Earthlings: A Surreal Examination of What It Means to Be Human

Pierre Aupilardjuk, Shary Boyle and John Kurok, Nuliajuk oqaluppoq, 2016, 22 x 21 x 27 cm, smoke-fired and glazed stoneware. Photo: M.N. Hutchinson

The Earthlings exhibition, now on view at Esker Foundation in Calgary, features the work of seven contemporary Canadian artists in a fascinating collaboration between Indigenous and non-Indigenous artists.

First conceived in 2014 as a solo exhibition for Toronto artist Shary Boyle —showcased in the Canadian Pavilion at the 2013 Venice Biennale — Earthlings later expanded to become an invitational exhibition. It includes eighty-five ceramic sculptures and thirty works on paper created by Boyle and several established Inuit artists: Shuvinai Ashoona (a frequent collaborator of Boyle’s), Roger Aksadjuak, Pierre Aupilardjuk, Jessie Kenalogak, John Kurok, and Leo Napayok

As Boyle explains, the seed for Earthlings was sown by events surrounding a collaborative exhibition by Ashoona and Boyle at Montreal’s Pierre-Francois Ouellette Art Contemporain in 2015. Before that show, Boyle travelled to Cape Dorset, Nunavut to draw and collaborate with Ashoona. On the way, she visited Rankin Inlet, Nunavut, where she discovered the extraordinary work of Inuit ceramic artists at Matchbox Studio. 

Pierre Aupilardjuk and Shary Boyle, Facing Forward, 2016, 34 x 18 x 28 cm, smoke-fired stoneware and hand-painted porcelain. Photo: M.N. Hutchinson

For Boyle, the discovery was a transformative experience. “The ceramics these artists are producing have a sympathetic, narrative, handmade sensibility that Shuvinai and I share in our work,” she told NGC Magazine. “I saw a wonderful opportunity to expand the conversation by inviting the Rankin artists to exhibit at the Esker show.”

Esker curator Shauna Thompson notes that Earthlings highlights the artists’ common language in presenting metaphorical, other-worldly subjects. The show is suffused with elements of Surrealism as human figures transform into animals and other beings. “These works are underpinned by complex, personal narratives,” said Thompson in an interview with NGC Magazine. “We’re interested in drawing out the affinities between them.”

The artists have explored a shared language by producing some original collaborations just for Earthlings. In Greek Tragedy, for example, Boyle created a Rodin-style sculpture of a woman, then removed the face and invited John Kurok to create a miniature mask, similar to those on his celebrated vases. The result is a sculpture that appears to be inspecting the mask — without a face to see it.

Shary Boyle and John Kurok, Greek Tragedy, 2016, 54 x 24 x 30 cm, porcelain and smoke-fired stoneware. Photo: M.N. Hutchinson

“In a piece like this, there’s an incredible conversation that happens across cultures and a difficult history,” says Boyle. It is that cultural conversation that lies at the heart of the show — and that has Boyle and Thompson so excited. “One interpretation of this show is that there is a language of the visual that is an equalizing language,” adds Boyle. She notes that the show takes pains to emphasize each artist’s personal and cultural truth, celebrating of the artists’ histories and native experiences. Hence the show’s title, Earthlings, which hints at the commonalities among all human beings.

The exhibition provides a dedicated space for the artists’ collaborative works in a cave-like room at the centre of the gallery, says Thompson. “We’re interested in the ‘conversations’ that happen between the works when they’re placed in close proximity to each other.” 

The NGC has lent six drawings to Earthlings, including four from Ashoona — Untitled (Big Pink Flowers) (2009–2010), All Kinds of Spiders in Different Views (2011), Oh My Goodness (2011) and Untitled (Pink Amauti Hood) (2010) — and two from Boyle: Self Immolation (2011) and Oil Spill off Baffin Island (2011). 

Shuvinai Ashoona, Untitled (Big Pink Flowers), 2009–2010, coloured pencil and black felt pen with graphite on wove paper, 124.5 x 182.5 cm; image: 114.3 x 172 cm. NGC. © Dorset Fine Arts

Ashoona’s Oh My Goodness reveals the dark subject matter often explored by contemporary Inuit artists in her depiction of the limp body of an armless child, held by a larger figure. All Kinds of Spiders in Different Views, on the other hand, returns to one of Ashoona’s early strengths: elaborate black and white drawings depicting both the land and her own thoughts and emotions. 

"Ashoona’s drawings,” says Thompson, “are populated by an enormous cast of surreal and enigmatic monsters, snakes, human-creature hybrids, eggs, spiders, people, northern landscapes, everyday interiors, and anthropomorphic planets — competing, interacting, or existing together in harmony. Her environments are, in turns, playful and unsettling fantastical landscapes, but they are ultimately rooted in lived and observed experience.” 

NGC Associate Curator of Contemporary Art Rhiannon Vogl notes that Boyle’s drawing Self Immolation depicts a seductive yet ominous mermaid, representing both the Inuit myth of the sea goddess Sedna and Hans Christian Andersens’ Little Mermaid. It is a good example of Boyle’s blending of western European and northern myths. “Mermaids are vulnerable but also express wrath and exercise power,” Vogl told NGC Magazine. “This piece captures Boyle’s continued concerns for an empathetic understanding of the intricate links between humans and species, nature and spirituality, which she explores a lot in her work.”

Shary Boyle, Oil Spill Off Baffin, 2011, watercolour with brush and ink over graphite on paper, 56.5 x 76 cm. NGC

Boyle’s Oil Spill off Baffin Island revisits the mermaid theme, this time expressing the artist’s concern for the vulnerability of Cape Dorset (where she was an artist-in-residence in 2011) to the threats of resource extraction and the isolation of the northern environment.

Showcasing a range of outstanding Inuit artists in collaboration with one of Canada’s best-known contemporary artists, Earthlings not only explores the weird and wonderful creatures that inhabit our heads and stalk our dreams, but also the essence of what makes us human. 

Earthlings is on view at Esker Foundation in Calgary, Alberta until May 7, 2017. For more on the Canada Pavilion at the Venice Biennale, which featured Shary Boyle in 2013 and will showcase Geoffrey Farmer in 2017, please click here.

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