• Feature

Soft Shapes and Hard Mattresses

Sex and Desire in Contemporary Inuit Graphic Art and Film

Jun 28, 2022
by Daniella Sanader

In Alethea Arnaquq-Baril’s Inuktut-language film Aviliaq: Entwined (2014), Viivi and Ulluriaq are two women fighting to sustain their relationship as their community pressures them into marrying men. As Ulluriaq watches mournfully, Viivi marries their childhood friend Pitsiulaaq in a small ceremony led by a minister and flanked by RCMP officers. Ulluriaq faces a similar fate: her husband-to-be, Johnny, lives in town and has a good job, and they are to be married in two short days at the behest of her mother. Desperate not to lose her lover, Ulluriaq visits Viivi’s tent, and the two reconnect (that is, they have sex) while Pitsiulaaq is out fishing. Wrapped in quilts and blankets—Viivi’s fingers stroking Ulluriaq’s long hair—the two develop a plan.

It is apt that Arnaquq-Baril’s fifteen-minute narrative is set during the 1950s, a crucial moment in the colonization of the Arctic by Southerners—the physical and ideological policing of Inuit life under the auspices of white-centred “civility” and “morality.” As Arnaquq-Baril explains in the documentary Two Soft Things, Two Hard Things (2016) directed by Mark Kenneth Woods and Michael Yerxa, the 1950s and 60s was a “sudden and drastic transitional period . . . [and] with colonization, and with that transition, came a lot of shame.” As the presence of Christian missionaries grew in the North—and the first residential schools were established—Inuit forms of intimacy, partnership and sexuality were increasingly stifled and suppressed. The colonial agenda enforced Christian standards of monogamy, heteronormativity and the nuclear family in the Arctic. Aviliaq: Entwined is a reminder that Inuit had long followed their own self-determined alternatives.

Lying in bed, Ulluriaq and Viivi are at a cultural turning point. They remember possibilities that run counter to a future of Christian enforced monogamy: they had seen times when a man had two wives or a woman had two husbands. “Like in the old days,” Viivi says. They convince Pitsiulaaq to take on Ulluriaq as a second wife, and in a few short moments of Arnaquq-Baril’s sparse-yet-sweet storytelling, the three commit to each other as mutual partners-lovers-friends. Packing up their tent in haste, however, they recognize that their partnership is a threat to the heteronormative family unit to which they are meant to conform. (As Ulluriaq says, “The white men would never allow it.”) Their attempt to sneak away is intercepted by the RCMP—tipped off by a jealous Johnny—and Ulluriaq, Viivi and Pitsiulaaq are separated. As Ulluriaq is forced into Johnny’s canoe, Aviliaq: Entwined ends with Ulluriaq screaming for Viivi, reaching out as her lover slips away.

Jutai Toonoo (1959–2015 Kinngait), Palliqniq, 2015, Oil pastel over graphite on wove paper, 173 x 112.2 cm
As Norman Vorano explains in his article “Inuit Men, Erotic Art: Certain Indecencies . . . That Need Not Be Mentioned,” the contradictory place of Inuit sex within the colonial-Christian imaginary—“offensive but titillating; censured but studied; ubiquitous but rendered invisible”—was reflected within Inuit artwork produced for (and mitigated by) white markets and audiences.[1] Vorano recounts the story of an artmaking contest staged by anthropologist Nelson Graburn in Puvirnituq, Nunavik, QC, in 1967, where local carvers were offered prizes for producing “imaginative” works. It was an opportunity to produce work without a southerncentric art market in mind, to move beyond sellable scenes of hunters and Arctic animals, and Graburn noted how many of the submitted carvings blended sex and humour with Inuit storytelling.

That being said, the Puvirnituq carvings were still embroiled within a complex network of settler evaluation, met with both fascination and repulsion by settler audiences in the North and South. Not only was the contest administered by a group of white judges, but also the carvings were quickly labelled “weirdo art” by many collectors and were barred from inclusion in the 1973 exhibition Sculpture/Inuit: Masterworks of the Canadian Arctic, a largescale, government-funded effort to produce the narrative of Inuit art for Canada and the world. Yet, as is often the case, white moral superiority is deeply connected to an often under-acknowledged curiosity and desire for difference: Vorano recounts the irony that many of the erotic carvings were purchased by white locals in Puvirnituq before the contest was even complete. This mid-century economy for enacting settler desire within Inuit carving is perfectly encapsulated in another anecdote of Graburn’s: “Also in the late 1960s, I saw a very Playboy-style nude with larger detailed breasts in Inukjuak . . . and I asked the artist where he saw that. He said the white radiosonde operator had given him a girlie magazine and told him to ‘make one like that.’”[2]

Jutai ToonooNight Time, 2013, Coloured pencil, 50.2 x 64.8 cm
Reading these accounts, I keep thinking of Ulluriaq and Viivi (and Pitsiulaaq) in their tent. In choosing to enter a non-monogamous marriage, the three rejected a settler-enforced structure for sex that thrives on deep anxieties about the complexity of human intimacy. (A culture of both monogamous marriage and Playboy magazine.) Their alternative not only gestures to the long histories of plural marriage common among nomadic, pre-colonized Inuit families, it also creates space for queer expressions of desire to flourish beyond shame or colonial moralizing. As Arnaquq-Baril speculates in Two Soft Things, Two Hard Things, perhaps same-sex desire had long existed within Inuit plural marriages, as Inuit families negotiated both the practical realities of nomadic survival and their personal forms of intimacy in nuanced ways. As we know, that life wasn’t ultimately available to Ulluriaq, Viivi and Pitsiulaaq. Yet watching them discuss its possibility opens up different avenues for imagining what sexuality can mean—what sexuality has always meant—in the North.

Through equally bold yet vastly different approaches to drawing, Jutai Toonoo (1959–2015), Annie Pootoogook (1969–2016) and Shuvinai Ashoona, RCA each use nude and naked figures to explore these infinite possibilities of desire in Inuit art. In his oil pastel and coloured pencil drawings, Toonoo was known for intimate and psychologically-attuned portraits of his subjects. Yet in a series of nude figure drawings produced by the Kinngait (Cape Dorset), NU-born artist between 2011 and 2013, the possibilities of desire are felt rather than shown. In Night Time (2013) warm and cool shapes undulate across a dark sheet of paper. It’s not immediately clear what we are seeing: a woman’s outstretched thighs and vulva coalesce into view, yet just as quickly she re-dissolves into a swirling mass of colour and negative space. She’s amorphous—all warmth and possibility in an ice-blue environment—yet she remains just out of reach, capable of disappearing entirely.

Annie Pootoogook,Woman at Her Mirror (Playboy Pose), 2003, Coloured pencil and ink, 66 x 55 cm
It’s easy to be taken in by Toonoo’s evocative drawings of flesh. Perhaps they serve as a reminder of how desire unfixes us all: breaking down our structured identities into bodies that want, need and feel. Film critic Laura U. Marks describes the erotic as an oscillation between what’s far and near, an ongoing reciprocity between touching and being touched: “Life is served by the ability to come close, pull away, come close again. What is erotic is being able to become an object with and for the world, and to return to being a subject in the world.”[3] Toonoo’s drawings play with this collapsing space between subject and object. In ᐋᖅᑳᒃ (Aaqkaak) (2012) two soft forms streaked with lines of colour gently press together; a dark crease keeps them separate. I stared at this drawing for a long time, recognizing its deeply felt sensuality before I could register what I was seeing: a vagina, an anus, the fleshy curves of a woman’s thighs. The fact that ᐋᖅᑳᒃ (Aaqkaak) tiptoes so closely to the edge of abstraction creates ample room for our own desires to come rushing in. (For weeks, I thought I was looking at two breasts pressing together— nipple to nipple—perhaps implicating my own realm of association and intimacy, writing as a queer settler woman.)

That being said, it is rare to see a full woman’s body in one of Toonoo’s drawings. Women’s flesh is bisected and abstracted, an amorphous landscape of sensation as opposed to a figure with agency, a person with desires of her own. Drawings like Relaxing (2013) come close, but the image cuts off at her upturned chin, the curve of her lips. Toonoo is certainly not the first male artist to render female flesh as anonymous and fractured, nor will he be the last. Regardless, I remain drawn to Toonoo’s work for what crackles underneath his streaks of oil pastel—something that feels less tied to the specificity of this body and more about the energy, the possibility it generates in relation to mine. If sex is truly a messy convergence of opposing sensations, Toonoo is capturing them all at once: the sight of bare skin and the heat that it emanates, the intensity of closeness and the lingering distance between bodies, the desire to reach out and the need to be touched.

Annie PootoogookComposition (Man Approaching Woman), 2002, Ink, 51 x 66 cm
Toonoo’s female bodies are fractured and made amorphous, but the sexiness of Annie Pootoogook’s drawings emerges, for me, from their unapologetic wholeness. Drawings like Composition (Man Approaching Woman) (2001) and Erotic Scene (Four Figures) (2001) show bodies having—enjoying—sex in overwhelming clarity, from a head tilting back in pleasure to sock-clad toes raised in the air. Much has been said about Pootoogook’s celebrated and deeply influential approach to representing life in the Arctic—an Arctic rendered in the ordinary, infused with both the lasting, everyday violences of colonialism and the quiet moments of love, family, boredom and pleasure known amongst Inuit. Her erotic drawings are no different: these scenes do not occur in Toonoo’s ambiguous, mercurial settings that swirl with nude flesh, but feature hard mattresses and scratchy, blue carpets on living room floors. Her drawings of sex are also drawings of houseplants and electrical outlets, a TV and stereo set in the corner, a woman who hasn’t bothered to remove her socks. They show desire in its everyday, mundane complexities; they remind me that lust rarely occurs in a vacuum. Sex is surely an electricity felt against your partner’s flesh, but isn’t it also a hard floor pressing against your back, a breeze wafting in from the window, the (now cold) cup of tea you share when you’re done?

Two other drawings stand out to me amid Pootoogook’s erotic work. Woman Masturbating and Woman at Her Mirror (Playboy Pose) (both 2003) each depict lone female bodies—a subject matter with long and loaded histories in all forms of artmaking, but specifically in relation to the depiction of Indigenous bodies—yet neither is positioned as the passive muse in an artist’s studio. Clad in nothing but red heels, one woman sits at her vanity, tying back her hair, an image of the Playboy bunny on her wall. The other is rendered in black and white save for her red-painted toenails and lips, blue eyeshadow on closed lids and the soft pink of a vibrator as she masturbates near a window with drawn curtains. I am drawn to the stances of these women: we see both of them in profile, they are not facing us, yet they don’t fully turn away either. One is presumably gazing at her own reflection—taking pleasure in her own dark hair and the curves of her breasts—and the other, with closed eyes and a slight arch in her back, is also focused wholly on herself. As viewers, it doesn’t feel as if we are peeking in on something illicit or private, yet nor do these women need our gazes for their fulfillment. Their pleasures are found in themselves: turning a cold shoulder to dynamics of artist and subject, settler economies of entitlement and systems that would otherwise police their desire.

Moving from sexuality in no place to a familiar place, to someplace entirely different, nude drawings by Shuvinai Ashoona stage Inuit desire on a completely new plane of existence. Drawings like Happy Mother (2013) and Peridot Baby (2016) show two naked pregnant figures in various states of mythic transformation: a blonde woman clutches between her thighs the head of a baby crowned in tiny worlds and a greenish being with one long breast and one small nipple reaches towards us with a similar blue-and-green world in their palm. These “female” bodies have human features, yet they also stretch into something hybrid and unique. In Happy Mother, the figure’s left hand grows long and claw-like, while a giant bird clutches her torso from behind, perhaps guiding her through this otherworldly birthing process. The figure in Peridot Baby seems less tied to a cis-gendered binary of male-female, with cracked fingernails, swollen genitals and a small, brown man sliding into their body through a blue-green umbilical cord. Peridot Baby seems a far cry from Pootoogook’s living rooms and Toonoo’s soft curves. Yet sitting with these three vastly different approaches to the nude form, I can recognize that each artist’s work is equally a construction and a fantasy, an image of what might be possible within an expanded Inuit framework for sexuality.


Shuvinai Ashoona
(b. 1961 Kinngait),Peridot Baby, 2016, Coloured pencil and ink, 121.9 x 78.1 cm

It may also seem incongruous to end an essay on sex with images of pregnancy—in queer conversations, I am certainly aware of a heteronormative over-association between sexuality and reproduction—yet Ashoona’s mothers are anything but normative. Wrapped in the wings of her bird-lover-midwife, she is grinning and her eyes are wide. She takes sheer pleasure in this extraordinary process, toes curled and arms distorted, as she braces for these new worlds her body is unfurling. In Ashoona’s drawings, pregnant figures become dense, entangled meeting places for the ecstatic and the grotesque, for myth and landscape, for tradition and fantasy, for soft skin and total, monstrous strangeness. In short, they are reminders that our flesh contains pure, transformative possibility— and that’s undeniably sexy.
Shuvinai AshoonaHappy Mother, 2013, Coloured pencil and ink, 123.2 x 127 cm
I’ve been wondering what could have been possible for Ulluriaq and Viivi within these vastly different landscapes for Inuit sexuality. Yet perhaps that’s not the right approach. Sitting on the edge of their bed with Pitsiulaaq, the three already knew what they needed, what new forms of intimacy they could seek within each other. It was the colonial-Christian structure surrounding them that wished to reorient their pleasures into finite, “civilized” pathways. Recent drawings by Jutai Toonoo, Annie Pootoogook and Shuvinai Ashoona also depict nude bodies and sexual pleasure from the complex and nuanced positions of Inuit artists living under contemporary Canadian settler colonialism. In their work, naked flesh stretches forward and backward across Inuit history and culture, it embodies mundane intimacies and fantastical alternatives. It reminds us that there is resilience in seeking pleasure where you need it.


[1] Norman Vorano, “Inuit Men, Erotic Art: Certain Indecencies . . . That Need Not Be Mentioned,” Inuit Art Quarterly 23, no. 3 (Fall 2008): 22.

[2] Nelson Graburn, “Clothing in Inuit Art,” in Arctic Clothing of North America-Alaska, Canada, Greenland, eds. J.C.H. King, Birgit Pauksztat and Robert Storrie (Montreal & Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2005), 138.

[3] Laura U. Marks, Touch: Sensuous Theory and Multisensory Media (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2002), xvi.

This is a feature from the Summer 2018 issue of the Inuit Art Quarterly.

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