Shuvinai Ashoona Life & Work by Nancy Campbell
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Composition (People, Animals, and the World Holding Hands) 2007–8

Composition (People, Animals, and the World Holding Hands)

Shuvinai Ashoona, Composition (People, Animals, and the World Holding Hands), 2007–8
Ink and coloured pencil on paper, 66 x 102 cm
Collection of Edward J. Guarino

Indigenous cultures share a deep respect for the circle of life. Inuit Qaujimajatuqangit,1  a phrase used to describe the traditional knowledge and values passed down through generations, rests on a belief in the interconnectedness of life. This way of thinking is aptly reflected in Composition (People, Animals, and the World Holding Hands), an expressive, disquieting circular composition drawn from Shuvinai Ashoona’s imagination. In this drawing, groups of figures, hand in hand, form a ring around a central image.

Shuvinai Ashoona, Untitled, 2012, graphite, coloured pencil, and ink on paper, 50 x 65 cm, Dorset Fine Arts, Toronto.

          The human figures in the composition are primarily Inuit, presented in both traditional and contemporary dress. On the right, a half-white, half-Inuit nursing mother is held by an elder who sits across from a kneeling figure with two children in the hood of her amauti parka. Interspersed alongside them is a winged dragon with one flipper and one hand, a Sedna (sea goddess) mermaid figure wearing one kamik (boot), and the planet Earth (with arms and hands) completing the circle. In the centre of the circle is a brown bear, overlaid by a polar bear, overlaid by a seal, and finally by a char on top.

          Shuvinai remarks on the composition: “I was thinking that they were having a meeting, a world meeting about the seals, polar bears … rethinking what the world would be for the animals. I started thinking that all of these animals would be friends, even some of the dangerous animals I have seen in the movies are there.”2  Her sentiment is reflected in the words of Black Elk (1863–1950), a spiritual adviser to the Oglala Sioux: “The Power of the World always works in circles, and everything tries to be round. In the old days when we were a strong and happy people, all our power came to us from the sacred hoop of the nation, and so long as the hoop was unbroken, the people flourished.”3  Black Elk met the poet and writer John G. Neihardt in 1930 and asked Neihardt to share his story with the world.

          New York–based collector Edward J. Guarino also refers to this circle of life when asked why he purchased this drawing: “Although Shuvinai Ashoona’s Composition (People, Animals, and the World Holding Hands) expresses a desire for harmony among all living beings, I was initially attracted to the work because of its bold colours and idiosyncratic symbolism. I was also drawn to the piece because the artist once again creates a world unlike any that exists. It is at once strange, whimsical, and profound.”4