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Jessie Oonark turned her vanishing culture into powerful art.

Bearing Witness


Gathering inspiration from her 52 years of seminomadic life in the Arctic barrenlands of Canada, Jessie Oonark unexpectedly transformed herself into an artist-witness of her changing culture. In the course of her life (1906-1985) this remarkable Inuit woman watched the spiritual traditions and survival practices of her community's rugged and isolated way of life get replaced by a modern world. She bore 13 children (five did not survive childhood), migrated along with the declining caribou, and suffered the hardships of starvation and the death of her husband. She eventually relocated to a modern Canadian settlement with her shamanistic cultural beliefs already converted to Christianity. But nothing of all this was forgotten.

Oonark's new life in Baker Lake introduced her to the idea of making art. Observing children drawing on paper, she requested some materials for herself. "Power of Thought," the University of Richmond's current show, is what Jessie Oonark accomplished using those materials and the store of imagery she kept in her memory.

Lent to the Marsh Gallery courtesy of Judith Varney Burch and curated by Marie Bouchard, the 40 prints in the exhibition originate from Oonark's drawings made between 1970 and 1985. They were made as limited editions by Sanavik Cooperative print shop.

Oonark's work has the pure, honest quality of a child's drawing. Figures float on a white ground unencumbered by natural perspective. Planes are flat; colors are primary and secondary. Facial profiles are rendered in one long pencil stroke from forehead to throat, peeking out from ubiquitous dark hoods.

Integrated imagery is not just the method by which Oonark explains a vision, it is the intellectual system of her early shamanistic indoctrination. This phenomenon is also demonstrated by Oonark's X-ray-style depictions of humans with animal beings or spirits inside (or vice versa, animals with inner human forces). Inuit culture believed deeply in the physical and spiritual reciprocity among all creatures of nature.

Jessie Oonark's "ulu" is a recurring shape in many of her pictures. The ulu is a crescent-shaped tool used by women to carry out household duties. From cutting open a fish to scraping the outer skin off a caribou steak, or digging up a root from the earth, the ulu lived in the palm of every Inuit woman. As such a crucial element of existence, it must have burned its imprint into Oonark's consciousness.

As Marsh Gallery director Richard Waller points out, Jessie Oonark is a rare and timely messenger of her disappearing culture. She is a representative of a history that is being permanently distilled. Like the artist's ulu, Oonark's work is a powerful imprint of her history's passage pressing into the palm of the future.

"The Power of Thought", Jan. 11 - Feb. 24. Marsh Art Gallery, University of Richmond.

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