Oviloo Tunnillie: Body, Material, Intention

Oviloo Tunnillie (1949-2014) is widely regarded as one of the most accomplished sculptors of her time and is among very few Inuit artists to achieve international success. The child of two artists, Tunnillie took an early interest in sculpting, selling her first work in 1965. She has since had solo exhibitions in Montréal, Mannheim, Vancouver, Toronto and a retrospective this month, A Woman's Story In Stone at the Winnipeg Art Gallery.

As a female sculptor Tunnillie transgresses the gendered traditions of Inuit creative practice. Art-making itself is a relatively new medium of expression for Inuit women, evolving only in the 1950s and 60s with James Houston’s efforts to generate economy from the tourist market through his establishment of artist cooperatives. Carving has traditionally been a man’s domain, with few women venturing to experiment in the field. Tunnillie once said that she would encourage other women to make carvings 'because it shows that women are strong too in their own way'. This fortitude is portrayed in her later work Woman Carving which determinedly crystallises the image of Inuit woman as artist. The figure is not described in the active process of carving, rather her form is caught in a moment of creative repose and conceptualisation. While depicting physical stillness, Tunnillie captures the internal dynamism of the sculptor's intellectual process. The contrast between the polished surface of the female form and the rough stone she is pressed against emphasises a tangible connection between body, material and intention.

The titles of Tunnillie’s works - Woman Dancing, Thinking Woman, Grieving Woman - are as simultaneously generalising of female experience as they are inflected by her own autobiography. The solitary subjects often evoke a sense of alienation - a mood that can be traced back to Tunnillie's childhood spent in constant transition between Cape Dorset and Manitoba hospitals whilst being treated for tuberculosis. Tunnillie related the problems of adjusting to Arctic life once returning as a teenager from this liminal reality: 'It was like I had just met my family for the first time. I couldn’t understand their ways nor their language because I had gotten so used to southern ways'. Perhaps in response to her childhood caught between two cultures, Tunnillie's work configures a space for herself through a bold articulation of womanhood; her abstract forms exude a generalising potency which speaks to a broader female community and feminist vision.

Autobiographical references are frequently absent in Inuit art-making as the tourist market has more often demanded decorative animals or ethnographic imagery. In resistance to this, Tunnillie remarked that whilst: ‘Some people write about their lives. I carve about my life. That is the way I want to be known'. As Steven Leyden Cochrane has described, Tunnillie's subjects have always been more 'personal, contemporary and trenchant': 'Sports stars, ballet dancers, a woman masturbating, another on the toilet, mermaids, a princess, and a priest all feature in her diverse cast of characters' (2016). In this way Tunnillie positions herself amongst whom Heather Igloliorte has termed the 'new artists of the Inuit avant-garde' by initiating a practice of 'frank self-representation' (2010: 45).

Tunnillie is one of the first Inuit artists to depict nudity and her figurative studies were radical in their representations of the nude female form. Paternalistic colonial legislation (see the Book of Wisdom for Eskimos) and cultural representations such as Nanook of the North have reinforced stereotypes and southern perceptions of Inuit peoples as infantile, androgynous, asexual or formless beneath the quantities of clothing the climate requires them to wear - a stereotyping which has fueled tourist demands for cutesy, childlike imagery. It was not until Zacharias Kunuk’s Atanarjuat (2001) or the graphic work of Annie Pootoogook, that southern audiences were presented with a mainstream image of Inuit sexuality, eroticism or nudity.

In Kneeling Torso, Tunnillie intimates a voluptuous and distinctively female form. Undulating curves and smooth lines are accentuated by the figure's pose; the figure is understatedly sensual without being sexual. Tunnillie’s nudes execute a celebration of the female form in a way that undermines objectification. She captures an internal quality of meditative repose; an articulation of womanhood which powerfully portrays Tunnillie's unshakable sense of female self-possession and nuanced introspection.


Heather Igloliorte, 2010. ‘The Inuit of Our Imagination’, in Gerald McMaster (ed.) Inuit Modern, (Toronto: Douglas and McIntrye Press, 2010), pp. 41-49.

Patricia Feheley, 2004. ‘Language: The Art of Annie Pootoogook’ in Inuit Art Quarterly, 19 (2): 10-15.

Oviloo Tunnillie 1994. ‘Some Thoughts About My Life’ in (Odette Leroux, Marion E. Jackson and Minnie Aodla Freeman eds.) Inuit Women Artists (Vancouver: Douglas and McIntye), pp. 223-239.

Odette Leroux, 1994, ‘The Artistic Expression of Nine Cape Dorset Women’, in (Odette Leroux, Marion E. Jackson and Minnie Aodla Freeman eds.) Inuit Women Artists (Vancouver: Douglas and McIntye), pp. 18-40.

Robert Kardosh, 2009. 'Transcending the Particular: Feminist Vision in the Sculpture of Oviloo Tunnillie' in Inuit Art Quarterly, Fall 2009

Peter Millard, 1994. ‘Meditations on Womanhood: Ovilu Tunnillie’ in Inuit Art Quarterly, 9 (4): 20-25.

© 2020 by Verity Seward