Shuvinai Ashoona Life & Work by Nancy Campbell
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Earth and Sky 2008

Earth and Sky

Shuvinai Ashoona, with John Noestheden, Earth and Sky (detail), 2008
Pen and black ink, coloured pencil, graphite, collage, and adhered glass crystals on wove paper, 34.3 x 485 cm
National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa

Installation of Earth and Sky at the National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa, 2013, April 26–September 2, 2013, photograph by Janice Pine.

In 2008, Alberta-based curator Wayne Baerwaldt invited John Noestheden (b. 1945) from Regina and Shuvinai Ashoona from Cape Dorset to meet in Calgary and collaborate on a five-metre-vertical drawing that would be made into a forty-metre banner for an event to be held at the Basel Art Fair in Switzerland: the Stadthimmel (“Citysky”) project, curated by Klaus Littmann with assistance from Edek Bartz.

          The original drawing for the banner was produced by Shuvinai and Noestheden while they were in residence at the Illingworth Kerr Gallery at the Alberta College of Art + Design in Calgary. The creative process entailed Shuvinai attacking the paper directly with her Fineliner pen, rarely lifting it off the page, while John watched closely and made comments. John “drew” with the photocopier, placing dozens of cut-out stars and glass crystals on the paper. They negotiated where Shuvinai would stop the earth and John would start the heavens, and where some of John’s stars would find themselves in both realms. Shuvinai developed five horizons and decided that stars could exist between those multiple horizons. Shuvinai also saw the stars as snowflakes and requested that they be placed on her stone outcroppings. Ambiguity, experimentation, daring, and playfulness all had a role in this highly collaborative effort.1 

          The result was Earth and Sky, a mixed-media drawing that combines Arctic landscapes and astronomical bodies, primarily rendered in black and white line drawings with occasional punctuations of bold, bright colour. The drawing was then commercially transferred to a forty-metre banner that spanned the streetscape in Basel, introducing a world of stars and Arctic wildlife to the pedestrians below. A second fifty-metre banner was produced for Toronto’s Nuit Blanche later that year.

          The Earth and Sky banner continued on its international journey. It was included in the 2012 Sydney Biennale All Our Relations, curated by Gerald McMaster and Catherine de Zegher (former curators at the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto). The National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa, which acquired the original drawing for its permanent collection, also presented Earth and Sky in Sakahàn: International Indigenous Art in 2013. The banner ran the entire length of the colonnade at the main entrance. Sakahàn was a landmark exhibition of international scope, bringing together more than 150 works of recent Indigenous art by more than eighty artists from sixteen countries reflecting on what it means to be Indigenous today.

Shuvinai Ashoona, with John Noestheden, Earth and Sky (details), 2008