Ovilu Tunnillie, RCA, was a sculptor who became one of the few early female carvers to achieve international fame . Born in Kangia, one of several small camps on the southern coast of Baffin Island, she produced the majority of her work in Kinngait (Cape Dorset), NU. Tunnillie is best known for her particular focus on women, autobiographical carvings and taboo subjects, creating a unique collection of work that spoke to the lives of Inuit women over the course of her life.
Toonoo and Sheojuke, Tunnillie’s parents, were both artists, and Toonoo in particular helped Tunnillie hone her craft from a young age . 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 . Tunnillie’s decision to work in the male-dominated medium of stone was a revealing indication of her independence. In these early stages of her career Tunnillie created realistic human and animal sculptures, before moving on to less traditional and more taboo themes in the 1980s, and finally to her autobiographical content in the 1990s .
Tunnillie worked with a range of stones including quartz crystal, white marble and serpentinite, a distinctive deep green stone from the area surrounding Kinngait. Her works are visually 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 , and in 1991 produced the autobiographical steatite sculpture This Has Touched My Life in response, presenting herself as a young person being escorted away by nurses whose faces are obscured by surgical masks. Through works like this, Tunnillie is able to confront settler-colonial power structures and the trauma of displacement and dislocation. Another sculpture, Woman Passed Out (1987), depicts a woman held in the arms of another figure, having imbibed alcohol and lost consciousness. The head is thrown back, exposing the neck in a painful arch and suggesting the complete vulnerability of the woman depicted. Rather than presenting an idealized depiction of life in the North, featuring traditional lifestyles and activities, Tunnillie chose to address the real struggles of contemporary Inuit society in general and of women in particular .
As a deliberately contemporary artist who drew on her own experiences to tackle difficult issues head-on, Tunnillie was one of the most innovative and important sculptors of her generation, holding particular significance 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 more than a dozen solo exhibitions and countless group exhibitions that have crisscrossed North America and taken her work as far afield as Sweden, Germany and Russia. In 2003, she was elected to the Royal Canadian Academy, and in 2019 the Winnipeg Art Gallery in Manitoba released a book on her life, titled Oviloo Tunnillie: Life & Works.