Kenojuak Ashevak Heritage Minute brings her art to life

A new Heritage Minute celebrating the late Kenojuak Ashevak brings her iconic artwork to life. The short film was shot in her home of Cape Dorset, Nunavut, and features members of her family.

Grandson of famed Inuk artist 'proud and honoured' to be part of film shot in Cape Dorset

Kenojuak Ashevak was born on South Baffin Island in 1927. Ashevak is considered a pioneer of Inuit art.

Already immortalized through her iconic artwork, Kenojuak Ashevak's legacy is now preserved in film, too.

Historica Canada unveiled its much-anticipated Heritage Minute about the famed Nunavut artist today. The one-minute television spot is also narrated in English, French and Inuktitut — a first for the film series.

It will premiere to the public tonight in Ashevak's home of Cape Dorset, Nunavut, where it was also shot.

Ashevak is considered a pioneer of Inuit art. The National Gallery of Canada owns more than 50 of her works, including her most famous piece The Enchanted Owl. Ashevak died in 2013 at 85 years old.

'I grew up with her drawings'

Along with being filmed in Ashevak's home community, her family was also involved with the production. Ashevak's sister appears at the end, portraying an older depiction of the late artist, while her grandson Johnnybou plays the role of his own real-life grandfather — Ashevak's husband — after whom he's named.

"I feel proud to be part of it. My grandma always said it was a job to her, but I think she was naturally talented like many Inuit. She was a role model to a lot of artists. Just makes me proud and honoured," Johnnybou said, adding that he never met his grandfather but has fond memories of his famous grandmother.

"My grandma, I grew up with her drawings, watching her travelling. I was excited whenever she'd come back because she'd always maybe bring us a little gift from somewhere halfway around the world. So it was always exciting because she was travelling a lot."

Left to right, Johnnybou Ashevak, John Ashevak, Joshua Wortman, Miali Buscemi and Liam-Riley Alivaktuk as the Ashevak family in Kenojuak Ashevak's Heritage Minute. Buscemi is the only one not related to Ashevak. (Historica Canada)

All but one cast member were descendants of Ashevak's. The lone exception being Iqaluit's Miali Buscemi, who portrays a young Ashevak throughout the film.

"It was very overwhelming in the beginning because this is something very close to my heart," Buscemi said.

"Having grown up with knowing who Kenojuak was, and because our family has close ties in Kinngait [Cape Dorset], it's a very meaningful project for me. Going into Kenojuak's home and playing Kenojuak herself, I can't put it into words. I took a lot of time to just soak it all in and get to know the family."

Miali Buscemi, left, and Koomoatoo Mathewise on the set of Kenojuak Ashevak's Heritage Minute in Cape Dorset, Nunavut. Buscemi played a younger Ashevak, while Mathewsie, Ashevak's real-life sister, played an older portrayal of the late artist. (Historica Canada)

Bringing her art to life

When the filmmakers first came to Nunavut last year, they were tight-lipped about what would be featured. The final product blends some of Ashevak's best work with the landscape upon which she worked — both are awe-inspiring.

Ten seconds in, her Rabbit Eating Seaweed comes to life. The computer-generated hologram, standing on the real-life shoreline of Cape Dorset, pokes up its head and the icy seaweed snack frosts over the frozen tundra.

It's the first of many homages to Ashevak's work. A copy of the print from the 1959 Cape Dorset collection sold last year for a record-breaking $59,000 at auction — the most expensive of any of her works, so far.

Kenojuak Ashevak's Rabbit Eating Seaweed. A copy of it sold for a record $59,000 at auction in 2015. ((Waddington's))

Later, The Arrival of the Sun is etched out on screen, as the print's sun dips below the Arctic mountains. This 1962 piece was sent to the National Gallery as a gift from the renowned West Baffin Eskimo Co-Operative, where Ashevak set up shop.

Finally, Ashevak's sister Koomoatoo Mathewise closes out the film, working on a print, then a stone cut, with The Enchanted Owl hanging in the background.

About the Author

Nick Murray is a CBC reporter, based in Iqaluit since 2015. He got his start with CBC in Fredericton after graduating from St. Thomas University's journalism program. He's also worked two Olympic Games as a senior writer with CBC Sports. You can follow Nick on Twitter at @NickMurray91.


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