Ovilu Tunnillie, RCA, was a sculptor born in Kangia, one of several small camps on the southern coast of Baffin Island, who became one of the few female stone carvers to achieve international fame . Both of Tunnillie’s parents, Toonoo and Sheojuke, were also artists, and with her father’s guidance Tunnillie honed her craft . Tunnillie began carving at a time when there were few female carvers and she had a particular focus on women, autobiographical carvings, taboo subjects and overall, created a truly unique and important collection of work.
When discussing the process of learning to be a sculptor Tunnillie stated, “I didn’t know I could carve, but watching my father, Toonoo, I learned . . . From there, I began to carve, always noticing the beauty and shape of the rock” . In an interview, she recalled the first work that she sold in 1966 was a carving of a woman in traditional clothing, which she noted with some humour, was not fully formed but sold anyway . Tunillie’s decision to work in the male-dominated medium was a revealing indication of her independence. In these early stages in Kinngait (Cape Dorset), NU, Tunnillie created realistic human and animal carvings, then moved on to less traditional and taboo themes in the 1980s, and finally to her autobiographical content in the 1990s .
Tunillie carved into a range of stones including quartz crystal, white marble and serpentinite, a distinctive deep green stone from the area surrounding Kinngait. Her works are known to be evocative, sensitively addressing painful subjects as well as bringing laughter and delight. A common theme in her work is the female form, in particular the female nude . As a young child, Tunnillie was affected by a major outbreak of tuberculosis across the North, a result of colonization. She was sent south to Manitoba for treatment, returning to Kinngait when she was ten. She was deeply affected by the time spent away from her family . Through her art, Tunnillie is able to confront settler-colonial power structures and the trauma of displacement and dislocation. This Has Touched My Life (1991) is a steatite sculpture that presents a young person being escorted away by nurses whose faces are obscured by surgical masks. In Woman Passed Out (1987), the sculpture depicts a woman held in the arms of another figure, having imbibed alcohol and losing consciousness. The head thrown back, exposing the neck in a painful arch suggests the complete vulnerability of the woman depicted, and addresses the real struggles of contemporary Inuit women, rather than an idealized depiction of life in the North of traditional lifestyles and activities . These are examples of how Tunnillie’s work engaged with contemporary issues in the North.
Tunnillie was one of the most innovative and important sculptors of her generation, a deliberately contemporary artist who drew on her own experiences to tackle difficult issues head-on . Her art was significant for a later generation of Inuit sculptors, who have been similarly determined to address contemporary life . She is one of few Inuit female carvers to achieve international success, with a number of solo exhibitions, including with the Canadian Guild of Crafts Quebec in Montreal; the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto; Mannheim, Germany; and many organized by Marion Scott Gallery in Vancouver, BC, and Feheley Fine Arts in Toronto . In 2003, she was elected to the Royal Canadian Academy. The Winnipeg Art Gallery in Manitoba released a book on her life, titled Oviloo Tunnillie: Life & Works in 2019.