By Dianne Meili
Windspeaker.com Archives, 2014
Early 1990s art magazines described Inuit stone carver Ovilu Tunnillie as “avant garde” and “a woman to watch.” In a male-dominated industry, she pushed limits sculpting images that challenged southern buyers’ sensibilities.
While traditional dancing bears and hunters dressed in parkas turned gallery-goers’ heads, Tunnillie took a gamble and worked from a more personal point of view, treating controversial subjects that others avoided – like alcoholism and domestic abuse.
Quietly and successfully she challenged tradition and brought a new kind of feminist expression to ignored northern realities.
It was around 1994 that she carved a sculpture of a reclining woman, one hand to her forehead and the other covering her genitals, intending it to depict a woman who had just been raped. Gallery personnel organizing her show labelled it simply as “Nude”, perhaps concerned about the impact her original intention would have on viewers.
“She made a huge contribution to the women up here,” said her brother, Jutai Toonoo, also an artist. “She was a strong person and I think people looked up to her for doing what she did in art.”
Toonoo recalled his older sister caring for him as a youngster, and that she often seemed sad.
“Something happened when she was in the hospital for tuberculosis when she was little. It affected her whole life.”
The government’s practice of removing children who had tuberculosis from their families to languish in southern hospitals had a profound effect on northerners, writes Robert Kardosh in the Inuit Art Quarterly. In the absence of penicillin, the only cure was rest in various white sanatoria. At five, Tunnillie spent a year in a Manitoba institution, and when TB reappeared the following year, was heartbroken to be sent to a Brandon sanatorium for an additional two years.
In a 2008 telephone conversation with Kardosh, whose Vancouver Marion Scott Gallery features Tunnillie’s work, the artist reflected on the difficult re-entry she had to northern life.
“I had a hard time adjusting (to my parents’ camp) because apparently I had adopted too much of the southern culture and I had lost some of my Inuktitut.”
The alienation that informs much of her work can be traced back to this experience, writes Kardosh.
In a sculpture called “This Has Touched My Life” Tunnillie shows herself as a small girl, standing with three huge adult figures – a man wearing a suit and two women with big handbags, and hats with veils. Masterful in her ability to convey strong emotions, the sculpture exudes loneliness’ and separation.
The oldest of three children who survived to adulthood, Tunnillie was born in 1949 in Kangia, one of several small camps lining the south coast of Baffin Island near Cape Dorset.
As the fur trade collapsed, James Houston, a young southern Canadian artist, helped establish a viable northern arts industry. Tunnillie’s father, Toonoo Toonoo, became a respected carver in the early 1960s and her mother, Sheojuk, participated in Cape Dorset’s graphics program.
“I watched my father carve,” Tunnillie reports in a video on the Inuit Art Alive website. “My first carving was a woman with an amautik (large-hooded parka) but it didn’t have any legs.”
Only 17 and extremely shy at the time of her first foray into art, Tunnillie was soon selling her sculptures to buy things like canvas material for sewing tents.
“I was so happy to get things I wanted when I got paid,” she told Kardosh. It wasn’t until 1969, though, when she married Iola Tunnillie, that she got serious. After the birth of her first child she began carving regularly, and the couple eventually moved to Cape Dorset to be close to the artist-run co-op. She eventually had six children and needed to support her growing family with her art.
According to Jutai, his sister “basically did what the men were doing. She thought women should be just as able as the men. I think she got that from my mother who raised a whole family by herself after our father died.”
Up to this time, women rarely took up sculpture, partly because, for ventilation purposes, it had to be done outdoors, even in winter.
“Because of being 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,” she told Kardosh.
This initial decision to be a sculptor, alone, set her in a position to confront longstanding gender stereotypes and she continued to break through these constraints throughout her career.
Her star rose in the 1980s as she became one of the first Inuit artists to create autobiographical works. Enjoying international success, she also became famous for rendering bold female nudes in stone, and her version of Sedna (the oft-depicted legendary Inuit sea goddess) had jutting breasts and unmistakable sensuality.
She made magnificent sculptures of a football player and a woman wearing high-heeled shoes – indicating southern influences – and didn’t shy away from using new materials, sometimes expressing her ideas in quartz crystal and white marble.
She rendered women in contemporary, long dresses and heavy boots, with one even brandishing a fat wallet in a playful gesture.
More often, though, the women she carved reflected her own personal history of grief and suffering and, in fact, many were meant to be Tunnillie herself.
Among the numerous carvings she sculpted over the years is an angry woman with fists on her hips, a tired woman resting her head on a pillow, and one who holds her hand to her forehead and her belly entitled “Surprise Pregnancy.”
Over her career, Tunnillie was the solo artist – or was featured in – no less than 46 exhibitions and is considered to be the most accomplished female carver of her generation.
As she struggled with cancer, the artist became less productive, but continued to carve until she passed away on June 12, 2014.