Pitseolak Ashoona Biography

Pitseolak Ashoona

Canadian Inuit




Pitseolak Ashoona, better known as Pitseolak, was an Inuit Canadian artist from the Northwest Territories. She was born between 1904 and 1908 on Nottingham Island (Tujjaat). Pitseolak was a member of one of the last generations of Inuit to be raised traditionally, utilizing hunting and gathering, and ceremonies known to the Inuit since before 1000 BC. She is known for her lively prints and drawings, which show “the things we did long ago before there were many white men.”

In 1922, Pitseolak married Ashoona, a hunter from Baffin Island, and they had seventeen children. Some died in childhood while others were adopted into other families in the community as was the custom in Inuit communities. Ashoona passed away at the age of forty and Pitseolak needed a means to support her children. Her cousin and a government administrator, who saw to her wellbeing, inspired her to try her hand at drawing and printmaking in the late 1950s. The Cape Dorset arts and crafts program initiated by the Department of Northern Affairs and National Resources (now Indigenous and Northern Affairs) was designed to help the Inuit make the transition from subsistence living to the wage economy of settled communities. By the end of her life in 1983, Pitseokak had created over 7,000 documented original works, their themes revolving around daily traditional Inuit life and Inuit legends.

Pitseolak's sons Kumwartok, Quagag, and Kiawak Ashoona, and daughter Napachie Pootoogook also became artists. Pitseolak’s granddaughters Shuvinai Ashoona and Annie Pootoogook are both regarded as significant contemporary artists.

The decade of the 1970s was productive for Pitseolak and she received well deserved recognition. In 1971, she published Pictures Out of My Life, an edited transcription of interviews conducted by Dorothy Harley Eber interwoven with drawings. The book was published in English and Inuktitut. In 1974, Pitseolak was inducted into the Royal Academy of Arts and, in 1976, the Department of Indian Affairs and Northern Development organized a retrospective of her drawings that toured multiple locations in Canada and the United States, including the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa and the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. Pitseolak was inducted into the Order of Canada in 1977.

Pitseolak’s work is represented in the collections of the British Museum, London; the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; the Columbus Museum of Art, Ohio; the National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa; the Portland Art Museum, Oregon; the Rhode Island School of Design Museum, Providence; Museum of Anthropology, University of British Columbia, Vancouver; and the National Museum of the American Indian, Washington, D.C.

Pitseolak died at Cape Dorset, Baffin Island, Canada on 28 May 1983.