After nearly two years in progress, the Winnipeg Art Gallery (WAG) unveiled a 9,072 kilogram (approximately 10 tonne) stone sculpture by Goota Ashoona in front of Qaumajuq on January 21st. It is the first of several public-art pieces to be unveiled in front of the new building and was supported by the Manitoba Teachers’ Society. The only Inuit art museum in North America, Qaumajuq is set to open to the public later this year.
Standing over seven feet tall and four feet around, Tuniigusiia/The Gift is made from Guatemalan Verdant, a dark, jade-like green stone with lighter veins. “I chose that green colour because my parents used to carve that colour and it was beautiful,” says Ashoona when reached by phone from her farm just outside Winnipeg, MB.
Courtesy the Artist
It wasn’t easy to source a piece of stone large enough for this massive public-art project, she continues. There are no commercial quarries in North America producing serpentinite—one of the main stones historically quarried and carved by Inuit artists like Kiugak Ashoona and Sorroseeleetu Ashoona, Goota’s parents—large enough to meet the artist’s requirements, so they sourced this piece of Guatemalan Verdant from India and had it shipped to Canada specially for the project.
“This is the biggest one that I dreamed of, that I’ve been wanting to do...even before I started carving,” says Ashoona. Not only is this new work the largest sculpture ever created by the artist, but one of the biggest created by any member of the Ashoona family. As far as Ashoona is aware, it is one of the biggest sculptures ever created by any Inuit artist, ever.
Photo Calvin Lee Joseph
Feeling a strong personal connection to the WAG—stemming from the amount of artwork in the WAG vaults that was made by her family—Ashoona wanted a personal subject to match. “I chose the mermaid because I heard about it from my grandmother when she told the story, or my mother,” says Ashoona, adding that there are stories about mermaids “pretty much everywhere” back home, often referencing Nuliajuk (Sedna).
The mermaid’s tale curves around the profiles of a mask on one side and a mother teaching her daughter how to throat sing on the other, mimetically representing the same intergenerational knowledge transfer that inspired the mermaid itself, and the role teachers play in communities.
Ashoona stands next to Tuniigusiia/The Gift in her workshop Courtesy the artist
Carving such a massive piece of stone was a taxing enterprise, particularly for an artist who is not quite five foot four. “You would have been really impressed to see all those days when she was on the end of a disc grinder or jackhammer,” says Ashoona’s husband, Bob Kussy.
To expedite the process, Ashoona turned to modern technology, building up a scale model with plasticine and then using a CAD cutter to translate that work to the stone.
Although the technology is new, it’s something the artist has been thinking about for a long time. Nearly 20 years ago, when her parents visited from Kinngait (Cape Dorset), NU, they discussed how computerized carving tools would lessen the physical burden on Inuit sculptors and enable them to make multiples for sale. As a printmaker, Goota’s mother “understood almost instantly what CAD-cutting technology could mean to an Inuit art family.”
A couple decades later, Ashoona is now bringing that vision to life, combining traditional carving skills with 21st-century technology.
Goota Ashoona Photo Jocelyn Piirainen
Supporting her through the process has been Kussy, as well as friends and fellow artists like Candace Lipischak, Dayle Kubluitok and Kailey Sheppard, who make up Ashoona’s artistic circle. Ashoona also consulted with friends who had construction experience to ensure she could work safely and not damage the workshop when moving the stone around.
Keeping the project under wraps was tough, but Ashoona is excited to have the piece finally unveiled. Although sad that family and friends cannot be there in person—COVID-19 health and safety restrictions mean that initial plans for a 3000+ audience had to be changed—Ashoona is excited to finally reveal it to the public. “I’m not nervous about anything about it,” she says.
Photo Calvin Lee Joseph
After a year which has included participating in the CBC Gem documentary Sanannguaqtit: Carved in Stone and unveiling a massive public art project, Ashoona is juggling many professional projects, including starting a business selling photographs of her work and passing on the technological skills she learned as part of this project to other Inuit artists, “bringing the most advanced technology to the doorsteps of the Inuit art world.”
Intending to continue the legacy of her family’s success in the art world—in addition to her artistic parents, Goota’s grandmother was the prolific graphic artist Pitseolak Ashoona and her older sister is renowned graphic artist Shuvinai Ashoona, RCA, among many other relatives in a profoundly artistic family—Ashoona and Kussy plan to submit Tuniigusiia as a candidate for a Canadian postage stamp. With three stamps featuring the family’s artworks already produced, if Goota’s were included it would be the first time any Canadian family, Indigenous or non-Indigenous, had three generations honoured that way.
Looking forward, Ashoona hopes to continue working with the WAG in different capacities, eager to carry her family’s legacy in a building she feels very connected with.
But for now, she has a whale skull in the studio to complete.