By Miriam Xia, McGill Visual Arts Collection, Museum Database Assistant (2023-)
Ookpiks, ᐅᒃᐱᒃ, owls are symbols of wisdom, friendship, and guidance. In a communal space where people in the pursuit of knowledge exchange ideas with peers, the stylized print finds its new home. Owls Gather Together (1984) by Kenojuak Ashevak (1927-2013) was recently donated to the McGill Visual Arts Collection by Jamie Cameron LL.B., 1978 and Christopher Bredt along with six other Inuit artworks. To honour this generous donation the Faculty of Law and Visual Arts Collection installed this significant artwork in a prominent place – The Caren and Jordan H. Waxman Common Room.
Over a historical fireplace in Old Chancellor Day Hall, this print depicts four owls in a symmetrical composition. One owl is flying over three others, protecting them. Its eyes are round and on the lookout. Its feet point inwards while its magnificent wings and tail spread out above the flock. Wavy rows of green, white, black, and gray make up layers of plumage. The texture of the feathers is in turn expressed by clusters of white dots on a sumptuous black and green coat.
Underneath this high-flying owl is an owl filled with determination and eyes that challenge the viewer. This owl is puffed up with courage, advancing head-on, showing only the diamond-shaped black, blue, and white rows on its fluffy body. The sharp beaks of the two central owls accentuate the forward momentum. In contrast, the two flanking owls hold the formation as they guard the group, warning off any trespasser with their open beaks. The arrangement of the owls creates a strong sense of community, where everyone has a purpose and advances in unison.
The printmaking process used to create this large-scale print also relies on collaboration and shared knowledge. The printmaker adapts the artist’s graphic art onto stone cuts, meticulously applying ink on them and transferring the design one element at a time, building up to the final print. The inscriptions on the bottom left are the signatures in Inuktitut of the artist Kenojuak Ashevak and the printmaker, as well as the half-moon symbol of the West Baffin Eskimo Cooperative. These marks attest to the history of the practice, which first started when James Houston founded the Co-op in 1959 in Kinngait (Cape Dorset). Ashevak joined early on and became a pioneering figure of Inuit art, known for the vibrant colors, intricate details, and Indigenous themes in her art. She was the first Inuk to have her artwork, The Enchanted Owl (1960), reproduced on a Canada Post stamp in 1970. This trail-blazing artist was awarded the Order of Canada in 1967, the same year it was established, and the Governor General’s Award in Visual Arts in 2008. Her legacy lives on in Kinngait as the West Baffin Cooperative’s Kenojuak Cultural Centre and Print Shop, inaugurated in 2018, was named in her honour.