Inside Shuvinai Ashoona’s Fantastical Worlds

Shuvinai Ashoona: Mapping Worlds features drawings that combine otherworldly creatures with Inuit scenes of everyday life

Maria Luisa Santana // Contributor

Through her colourful drawings of fantastical creatures sharing spaces with members of Inuit communities, Shuvinai Ashoona brings her inner world and perspective to life. Open since February, Shuvinai Ashoona: Mapping Worlds at the Vancouver Art Gallery is the Inuit artist’s first exhibition in western Canada, and features a selection of her work from the past twenty years. Ashoona blurs the line between reality and fantasy by producing drawings that often illustrate the changing landscape of the Cape Dorset region in Nunavut with the arrival of western technology and practices. “A lot of her work—whether it is depicting something really fantastical or something that’s more based in observation—it is really kind of matter of fact,” shared Vancouver Art Gallery curator Tarah Hoghe.

Shuvinai Ashoona, Earth Transformations, 2012, Fineliner pen, coloured pencil and Conté crayon on black paper, Collection of Martha Burns and Paul Gross

The 58-year-old Indigenous artist’s work is deeply rooted in the arctic landscape, portraying the changing circumstances of Inuit peoples’ traditional ways of living. Ashoona incorporates contemporary western culture into her work by drawing people holding phones or cameras, and by making use of English words and vocabulary in her pieces. The inclusion of these motifs in her work references how globalization and the introduction of western technology into her community is changing the area Ashoona grew up in; her art is a testimony on how colonization changes the routine of native communities. A combination of memories and dreamlike observation find their way into Ashoona’s very straightforward style of expressing and illustrating; she mixes a multiplicity of different perspectives on a single piece of paper. The Inuit artist depicts members of her community in everyday activities while co-existing and sharing their spaces with fantastical creatures. “The idea of worlds within worlds is one that really speaks to the way that she brings reality and fantasy, past and present, together in her work,” said Hoghe. “Many worlds exist in the same place for her.”

Untitled (two people cutting seal) depicts a seemingly ordinary camp scene: two Inuit men cut a seal in half. But when you look closer, a hidden parallel world reveals itself: a rock morphs into a bear head, a mystical spider brings food, colorful snakes emerge from  rocks. These creatures gather around the men who don’t seem to notice their presence. The drawing illustrates the peaceful coexistence and harmonic sharing of common spaces between the men and the fantastical animals, portraying how Inuit community members are dealing and adapting to change.

Shuvinai Ashoona, Untitled (two people cutting seal), 2011, Fineliner pen, graphite and coloured pencil on paper, Private Collection 

Shuvinai Ashoona comes from a family of artists. Her grandmother was one of the first artists to begin drawing as a primary practice at the community’s cooperative, West Baffin Eskimo cooperative, a creative space where Inuit artists can produce their graphic and carving work. Her mother, Sorosilutu Ashoona, was also a drawer, and her father, Kiugak Ashoona, was a master carver. Shuvinai Ashoona tends to be described as a self-trained artist, but in reality she was raised and surrounded by many other women who were artists as well. Ashoona’s work stands out for constantly breaking the standards and patterns around what Inuit art should look like. Her art most aligns with that of her first cousin, Annie Pootoogook, who would portray the details of her everyday life as a Inuit woman through drawings. Pootoogook broke expected norms around what Inuit art should represent and how it should look. “Annie started to represent life as it was in the north for her, like people shopping in the grocery stores,” said Hoghe. “It helped Ashoona to continue to break out of the expected mold.”

Under Ashoona’s lens, the transformations in her community are made visible, but not necessarily depicted as a negative phenomenon. Instead, her work renders the inevitable presence of modernification and the way in which communities adapt, adjust and mold their rituals around it. Through her drawings of imaginative animals peacefully co-existing with Inuit characters, Ashoona opens up space for viewers to have extreme inventive interpretations of her art pieces. “Part of the real joy of her work is just looking at it and trying to figure out what it is, and putting the words to what it is you’re seeing.”

Shuvinai Ashoona, Untitled (Birthing Scene), 2013, Fineliner pen and coloured pencil on paper, Collection of Paul and Mary Dailey Desmarais III

Shuvinai Ashoona, Composition (Clams and Globes), 2010, Fineliner pen and coloured pencil on paper, Collection of John Cook

Shuvinai Ashoona: Mappings Worlds is on display at the Vancouver Art Gallery until May 24.

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