• Choice

Seeing Myself Reflected in the Ulu of Kiugak Ashoona’s Sculpture

Uqallaqatigiinngniq: Sharing Voices

May 28, 2021
by Leanne Inuarak-Dall

Out of the many works by Inuit artists included in the TD Gallery of Indigenous Art, I was drawn to the monumental, confident woman in this sculpture by renowned artist Kiugak Ashoona, OC, RCA (1933–2014). Ashoona has one of the longest artistic careers of anyone from Kinngait (Cape Dorset), NU, spanning from walrus ivory carvings as a teenager in the 1940s to colourful drawings in the late 1980s. Created in 1967, Woman with Ulu Knife (1967) expresses the captivating and dynamic spirit his sculptures are known for.

The woman is kneeling, ulu gripped in her mitt as she raises the tool to her face. Thick folds punctuate the stone, creating the sweeping curves of the woman’s body that amply fill out her amauti. She is carved from a green serpentinite, dappled with dark spots that parallel the oxidized blade of the steel ulu in her hand. The large, round shapes of her figure are contrasted by the minute engravings indicating embroidery around the borders of her garment. The woman in the sculpture holds her ulu up high, as if to show how the shape mimics the curves of her own face—the two mirrored arches that form when her cheeks meet her eyes. Her expression conveys a sense of self-assurance that comforts me.

Uluit are women’s knives, multi-purpose tools used for everything from preparing animal skins and butchering meat to cutting materials for sewing clothing and shelter. In short, uluit give women the ability to keep their families warm and fed. 

I think about the artist’s mother, prolific artist Pitseolak Ashoona, OC, RCA (1904–1983), and his relationship with her. He describes his mother as a hard worker with six children to look after: “...just one lady with a needle and a lot of thread, making parkas for all of her children and her husband!” [1] I imagine Kiugak Ashoona seeing the same look of pride on his mother’s face as she wielded her ulu.

I think of my own mother, kneeling on the kitchen tile of our third-floor apartment cutting up tuktu on a bed of cardboard, chatting and sharing food with her friends. Growing up I seldom joined in the feasts, as I didn’t understand Inuktitut and my southern taste buds didn’t crave the taste of muktaq. 

Now that I live over four thousand kilometres away, I long for the sound of her voice as she kneels on the floor and raises the ulu to her face. I have a collection of uluit she has sent me, carefully packaged and mailed across the country. I cherish these well-loved knives, with wobbly wooden handles and tarnished blades cut from old hand-saws. I take my time sharpening each one, bringing the edge of each blade to a point with my careful and repeated gestures.

My uluit are not used to clean seal skins or make clothes. They are mainly used to divvy up oven pizzas or break up the giant ice blocks that drop from my ice maker. Regardless, my ulu strengthens the connection I have to my past, my family, and makes me feel warm and fed. I call my mother and ask what the ulu means to her and she says with her infectious laugh, “It means girl power, but in a traditional way. They are the best thing Inuit invented.”

A tool is only as good as the hands that wield it, as Ashoona makes evident in Woman with Ulu Knife. With his careful choice of material and strong technical skills, Ashoona has created a sculpture that embodies the long tradition of powerful, capable Inuit women. I hold my ulu up high, the semi-circular blade mirroring my rounded cheekbones as I look to the past in admiration and respect for those women, and to the future in hopes that I can continue to deepen my connection to them and myself. 


[1] Marion E. Jackson, “The Ashoonas of Cape Dorset: In Touch with Tradition,” North/Nord 29, no. 3 (Fall 1982): 16.


This series was made possible with the generous support of the TD Ready Commitment.


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