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Two Birds

Kenojuak Ashevak
Two Birds, c.1969
Light green stone (serpentine)
35.7 x 41.8 x 26.5 cm
Gift of Deborah and George Cowley, 2000
© West Baffin Eskimo Co-operative Ltd

Subject of the National Film Board's Eskimo Artist: Kenojuak in 1964, designer of a wall mural for the Canadian Pavilion at Expo '70 in Osaka, member of the Royal Canadian Academy of the Arts since 1974, Companion of the Order of Canada since 1982, recipient of honorary degrees from Queen's University (1991) and the University of Toronto (1992), winner in 1995 of the National Aboriginal Achievement Award for Lifetime Achievement - these many distinctions and honours demonstrate how Kenojuak Ashevak has become one of the best-known figures in the world of Inuit art. The recognition she has earned derives mainly from her impressive graphic oeuvre, produced over a span of more than forty years. Kenojuak's drawings and prints stand as elegant, lyrical explorations of form and design, from her first work in stencil, Rabbit Eating Seaweed (1958), patterned after a motif that she had initially made as a sealskin appliqué on a handbag, to The Enchanted Owl (1960), the print that solidified her reputation and made her widely known after it was reproduced in 1970 on a postage stamp, to Nunavut (Our Land) (1992), an ambitious circular lithograph, some 130 centimetres in diameter, commissioned and pulled in an edition of three to commemorate the signing of the 1993 Tungavik Federation of Nunavut Settlement Agreement.

Kenojuak began carving in stone around the mid-1950s, when she and her husband, Johnniebo, were living just east of Cape Dorset, at Keakto, the camp of another famous Baffin Islander, Peter Pitseolak. In her early efforts she was encouraged by the artist and author James Houston, who had visited the region in 1951 and 1952 and then returned in 1955 in the capacity of federal area administrator with the express aim of developing an arts program in Cape Dorset. When she began drawing with pencils and paper, the crisply drawn, dreamlike, interconnected forms that emerged were received enthusiastically by the recently created print shop - a new artist in the otherwise all-male group had been found. From then on, drawing and printmaking were Kenojuak's principal means of artistic expression. At the same time, sculpture remained an intermittent though ongoing alternative medium, pursued at various moments depending on the availability of stone and the artist's state of health and personal inclination.

Fluid in execution and playful in spirit, Two Birds is one of the most successful examples of the artist's work in stone. Like the small number of other sculptures by Kenojuak that have entered public collections, Two Birds illustrates the parallels between the artist's sculpture and her graphics. Although solidly three-dimensional, the compact forms of the large and small bird, each with outstretched wings, are set one in front of the other to create a pleasing interplay of shapes - eyes, beaks, wings, bellies, and heads are treated not only as anatomical details but also as shapes in a composition.

The National Gallery purchased its first work by Kenojuak in 1961. Today the artist is represented by some forty-five works in the collection. These include rare early drawings from 1958 to 1960, the print and stoneblock of The Arrival of the Sun featured in the 1964 film, several recent drawings, and one additional sculpture, Bear and Woman (c. 1968). Two Birds makes a fine addition to this group.