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Art, Gods, and ATVs

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Jessie Oonark
Jessie Oonark, shown in Baker Lake. Prints 1983‒84. © Canadian Arctic Producers

Baker Lake’s Jessie Oonark

To get there this citified boy would have to learn how to control an All-Terrain Vehicle. There is the gravesite of Jessie Oonark (O.C., 1906‒1985), Baker Lake’s most famous artist. The art I like best comes from Baker Lake, so, in August 2018, I visited the hamlet for a week to meet with its artists, get some sense of their day-to-day lives — and make a pilgrimage to Oonark’s resting place out on the land. And what land it is.

Here the land is not just a patch of earth extending indeterminately outward. Rather it is granite and ground. The land is water and the possibility of life. The land is willow and lichens and berries, collectively the start of the local food chain. Still more, the land is the outside, the sky, the weather, breath, the spirit of spirit. It is awareness, discernment, life itself, in short, the lost Inuit divinity Sila.

The Jessie Oonark Centre, founded 1992, is a combination gift shop, art gallery, and makers space. The Centre is a division of the Nunavut Development Corporation, which reports to the Government of Nunavut. © Richard D. Mohr

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In his 1975 Baker Lake memoir Shadows, Armand Tagoona (1926‒1991), an artist and the first Inuk to be ordained an Anglican minister, recounts that “Inuit used to believe that there is a silaup inua, or ‘man of the air,’ who controls everything and watches the Inuit.”

In 1922, the shaman Kinalik introduced Knud Rasmussen to Sila at Baker Lake: “On this clean and untrodden place, I was to exhibit myself to Sila, stand silent and humble with downcast eyes and merely desire that the sky, the weather, and all the forces of nature should take notice and have pity on me.”

In 2007, the Nunavut Department of Education, though without naming Sila, incorporated this expanded understanding of “the land” into its model curriculum as a fundamental Inuit value (Inuit Qaujimajatuqangit: Education Framework for Nunavut Curriculum, p. 24).

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In Baker Lake, ATVs outnumber cars by four or five to one. As is common across Nunavut, all ATVs here are referred to as Hondas, whatever their brand or make.

They are the basic way of getting around town and out on the land. For Inuit, driving Hondas is like breathing. Eight-year-olds whiz by on four-wheelers going 60 kmph. Locals were puzzled that I did not own a Honda and flabbergasted that I had never ridden on one.

The last three kilometres up to Oonark’s grave are a scree of red granite boulders. My excellent guide, David Ford, the general manager of the Jessie Oonark Centre, thought a three-minute lesson on my designated rock mobile, dodgy brake included, was sufficient for the ascent.

And so, with a thousand what-ifs shoved out of mind, off I go — bounce, bounce, bounce, jolt, buffet, jolt.

We reach the top just as dusk begins to hover. A shank of sunset reddens the heavens and extracts deep reds from the granite expanses. Mats of autumn-tinged Alpine bearberry and Arctic willow, irradiated into a carmine haze, stretch towards an infinitely remote horizon.

The air glows, vibrates, and breathes red, becomes life incandescent. My metal bronco has transported me to sacred space.

An untitled Jessie Oonark wall-hanging
An untitled Jessie Oonark wall-hanging from around 1978 displayed in Baker Lake’s Inuit Heritage Centre. For years, it hung in the mayor’s office and is somewhat sun-faded. The exquisite infilled stitchery of the central column is rare, especially for a relatively late piece. Oonark is also known for her prints and drawings.© Richard D. Mohr

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The arc of Oonark’s extraordinary life perhaps offers a model for navigating the shoals of contemporary hybrid Northern culture.

On March 31, 1958, within a few calories of death by starvation, Oonark was collected from the land and brought into Baker Lake by Mounties who had flown out to try to locate her iglu when her son William Noah (b. 1943), himself driven by starvation toward Baker Lake, reported her dire straits to authorities.

She took whatever work she could find. She was part of the Utkuhikhalingmiut, who, among the nine Inuit groups that consolidated into Baker Lake during the starvation times of the late 1950s, had had the least contact with whites and who were looked down upon by the rest. So, between this social impediment and the late date of her arrival, only lousy jobs were available to her. She cleaned skins for the Hudson Bay Company and was a scullery maid at the Anglican Church.

Soon enough, though, whites were handing her paper and pencils. Late in 1959, she drew four groups of Inuit women on a single sheet that was sent to Cape Dorset, where two appeared in the celebrated 1960 Cape Dorset Print Collection. So, in just two years, she turned from death’s door and belittlement to national celebrity.

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Oonark was a devout Anglican, according to the Baker Lake art-advisor Jack Butler, “certainly the most devout Anglican in Baker Lake.” Though her father had been active as a shaman, she witnessed for the Lord at the age of 21 in 1927 and was formally baptized in 1943. She produced only a smattering of explicitly religious works, but they span the length of her artistic career, culminating in 1984 with the Good Friday-themed print “Giver of Life,” the artist’s proof of which she sent to the Pope when he was in Ottawa, Ontario, that September.

The devout Anglican goes rogue. And then when she dies in February of the next year, she has herself buried not in Baker Lake’s gorgeous Anglican Cemetery, but all by herself atop the only hill anywhere around.

The grave orients her facing due East with her sightlines skirting the village. This positioning, in turn, entails that visitors to the grave are oriented toward the land, the sky, the light, the air, the weather, awareness, discernment, the spirit of spirit, life itself — Sila.