Who Am I? Exhibition
Siilavut, Nunavut (Our Environment, Our Land), 1999
Kenojuak Ashevak (Inuit, 1927–2013)
Gift of John L. and Ethel Margaret Gillmor Bohan. In the permanent collection, Brunnier Art Museum, University Museums, Iowa State University, Ames, IA.
Kenojuak Ashevak celebrated the birth of the new territory with “Siilavut, Nunavut” or “Our Environment, Our Land.” A spectacular lithograph showing a globe of finely rendered Arctic animals surrounded by setting moons and rising suns, Ashevak’s print reminds us that the animals, the land and the environment hadn’t changed, only the way they would be governed: now by an Inuit leadership recognized by the federal government.
Geoghegan, John. “Twenty Creative Years." Nunatsiaq News, March 29, 2019.
“A Guest in a Technicolor World”
I was first drawn to the colors and images in this beautiful print by the noted Nunavut printmaker Kenojuak Ashevak. Our Environment, Our Land, the work of art depicts creatures from the land, sea, and air enclosed in a technicolor globe. Surrounding the globe is a wide sky, half of which is day and the other night. Stars and the cycles of the moon float at the top of the print in the cool blue of the night sky. At the bottom of the print, the sun rises and sets amidst a warm wash of yellows, pinks, and oranges.
I can recognize familiar aspects that the print depicts: the animals, the moon, the stars and sun. But the composition challenges my sense of space and forces me to re-think the perspective of each of the elements. Fish, birds, and mammals float together within the globe. They occupy the same space within the central circle, not distinguished from one another by region or realm. In the print, the sun falls away from the globe. The birds and butterflies rise from the earth by sinking to the bottom of the print, disorienting my sense of direction.
Drawing on the title, I think that the artwork may depict the world and its creatures. But Kenojuak Ashevak once said of her art: “I just take these things out of my thoughts and out of my imagination, and I don’t really give any weight to the idea of its being an image of something… I am just concentrating on placing it down on paper in a way that is pleasing to my own eye, whether it has anything to do with subjective reality or not”. What meaning can I draw from the print?
As a scholar of American and Indigenous religions and cultures, I think a lot about the ways that the environment shapes religious traditions and cultural practices. The term “religion” is expansive—it refers to more than simply institutionalized religion or belief. For many Native nations, what we define as “religion” includes practices, protocols, laws and ceremonies. The natural world is significant for many Indigenous communities. Environment and land are not just important as a source of values, but because they house a web of connections. Animals are not just features of the natural world but relatives. They are “other-than-human persons”—beings with capacities, desires, and intentions that they seek to communicate to humans. The world, the land, and the environment are not just a backdrop—they host a network of relationality.
As I view the print, I want to appreciate its beauty but also to respect the situatedness of the artist’s cultural context. The title raises some questions for me. Whose land is “our land”? Is the “our” here referring to the artists’ community in Nunavut? Is “our environment” the realm of the beings depicted in the piece? Is everyone who may view the work of art included in the “our”? While it may be tempting to imagine myself in the environment depicted by this gorgeous print, I also want to resist the idea that the title is an invitation to stake a claim. Rather, I want to consider myself a guest in the wondrous world that Ashevak shares.
Dr. Sarah Dees
Assistant Professor, Philosophy and Religious Studies
I first saw Kenojuak’s print in the Brunnier’s exhibition, Creative by Nature (2017) that featured Inuit artworks. I was drawn immediately to the luscious color and whimsical images– so playful and appealing – and not so “documentary” as are some of the other Inuit prints in the Museum’s collection.
The color is like a dazzling show of Northern Lights against a dark sky – a phenomenon I have always wanted to see and finally did on a recent trip to Iceland. Just imagine how many Lights Kenojuak saw in her lifetime!
As the print shows, when the sky is truly dark, the stars and moon seem bigger and are much more brilliant than what we see from our well-lit urban homes. When I arrive at a place where no man-made lights mar the night view, it’s easy to simply gasp at the enormity of the universe. Is the artist doing the same?
Her moon phases repeat astronomical diagrams that I always puzzle over, because you have to understand the orientation of the moon to the sun, and then, how we see the moon from Earth. To really understand, you have to put yourself in a different place.
On my first visit to Alaska, it was July and the “midnight sun” was in evidence. Time-lapse photographs I’ve seen that show the sun’s daily route skimming the horizon look just like Kenojuak’s suns at the bottom of the print. I am sure Kenojuak experienced the full wonder of Artic seasons as the earth tipped back & forth on its axis – total darkness and then, total light – just as she shows in her print.
Her detailed drawings of the animals that share her Arctic world remind me of the meticulous black and white drawings of Edward Gorey – an artist/author whose slightly quirky imagery I have always loved.
And the way the animals are floating through the air are very like the magical worlds that Marc Chagall created to show his feelings of love. Kenojuak’s circle of floating animals has a similar affectionate quality.
All these personal associations made viewing this print especially meaningful to me – without knowing the artist’s intent. But thus engaged, I wanted to know more about Kenojauk’s meaning. As the title suggests, is she perhaps just celebrating those things that make up her environment?
With any work of art, the viewer brings his or her whole world experience to the viewing - and when blended with the artist’s purposes, creates a rich soup of understanding!
Local artist and Iowa State University retiree
Penguin from “The Doubtful Guest”, 1957, Edward Gorey.
Birthday, 1915, Marc Chagall. Museum of Modern Art.