In conversation with Marcel Dzama and Adam Shopkorn
Shuvinai Ashoona lives and works in Kinngait (formerly Cape Dorset), an Inuit hamlet at the southern tip of Baffin Island in the Canadian territory of Nunavut. Born in 1961, Ashoona grew up in a community of prolific artists and began producing her own drawings in 1995. She works primarily in pen, ink, colored pencils and markers. As a member of the West Baffin Eskimo Cooperative, Ashoona honed her craft through a regimented studio practice at Kinngait Studios, where she draws nearly every day. With her unique expressive visual sensibility, Ashoona has distinguished herself from other artists in the West Baffin Eskimo Cooperative.
Below, Ashoona, Dzama and Shopkorn discuss how the artists’ Canadian origins have informed their work, the impact of inuit art on Dzama’s practice and Ashoona’s insight on a selection of her drawings.
ADAM SHOPKORN: Shuvinai and Marcel,
It is very nice to be able to talk to two artists I greatly admire and who I believe have much in common. I really do this by feeling, but I see a connection between your work, and that is the reason why I was so intrigued by the idea of putting the two of you in dialogue. I appreciate you both taking the time to be here.
I guess the first natural question to ask you, Marcel, is where you are from in Canada? As you know, Shuvinai is based up in the north of Canada, in Kinngait, Nunavut.
MARCEL DZAMA: Thank you, Adam, I'm from Winnipeg and I spent most of my childhood in Canada before relocating to New York in the late 90s.
AS: Would you say that your time in Winnipeg influenced you as an artist? And what I would really like to know from the both of you is when did you become artists?
MD: Winnipeg was essential to my art. As a kid, just growing up there, I had dyslexia, so I was quite bad in school. So, the one thing I was praised for by teachers was actually my artwork.
I kind of knew I had to at least do something in the art world or do some sort of art. Originally, I thought I would probably be a cartoonist or maybe a comic book artist but then I went to art school and thought I might become an art teacher.
I had all these opportunities. This one curator from Winnipeg, Wayne Baerwaldt, showed my artwork in Los Angeles and everything just kind of took off from that exhibition.
AS: Wow, thank you, Marcel. Shuvinai, can you locate the moment you became an artist?
SHUVINAI ASHOONA: I started when my sister Goota Ashoona from Kinngait, Nunavut encouraged me to go to the cooperative in Kinngait sometime in the 1990s. She encouraged me to go down there and try to sell my drawings. She thought I was talented and that by selling these I could buy something for myself. It was the beginning of a long relationship with the cooperative and I never stopped drawing since.
AS: Shuvinai, working on paper became your medium. One of the things I find fascinating is that you are often lying down on the ground, usually on top of large-scale paper. This is random, but Marcel, do you ever draw while you're on the floor as well?
MD: Absolutely! That's how I draw all of my larger works. It makes it so much easier to get around the pieces and it always just made the most sense to me. When I do smaller works, I'm always at a desk. But anything larger than a small desk, demands from me to be completed on the floor.
SA: I actually feel that I rarely work on the floor. I am lucky because I usually work on a big table that I have available at the cooperative. Sometimes, of course, I work on the floor as well, to make sure that the big drawings can be completed as I want them to be.
AS: And so, Shuvinai, if we look at Untitled, 2011, I would imagine that you drew it on your desk at the cooperative, correct?
AS: Marcel, what do you think about this piece?
MD: Well, I really love anything with hybrid creatures and mythology in it, so this piece is just very fascinating to me. There's so much information in this piece. This story could go in so many directions.
The way it is set up is beautiful, the composition I mean, with the steps leading to the globes and the two creatures coming out of the water. I don't know if there’s any mythology behind it or if it's just pure imagination. And I like that I don't know that, but I still feel that there is so much meaning in this work.
I can imagine, considering how dense everything is, that it must have taken quite a while to finish. I really appreciate seeing this sort of energy spent on a piece. You can tell when artists really enjoyed themselves while making a piece, and I think Shuvinai enjoyed this one. Or else, she wouldn’t be putting that kind of energy into it.
SA: Thank you, Marcel!
Well, here I am imagining these mermaids who are from another universe and who are watching the news of their own planet. These come from fantasy and I had to put them on paper. I work on drawing everyday, 9 to 5. A big piece takes me several days. This one I think took me about three days.
AS: I am curious because I know writers sometimes sit down and struggle to write. Shuvinai you are very consistent and rhythmic. You show up at 9:00 AM and leave at 5:00 PM each and every day. Marcel, do you have routines like that and are there days where you sit down in front of a piece of paper, and you just don't have it for one reason or another?
MD: Well, I wish I had Shuvinai’s routine!
I keep the worst hours. I draw mainly at nighttime for some reason. So, during the day, I try to just spend time with my son, and I take him to school and then I sleep while he is in school, then I go pick him up. So, I've been working around the clock from 8 at night till usually 4 or 5 in the morning. And then it's time to wake up and take my son to school and then I go back to drawing.
Mine are like vampire hours but I've never had a problem with ideas coming, especially at that time. Maybe in the daytime I might, but at night, I'm always just overwhelmed with ideas in some ways. Imagination opens up at around that time.
Sure, if I experiment and perhaps try a new paper, it may take me some time. This is more of a technical thing, but the paper might buckle with the paints, and I'll have to figure out a way to use it or I'll just have to scrap it. But ultimately it’s never the idea that slows me down.
AS: That is interesting. If nighttime informs your work Marcel, Shuvinai how does where you live and where you work, the geographical location, the community in and around you, affect your ideas?
For instance, back to the Untitled drawing, are these creatures in any way rooted in your everyday reality?
SA: Well, with the mermaids, I can say that I have never seen these creatures in real life and I know nothing about them. But I heard about their existence from storytellers. And you know these stories are part of my everyday reality and they are important to me. In some ways, we get these stories out of somebody else and interpret them and then I apply them to my work.
The storytellers are part of my community and that does inform my work.
AS: Thank you, Shuvinai.
And on the note of the storytellers, and of the community informing Shuviani’s work, Marcel, I am curious to know if Winnipeg and this city’s culture still live within you today that you're making work in New York?
MD: Yes, and I think that is because Winnipeg peaked in the early 1910-1920’s. You could really see how much history there was in the city coming from that time period. For instance in the area where my studio was located, I was surrounded by abandoned theaters and old commercials of products that weren't around anymore.
It might be different now, but if you went to Goodwill back in the days most of the stuff was from that time period, so you had all this like old Sears catalogs from the 20s and things like that. And that really captured my imagination. I think for some reason I had nostalgia for that time period and I still do and I think it's because the city had this ghost of the great 1920s around it.
And one other thing that remained in my practice was the snow. Once the snow came in during the winter, Winnipeg almost became a blank canvas and a lot of my early work was very minimal with almost no background and just characters and I kind of associated that with that sort of black whitewashed winter landscape.
AS: Talking about figures on a minimal, white background, one of Shuvinai’s drawings comes to mind. Marcel, what do you think of Untitled, 2009. What are your initial impressions?
MD: Well, this is another great drawing! You can tell that there is a somewhat personal story behind the entire image, but as a viewer, you can make it up for yourself. There’s no title so there’s no information, but you know that there is a story that Shuvinai is telling or is she portraying an event that happened? The composition is beautiful with these apples dangling and floating.
SA: This is an event that happened. The three figures are playing a game where they must try to bite the apple first while blindfolded. The manager of the cooperative, who is the host of the game, watches over all the people who are struggling to complete this task. He cannot intervene and he is only there to see who will bite the apple first. Sometimes, when someone bites the apple, they just keep going and the game continues.
MD: What I love is how without knowing this, the drawing can be open ended to so many interpretations. There is a metaphor that I see in this work of the forbidden fruit or something like that, and the blindfolded characters that have to play this game. It is somehow mythological.
I wonder, Shuvinai, is this a childhood memory? I imagine so.
SA: Not really, it is something that I still do. It actually is a game played during the Christmas season in our community hall at the Cooperative. You know, when the New Year starts, they bring up a lot of different games, not only the apple one and we play them all together. The apple game is funny because we all have to try hard not to laugh and make sure to grab as many apples as possible. Sometimes we do this with oranges too. I drew this one work from memory. The figures are not invented. They are the actual people that were playing the game.
MD: Generally, what interests me right away from your work is the composition. See Untitled, 2012, in this piece the first thing I am interested in is the composition and I just love the way Shuvinai does it.
Well, in this drawing, I also love the bear! I always love a bear in a drawing so it's just great to see the polar bear carpet. You do wonder right away about what she is doing: Is she skinning the bear? The main figure in the front has a blade.
And then the people in the back who are watching and who remain outside the window. And what I find interesting about this is that well, these kids are just watching. Is this because it is an eventful moment? And similarly to this, I wonder what the one in the other character in the back is doing. What is he holding to his mouth? He seems to be drinking from a baby bottle.
And lastly there is this one element that I find very interesting which is the text on the drinking character’s t-shirt. Is it a text about the bear?
SA: You know, I don't quite remember what I wrote on this t-shirt. I sometimes do that, I incorporate text in my work. What interested me here was the polar bear skinning, which is something that I drew from memory as well. The lady is preparing to take off the fingers of the polar bear. They use this tool that will help scrape off the skin too.
And yes, at the back of the painting, after the red haired lady, there is a baby boy or a baby girl, drinking from the bottle.
AS: The t-shirt reads:
Polar bears coming out of a bat
Polar bears coming out from a duck
Polar bears coming out from an ear
Polar bears coming out from a toe
Polar bears coming out from an insects
Polar bears coming out from the fruits
Polar bears coming out from vegetables
SA: You see, this is something I often do. I include a rhyme, something like: "Jack and Jill went up the hill.” This is a different kind or rhyme. My tribute to the bear.
MD: That is beautiful. I think ultimately what I really like in this piece is also the intimacy. It is somewhat very family oriented and accessible.
AS: I know that I am going off topic, but I wanted to ask the two of you if there are any artist heroes that are at the tippy top of the list of artists you love?
MD: I'm very influenced by Marcel Duchamp. He was the first artist that I really became obsessed with. That then led me to Francis Picabia and then to William Blake. Especially Blake’s drawings. I also like Oskar Schlemmer. But you know, now that I think about it, all of these artists I really got to know them only once I moved to New York and I got to see all these things in person.
But when I was young and I lived in Winnipeg, I was highly influenced by the Inuit artists. The main source of inspiration was the Winnipeg Art Gallery's Inuit art floor.
It was much more free, a lot of figurative drawings could be found there, all made almost in a children's storybook fashion. And what I saw then never left me, I was suddenly exploring themes of hybrid, mythological creatures and stuff like that. That was also influenced by my grandfather's farm and just by seeing bears and animals everywhere. He was raising cows too and so that just kind of naturally came into my work. And then when I saw that work at the Winnipeg gallery it all made sense to me. I also was so drawn by the intimacy of these works and they were going in the same direction where I was going. In school, anytime I was asked to write an essay on any artists, I usually wrote about an Inuit artist. I believe I might have written about Shuvinai’s mother too because, if I remember well, this is now a long time ago, her works were also hung in the Winnipeg Art Gallery.
SA: That is very possible! She is one of my heroes.
AS: Wow, Marcel, thanks for sharing that. And thank you, Shuvinai! I guess my feeling of pairing the two of you makes sense now more than ever to me. The Winnipeg Art Gallery does indeed have a very rich collection of Inuit art.
MD: Yes, back then they had a whole floor dedicated to Inuit Art, I think now they have a whole separate building for it!
AS: They do. I really admire their collection.
Marcel, to come to a conclusion, there is one thing that I was meaning to ask you and that I would like to ask Shuvinai as well. In your drawing practice, are there any characters that continue to surface over time?
MD: There are. With each exhibition that I do, there are characters that keep presenting themselves. For instance, during the Iraq war, I had this hooded, stereotypical, rebellion organization that I was drawing all the time.
And then they kept evolving. At one point, I had one group of characters that was supposed to represent the terrorists, and the other was the government, and then in an exhibition that happened later on the terrorist organization became a ballet group.
From exhibition to exhibition it morphed. At times, it morphed from one drawing to the other and these characters keep coming up.
SA: I also have characters that come back from one drawing to the next.
They always do! And sometimes it also comes from other people who see my work and ask me if I can draw something else with the same characters. They give me ideas. Some friends also come up in my work, people I know and things I see. People in my community here in Kinngait.
MD: I have a question for Shuvinai about this. I was kind of curious, given your location up North in Canada, if the environmental changes that are happening and have happened over the years are appearing in your work.
To me your references of the globes, other universes and the nature that can be seen in your drawings makes me think that you are also making us aware of these changes in your environment. I don't know if that's me reading into it or if you identify with what I am saying?
SA: Maybe I am. What I mean by that is that maybe I am doing that, but only subconsciously. The climate is a lot warmer, in the old days it used to be a lot colder. That comes into my work. I draw what is around me, and I draw from fantasy and from the things I see and the things I like. I don’t use my work to comment, but the reality around me and this Northern landscape come into my work.