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The North Gets Its Minute Of Fame

The North Gets Its Minute Of Fame

Nunavut’s most famous artist takes her place among Canada’s most well-known TV spots
By Daniel Campbell
Sep 23
2016
From the October 2016 Issue

We all have our favourites. And we have the ones that played so often on our televisions that the lines became imbedded in our minds like the tune of a catchy radio ad jingle. “I smell burnt toast!” “But I need these baskets back!” “Fly? No. But he can leap over tall buildings.”

Introduced in the early 1990s, Heritage Minutes flooded the nation with 60-second ad-spots that depicted significant moments in Canadian history. But until now, only two have taken place in Canada’s North. This month, Historica Canada is releasing a Heritage Minute on Kenojuak Ashevak, the world-famous Inuk artist from Cape Dorset. 

“Here is somebody that had an international impact as an artist, and yet Canadians either know everything about her in art circles, or don’t know her at all,” says Ryan Noth, co-director of the minute with filmmaker Tess Girard. 

As printmaking technologies were brought north in the 1950s, many artists from small coastal communities in the  Arctic started producing work that caught not only the eyes of the nation, but of the entire arts world. Ashevak was among this first generation of printmakers. Her painting The Enchanted Owl is perhaps one of the most famous pieces of art ever to have come out of the Arctic, and the work of Ashevak and her contemporaries whet the appetite for Inuit art globally.

Enchanted Owl, one of Ashevak’s more iconic prints. In 1970, it was reproduced on a postage stamp to celebrate the NWT’s 100th birthday.

Noth says from the beginning they knew they had to film in Ashevak’s hometown of Cape Dorset. In order to keep the minute to budget, they brought up a crew of just four people from Toronto. Besides the actress playing young Ashevak, Miali Buscemi from Iqaluit, most of the cast came from Cape Dorset and many of them are members of Ashevak’s family; Ashevak’s sister, Koomoatoo Mathewsie, plays her in her old age. 

“Carvers at the co-op who carved in her later years, each one of them wanted to get their hands in the shots,” Noth says. “Because we had shots of them rolling the paint on, or chipping away at the stone, they felt a sort of kinship and ownership of that creative process.” 

That kinship extended to the lead actress, Buscemi. Growing up in Kimmirut, a stone’s throw (in Arctic terms) from Ashevak’s hometown, the artist’s work had made an impact on her, and she knew how important Ashevak’s career had been to the Inuit of Nunavut. 

“When we were shooting, I’m standing out in what could very well have been a spot that could have been inspiration for her… just looking at the land and the water, and what she might have seen at the time, whether it was a fox, or something out on the land.”

The Heritage Minute will air on October 20.