Jessie Oonark: The Day of the Sun

Jessie Oonark, When the Days are Long and the Sun Shines into the Night  1966-69. Felt pen and graphite on wove paper

Jessie Oonark, When the Days are Long and the Sun Shines into the Night  1966–69. Felt pen and graphite on wove paper, 126.8 x 317.8 cm. Gift of Boris and Elizabeth Kotelewetz, 1991. National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa. © Public Trustee for Nunavut, Estate of Jessie Oonark Photo: NGC

The summer solstice has been celebrated and deeply cherished by Indigenous peoples across the globe since time immemorial. Occurring when the sun reaches its highest position in the sky, this important celestial event is the day with the longest period of sunlight. In the days surrounding the summer solstice, when the sun travels along its northernmost path, there is continuous daylight within the Arctic Circle, where Inuit artist Jessie Oonark lived her entire life.

Born in 1906 in the Back River area, Nunavut (formerly Northwest Territories), Jessie (Una) Oonark spent the first fifty years of her life on the land in Utkusiksalingmiut hunting camps throughout the region with her family, before being relocated to  Qamani'tuaq (Baker Lake), NU, by the Canadian government in the late 1950s. Towards the end of that decade, and during a time of enormous change and transition, Oonark began her career as an artist, innovatively and strategically translating customary life through new vivid forms. Throughout her lifetime, Oonark was a highly revered seamstress, well-known for crafting of garments and work in textiles. Her talents and precision in stitching and sewing and keen eye for design and colour composition were central to her practice, and informed her making of images and pictorial scenes, which she completed in a range of media, including textiles, wall hangings, drawings and prints.

Already in the 1960s, Oonark experimented with scale, working on surfaces larger than standard media would allow. In 1968, this desire resulted in a large mural of a seal-hunting scene that she painted on the side of a local building in Qamani’tuaq. Around this time, the Qamani’tuaq craft officer, Boris Kotelewetz, provided Oonark with a range of craft supplies, including a large roll of paper, approximately three metres long and a metre wide. Instead of cutting it up to make a number of smaller drawings, Oonark made use of the entire surface. Taking to the challenge with verve and care, she thoughtfully worked on the piece for three years between 1966 and 1969, ultimately creating the monumental drawing When the Days are Long and the Sun Shines into the Night.

This vibrant panoramic piece bursts with colour, energy and life. Oonark illustrates a time of celebration, when a flurry of activity fills the brightly lit days without night. Groups of people are fishing, preparing food, hunting caribou by dogsled, and children play, bringing a liveliness to this active scene. The drawing depicts Inuit life during the intense Arctic warm season, particularly near the time of the solstice, when there are 24 hours of daylight above the Arctic Circle. The thirteen yellow suns that surround the large central igloo, where a ceremony is being performed, symbolize the ongoing passage of time and the sunlight that floods the land during this special time of year in the North when, as Oonark once explained, the air warms up, game becomes more plentiful, life is renewed, and not a moment is to be wasted.

 

Jessie Oonark’s drawing When the Days are Long and the Sun Shines into the Night is currently on view in the Indigenous and Canadian Galleries at the National Gallery of Canada. Share this article and subscribe to our newsletters to stay up-to-date on the latest articles, Gallery exhibitions, news and events, and to learn more about art in Canada.​

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