used by FF2 Media with their permission. All Rights Reserved by Pomegranate.

Bottom Photo: Kenojuak Ashevak displaying her art in her Northern workshop. Photo Credit: Paul Couvrette / Alamy Stock Photo. Image ID: T41BGY

Tags: artist, Debra Thimmesch, inuit art, Kenojuak Ashevak, PomCom, Pomegranate, Pomegranate Calendars, Printmaking

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Debra Thimmesch is an art historian and critic, activist, independent researcher and scholar, writer, editor, and visual artist. She mentors graduate students in art history and is attuned to current endeavors to radically rethink, decolonize, and reframe the study and pedagogy of art history. Her work has appeared in Art Papers, The Brooklyn Rail, and Blind Field Journal.
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