Airplanes, Figure-Skaters, Football Players and High-Heeled Shoes

Oviloo Tunnillie and the Tradition of the New

Based in Cape Dorset, with recent stints in Toronto and Ottawa, **Oviloo Tunnillie **was born in a hunting camp and raised within traditional Inuit culture on southern Baffin Island. The practice of made-for-the-market stone carving, introduced to the North around the time she was born, was something she learned as a teenager by watching her artist father, Toonoo Toonoo, at work. At the same time, the rocks and boulders Tunnillie saw scattered around her Arctic environment called to her. In them, she saw the rich potential for expression.

The other feminist aspect of Tunnillie’s art making is her devotion to the female subject. For the past couple of decades, she has challenged viewers with her unconventional depictions of contemporary Inuit women. Rather than focus on their engagement in picturesquely traditional activities such as preparing animal hides or sewing skin clothing, she addresses aspects of their lives as distressing as rape and alcoholism and as reassuring as friendship. She has also marked her path with depictions of “Southerners”–the nurses, nuns, teachers and social workers she encountered as a child. By the age of nine, Tunnillie had spent three years in hospitals in Manitoba, being treated for tb. The trauma of that forced institutionalization, of being torn from her family, her language and her culture, is often mentioned in support of the argument that her work conveys a sense of alienation, along with a subversive sense of humour…

When I last wrote about her, I examined Tunnillie’s formal interests and technical achievements; for instance, the way she plays figuration off abstraction, and volumetric curves against straight-edged cuts. I admired the contrast of highly polished and roughly raked surfaces, and the overall subtlety of her expression. Here, her technical facility and strong sense of three-dimensional design continue to serve her, to enable her to elicit warmth and emotion from cold, hard stone. Oviloo Tunnillie is an artist at the height of her powers.

Buy Issue 109 to read Robin Laurence’s entire article!

Volume 28, Number 1: Shirin Neshat

This article originally appeared in Border Crossings #109, published March 2009.

Border Crossings looks at contemporary art with interest, passion and thoroughness. Subscribe to Border Crossings today for as little as $24/year.