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Transcending the Particular: Feminist Vision in the Sculpture of Oviloo Tunnillie

Legendary Carvers

Mar 06, 2020
by Robert Kardosh

In the spring of 2003, Oviloo Tunnillie (1949-2014) came from Cape Dorset to Vancouver for the filming of a documentary about her work for the Aboriginal Peoples Television Network (APTN). During her stay, I had the pleasure of taking her to see an advance screening of Zacharias Kunuk’s Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner, the first Inuit-produced feature-length film. This epic retelling of an Inuit legend, which would soon go on to international acclaim, was just starting to create a buzz in the South. The film was a stunning and visionary work of cinematic art, and my pleasure in it was intensified by the company of one of northern Canada’s greatest artists. Tunnillie also seemed to like the film, sometimes in ways that eluded those of us in the audience who needed subtitles to follow the Inuktitut dialogue. But later that evening I was a little taken aback when my mother, Judy Kardosh, asked Tunnillie what she thought of the movie. Her response was quick and remarkably to the point: “Alright, but too long!”

It took me a while to appreciate this response as an entirely characteristic instance of Tunnillie’s aesthetic. First, it speaks to her capacity to be absolutely forthright, without hedging for fear of giving offence. It also demonstrates that she is no more patient with Inuit artists than with non-Inuit ones. Most important, this judgment shows how much her own work is grounded in economy of expression. If Kunuk’s narrative artistry is marked by its detail and willingness to explain, so that it seems at times almost documentary in scope and feeling, Tunnillie’s equally unorthodox and contemporary mode of expression strives instead for simplicity, immediacy, mystery, and a dramatic power that is more suggestive than expository.


Oviloo Tunnillie
Woman with Stone Block (2007) Stone 18.5 x 5.5 x 6.75 in
Courtesy of the Winnipeg Art Gallery. Photo credit: Ernest Mayer.

Early, Defining Experiences

Oviloo Tunnillie was born in 1949 in Kangia, one of several small Inuit camps that once lined the south coast of Baffin Island near Cape Dorset. The first of three children who survived to adulthood, she spent her earliest years with her parents, growing up in what was still a largely ancestral way of life. A succession of outsiders—whalers, Christian missionaries, traders, and representatives of the state and law—had been coming to the region since the late 1800s, each of them exerting an influence on Inuit inhabitants and their culture. The introduction of firearms, too, had long changed local hunting methods and some of the social practices they supported. Nevertheless, life for most South Baffin Inuit retained a largely pre-contact character at mid-century. Families continued to live in igloos in winter and skin tents in summer, moving from camp to camp throughout the year much as they had for centuries; they still depended on hunting and fishing for their basic sustenance; their contact with the outside was limited.

When Tunnillie was five, government health officials discovered that she had contracted tuberculosis and evacuated her for treatment to a sanatorium in Manitoba. The Canadian government was slow to respond to the threat that TB posed to Inuit (who, for lack of immunity, were particularly vulnerable), but by 1950 aggressive measures were initiated to combat the communicable disease; these included the removal of those affected, regardless of age, to sanatoria for extended periods of rest, which, in the absence of widely available penicillin, was still the main means of treatment. Tunnillie remained in the Manitoba sanatorium for a year, returning to her family after turning six. The TB subsequently reappeared, and the following year she was evacuated for a second time, spending an additional two years at a different hospital in Brandon, Manitoba.

The treatment eventually cured Tunnillie, but the experience of being separated from her family at such a young age, combined with the shock of being thrust into a completely alien environment, must have been traumatic. She later recalled her family’s distress upon learning that she was to be sent away for a second time: “My father and I went to ask the nurses and government administrators not to send me away because I did not want to go. But we couldn’t do anything, so I was sent to the hospital again by [the government medical ship] C.D. Howe and I spent a lot of time crying under the table” (Leroux 1994:223).

After her treatment was completed, Tunnillie had difficulty returning to northern life: “After I had returned to my parents’ camp, I had a hard time adjusting because apparently I had adopted too much of the southern culture and I had lost some of my Inuktitut” (Ibid., 224). The implicit alienation that informs much of her art can probably be traced back to this experience of finding herself at a distance from both southern and northern cultures.


Oviloo Tunnillie
Sedna (2007) Stone 11.75 x 6.5 x 6.5 in
Courtesy of the Winnipeg Art Gallery. Photo credit: Ernest Mayer.

During this period, northern society as a whole was undergoing rapid transformation after years of relative stability. A major factor was the postwar collapse of the market for white fox fur. First introduced to the Baffin Inuit in the early 1900s by the Hudson’s Bay Company and its competitors, the arctic fur trade had become an important feature of the local economy and lifestyle. The market collapse meant that many Inuit families were unable to secure the goods (such as hunting rifles and ammunition) upon which they had come to depend. Searching for an alternative source of income for its struggling northern inhabitants, the Canadian government identified the production and marketing of arts and crafts as a potential replacement. As is well known, James Houston, a young artist from southern Canada, went north in 1950 to help establish a viable northern arts industry with links to the southern art market.

Cape Dorset and its surrounding camps emerged early on as one of the North’s most creative centres for the new enterprise. Both of Tunnillie’s parents took part in the new art-making. Her father, Toonoo Toonoo (1920–1969), a respected and successful trapper and hunter, became an equally respected stone sculptor in the early 1960s, while her mother, Sheojuk Toonoo, participated for a short period in the community’s graphics program, which was also sponsored by Houston with the backing of the Canadian government.

Tunnillie made her first sculpture in 1966, when she was 17: “I made my first carving to see if I had a talent for it like my father did, and I was so happy to get things I wanted when I got paid for it” (Ibid., 225). But it was only after her marriage to Iola Tunnillie in 1969, and the birth

of their first child, that she began carving on a regular basis and selling her work to the new artist-run co-op in Cape Dorset. By this time, the couple was in the process of relocating to Dorset permanently, and the need to support her growing family (she eventually had six children) continued to be a powerful incentive for Tunnillie to develop her artistic practice.

In retrospect, her decision to become a stone sculptor was an early and revealing indication of her independence from artistic and social convention. Although women were central to the development of modern Cape Dorset art from the beginning, their contributions were concentrated in graphic arts—drawings and prints. Sculpture, by contrast, was mostly dominated by men. By Tunnillie’s own account, women were reluctant to take up carving partly because, for reasons of ventilation, it had to be done outdoors, even in winter: “Because of being a female, I was meant to be indoors, so I had a hard time getting accustomed to doing my carvings outdoors, especially during the eight months when we have snow” (Ibid.). If the content of Tunnillie’s art often tackles issues related to gender, it is helpful to note that her decision simply to become a sculptor inevitably involved her in confronting some longstanding gender stereotypes within the community, something she herself acknowledges.


Oviloo Tunnillie
Sedna (2008) Stone 8 x 19 x 7.5 in
Courtesy of the Winnipeg Art Gallery. Photo credit: Ernest Mayer.

Moving into Unconventional Themes

Tunnillie’s earliest works are more or less traditional in terms of subject matter, including finely crafted carvings of birds as well as mythological scenes of shamans and sea life. Partly for market reasons, such traditional subjects had been favoured by Cape Dorset’s sculptors since the 1950s. By 1980, however, Tunnillie was beginning to explore far less conventional themes. Some works from this period speak to the growing impact of television and southern-style popular culture on the North. For instance, one sculpture, created in 1981, portrays a broad-shouldered football player; another, produced six years later, depicts a competitive female figure skater. In other images from this time, she tackled difficult social issues that were affecting her community, such as alcohol and substance abuse. Such works display a remarkable willingness on her part to look beyond convention for forms appropriate to her own artistic vision.

In the early 1990s, Tunnillie’s art developed in new and even more powerful ways. Although women had featured prominently in her imagery since the early 1980s, they now took centre stage. Moreover, she began to portray them not only in more contemporary as opposed to traditional northern dress, but also as nudes, something few Cape Dorset artists, male or female, had done before.

Stylistically, even though her sculptures remained representational, the figures became more contoured and volumetric, less detailed, and more abstract. Most significantly, Tunnillie embarked at this time on a powerful series of autobiographical sculptures based on her painful childhood separation from her family during her treatment for TB. This personal experience also spoke to the wider community, since TB had affected many Inuit families.

As a result of these daring moves in her practice, she began receiving increasingly serious recognition from the art world. In 1992, she was one of nine artists featured in Isumavut: Cape Dorset Women Artists, a landmark international exhibition organized by the Canadian Museum of Civilization. A series of highly successful solo exhibitions at the Marion Scott Gallery in Vancouver also helped solidify her reputation as an important artistic voice in contemporary Canadian art.


Oviloo Tunnillie
Woman Carving Stone (2008) Stone 17.5 x 10.5 x 4.5 in
Courtesy of the Winnipeg Art Gallery. Photo credit: Ernest Mayer. 

New Inspiration and Subject Matter from an Urban Setting

In recent years, Tunnillie’s life has undergone fundamental changes. In 2002 she decided to leave Cape Dorset with members of her family, moving first to Toronto and later to Ottawa. During this period, she continued to carve, taking new inspiration and subject matter from her urban surroundings. She maintained contact with Dorset throughout this time, and in 2006 she returned there permanently. Shortly thereafter, she discovered she had cancer, a diagnosis whose treatment forced her to suspend artmaking. But, as with all previous changes and setbacks in her life, Tunnillie’s battle with cancer has only strengthened her desire to make art, which she resumed as soon as she was strong enough to do so. An exhibition of 24 sculptures, Oviloo Tunnillie: Meditations on Womanhood, shown at the Marion Scott Gallery in October and November 2008, speaks directly to her drive, determination, and, most of all, her extraordinary artistic vision.

Comprising works produced mostly within the last two years, the exhibition marks Tunnillie’s long-awaited return to the spotlight. In addition to reaffirming her status as one of the North’s leading sculptors, it brings her meditations on womanhood into clear focus for the first time in an exhibition context. This qualifies as an important contribution to the curatorial record: the fact that nearly all of her recent works have been devoted to the representation of women—though it should be said that she does carve men, too—confirms the degree to which questions of gender, and of women’s status and women’s work, have defined and given substance to her vision.


Oviloo Tunnillie
Grieving Woman (1997)
Courtesy of the Winnipeg Art Gallery. Photo Ernest Mayer. 

Contemporary Women

The work that Tunnillie’s women do is rarely the work of pre-contact life—there is no tending of oil lamps or sewing of boots, as in the more conventional images from the North. In some of the strongest recent sculptures, for example, it is the artist’s work that is represented. In Woman Carving, a woman with a small axe in her hand gazes down at a huge slab of rough stone, which the figure gently steadies with her other hand. This is clearly autobiographical, a self-portrait of Tunnillie contemplating her next carving, yet its implications are also general, serving as an image of woman as artistic producer.

Similarly, Woman with Stone Block shows the figure in a long robe struggling forward and with both hands supporting a large block of stone, on which is incised the image of an inuksuk, or stone cairn. According to Tunnillie, the block represents a printing stone of the type used by Cape Dorset’s printmakers to transfer inked impressions onto paper (Ibid.). This is, then, an homage to the printmakers whose work shows the other side of women’s artmaking in the artist’s community [1].

Notably, neither of these works are narrative in orientation. In Woman Carving, for instance, Tunnillie’s real subject is not the action of carving at all; with the woman’s head bowed down and her axe at rest, the motionless figure isn’t doing anything. The effort portrayed is, instead, the invisible action of the mind in creative contemplation. By contrast, the figure in Woman with Stone Block is moving forward, but the movement is slow, almost processional. Where the woman is going or what she is planning to do with the block is left unexplained. Here, Tunnillie seems more interested in conveying the extreme effort involved in heaving the massive stone forward, as indicated by the woman’s stooped shoulders and the thrust of her head. In both cases, artmaking is a matter of work, mental and physical; the sculptures describe that work in terms of a moment of stillness.

 The carvings in the show that explicitly represent emotional states similarly privilege psychology over narrative. In Devastated Woman, a blocky figure in a long dress sits on a stone base, one hand resting on her lap and the other covering her face, a surface gesture indicating a hidden emotional depth. In Angry Woman, the figure stands bolt upright with a clenched fist thrust into her hip. Everything about this figure, including her stern stare and powerful stance, describes the title: anger itself, embodied. Grateful Woman, to take a very different example, shows a standing woman looking directly up at the sky while shaking her two fists in the air close to her chest—a gesture of victory and gratitude.

What are these three sculptures doing? Asked about their meaning, Tunnillie replied that they depict the various emotional states common to women and men everywhere [2]. However, given the artist’s long history of using autobiography to specify general emotions and experiences, other interpretations are possible. For example, Judy Kardosh, who has closely followed Tunnillie’s work since the early 1990s, sees the sculptures as a direct reprise of the artist’s recent struggle with ovarian cancer: devastation leading to anger and defiance, and ending in gratitude [3]. This accurately reflects how narrative (and autobiography) enters Tunnillie’s essentially non-narrative art as an implied story coming up through the more general or universal states of being that she wants to render. In this sense, the general and particular are not so much different poles in her art as they are aspects of a single way of making meaning.


Oviloo Tunnillie
Woman Showing a Drawing (2006)
Courtesy of the Winnipeg Art Gallery. Photo credit: Ernest Mayer. 

A Mythical Woman

In spite of her clear determination to provide a more contemporary representation of Inuit life, Tunnillie also uses more traditional subject matter. One of her most frequent subjects is Sedna (also known as Taleelayu or Nuliajuk), the mythical Inuit sea goddess who resides at the bottom of the sea. Many Cape Dorset sculptors have portrayed the legendary underwater being, usually depicted as part human and part whale or fish; Tunnillie’s interpretation is quite different, however, as shown by two carvings in the 2008 exhibition. In the first carving of Sedna, the goddess is portrayed in an almost prostrate position; as she surveys her aquatic surroundings, she appears to be anchoring herself on the ocean floor. Her long, floating hair stretches out over her curving body like a narrow canopy. She is both mysterious and erotic, yet her gaze is seemingly troubled, as though she has been startled by something.

In the second carving, Sedna is portrayed in a seated position, with her hands—flippers, really—resting on her coiled tail, her head cast down in lonely contemplation. This version seems sombre, moody, pensive, alienated, sad—an emotional complex that is heightened by the dark, almost black, veined stone. She is as much a woman as a goddess—as in all Tunnillie’s work, the particular feeling, or instant of feeling, is paramount. (An argument could be made that Tunnillie’s sea goddesses are in fact self-portraits.)

Tunnillie has said that she has only minimal knowledge of the particular narrative elements of the legend [4]. Her artistic purpose is not to illustrate episodes from the story, and yet the story does help us understand these sculptures; the legend is more than merely a jumping-off point for her formal sculptural imagination. As is often the case in Tunnillie’s work, narrative comes through the emotional representation.

The legend of the goddess’s origin has many variants, but common to most is the story of a young woman taken out by her father to be left in the sea after stubbornly refusing to marry any of the men in the community; as she struggles to climb back aboard her father’s boat, he cuts off her fingers. Finally, she sinks to the bottom of the sea, where she becomes commander of the ocean’s creatures.

Tunnillie has taken the essential themes of the story—rejection, cruelty, power—and claimed them as her own. If the downcast Sedna expresses the sense of loneliness and rejection that all people feel at some point in their lives, it is surely relevant in the context of her gendered representations that these emotions, as expressed in the myth, are the result of male dominance and cruelty towards women: her sculpture draws upon traditional myth to make a contemporary statement about the gendering of power. In other carvings of Sedna, Tunnillie has portrayed the goddess as serene and content in her watery solitude. Do these calmer works, then, portray a woman who has power in spite of these patriarchal relations [5]?

Tunnillie’s Sednas are invariably nude, as befits their aquatic existence and goddess status. Depictions of nudity have been fairly uncommon in Inuit art, partly because of the market’s traditional demand for images of a largely ethnographic nature: if illustration is the goal, the sculpted figure is most likely to be portrayed as bundled in the northern garments that speak easily and directly to life on the land. Furthermore, as Norman Vorano observes, southern audiences have historically been ambivalent about the very idea of Inuit sexuality, with the result that Inuit artists have rarely been encouraged to express erotic or sexual themes in their work (2008:18).

Far from being deterred, Tunnillie has taken such constraining stereotypes as a challenge, something to be questioned and overturned. In addition to the two Sednas, the exhibition also includes a series of the artist’s trademark headless and armless torsos, similarly portrayed as classically styled nudes. But what kind of nudes are they? As the critic Peter Millard was careful to note, if Tunnillie’s female nudes are so often voluptuous, they are also generally more sensual than sexual (1994:24). In this way, they manage to be subversive in another sense: presented from the perspective of the woman carving the woman’s body, her nudes challenge and destabilize the traditionally privileged position of male spectatorship.


Oviloo Tunnillie
Devastated Woman (2008) Stone 13.5 x 6 x 9.75 in
Copyright Dorset Fine Arts

Transcending the Particular

The power and immediacy of Tunnillie’s image-making has much to do with the artist’s ability to create works that generalize rather than particularize their meaning. The emotional moments portrayed in many of her works are rarely tied explicitly to any specific narrative context, and, for that reason, the images easily transcend the specifics of time and place, even as they sometimes double back into the narrative that the viewer might bring to her or his looking. The almost abstract nature of Tunnillie’s forms and the lack of descriptive detail contribute to this generalizing power. For instance, her robed women, though obviously contemporary as opposed to traditional, are almost abstracted from culture. Similarly, there is a certain generality in her long, simplified faces (a southern viewer will probably be reminded of Modigliani); neither clearly Inuit nor definitely southern, Tunnillie’s faces are for the most part impersonal, expressionless. It is largely through gesture and body language that her sculptures create mood and feeling.

Finally, even though Tunnillie’s emotional portraits specifically address the contemporary experience of women, the emotions themselves are applicable to men and women alike. It is as though the sculptures were using the need to specify their origins in autobiography and culture in order to locate their meaning simultaneously on a different plane. These are sculptures that need history, but are not constrained by it.

No work better illustrates this generalizing aspect of Tunnillie’s expression than Tired Woman. In this masterly sculpture, a seated female figure in a flowing robe takes an impromptu rest from the demands of the long day, clutching a pillow with both hands, pulling it towards her chest, and using it to support her weary head, turned gently on its side. Both eyes are closed, and the expression on the long face is one of reverie. The play between the polished stone’s inherent hardness and the pillow’s simulated softness and malleability is a wonderful effect, as are the folds that appear on the front of the garment as it falls to the ground around two barely protruding feet. Equally expressive is the long flowing sculpted mass of textured hair, gracefully falling over the shoulders and down the back like a cascading waterfall. A work of profound stillness, Tired Woman seems to speak both of hardship generally and of mundane exhaustion. But it is not incidental to the meaning that this is an image of a woman, too, and of the effect of work on a woman’s body.

While the majority of the works in the Marion Scott exhibition present single female figures alone with their thoughts, a few portray women in pairs. In Partners, Tunnillie shows two women standing shoulder-to-shoulder and looking out in the same direction, each with an arm swung affectionately around the other’s waist. According to the artist, the smallish sculpture represents Tunnillie and her best friend, who recently succumbed to cancer [6].

The much larger Throatsingers sculpture offers the elegant image of two women standing face to face, hands placed on the other’s shoulders, and looking directly at each other. One of the figures is taller than the other, and a viewer might easily interpret this as a close moment between a mother and daughter. However, the title indicates that the women are, in fact, competing in a singing match, an artform performed by two women to pass the time during the cold arctic winters, when men were often away hunting for long periods. This is an image of work and friendly competition, rendered as the representation of a moment that is also legible in other ways.

Over the course of an artistic career that is now nearing its fourth decade, Tunnillie has consistently challenged audiences with an artistic vision that is as unconventional as it is powerful, producing sculptural works that confound southern notions of what Inuit art should be. At the heart of her vision is an approach to representation that is revolutionary in its scope and purpose. For, although women have often been portrayed in Inuit art, they have generally been defined not by what they feel, but by the roles they perform in society and in the home. Tunnillie instead represents moments of introspection in which identity is self-realizing and self-validating, always in a language that is immediate, direct, and formally expressive. Direct yet introspective, elemental yet mysterious, particular in its engagements and yet general in its impact, Tunnillie’s idiosyncratic sculptural expression is a unique and important contribution to contemporary Canadian art.


Robert Kardosh is the Director of the Marion Scott Gallery, Vancouver, BC.

This article was originally published in the Fall 2009 issue of the Inuit Art Quarterly.



1 Telephone interview with Tunnillie, June 2008.
2 Telephone interview with Tunnillie, June 2008.
3 Personal correspondence with Judy Kardosh.
4 Telephone interview with Tunnillie, June 2008.
5 Sedna is, in fact, the most powerful of all legendary figures, since she controls the supply of food.
6 Telephone interview with Tunnillie, June 2008.


Grygier, Pat Sandiford. A Long Way from Home: The Tuberculosis Epidemic among the Inuit. (Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1994).

Tunnillie, Oviloo “Some Thoughts About My Life and Family,” in Inuit Women Artists, edited by Odette Leroux. (Vancouver: Douglas & McIntyre, 1994).

Millard, Peter. “Meditations on Womanhood: Oviloo Tunnillie.” IAQ, vol. 9, no. 4 (1994).

Vorano, Norman. “Inuit Men, Erotic Art.” IAQ, vol. 23, no. 3 (2008).

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