Shuvinai Ashoona: Interview of the Month March 2024 – Paul Carey-Kent

The Perimeter is showing the work of Shuvinai Ashoona (born 1961), who lives in Kinngait (formerly known as Cape Dorset) in Nunavut, the largest and northernmost territory of Canada. She was born in 1961 into a family of celebrated artists: her father, Kiugak Ashoona (1933–2014) – a hunter and master carver – was the youngest son of the first-generation Inuit artist Pitseolak Ashoona (c. 1904–1983).

Ashoona grew up in Kinngait, but the family returned to a more traditional nomadic lifestyle during the 1980s: living more remotely in outpost camps at Luna Bay and Kangiqsujuaq, they largely relied on hunting and fishing for survival. On returning to Kinngait, Ashoona became a regular attendee at Kinngait Studios, where she could see and learn from other Inuit artists at work, notably her aunt Napachie Pootoogook (1938–2002) – and she has continued to work there daily for over thirty years. As a third-generation Inuit artist, she has chronicled the shift from life on the land to settled communities with access to popular culture, allowing her to overturn stereotypical notions of Inuit art. The past and present blend with folkloric and fantastical elements and some drawings mix people and animals with imaginary animals and human-animal hybrids, producing a surreal inflection. Ashoona has garnered increasing international attention, culminating in her receiving a special mention for the six drawings included in 2022 Venice Biennale’s central exhibition ‘The Milk of Dreams’. According to the jury ‘Shuvinai Ashoona reveals in her drawings and paintings a profundity of Indigenous Inuk cosmogonies. Acknowledging the violences of the colonial enterprise, Ashoona, in her work proposes possibilities of escaping the cul-de-sac by listening in, listening back and listening forward to Indigenous knowledge.’

Who are your inspirations in making work?

I do think about all my family members who also made art, I think about them working on drawings. They are only in my memories now, but they still inspire me to make art. But I also get inspired by collaborating with other artists, seeing what we can both do together, seeing how someone can make work that is like my drawing, or sometimes it’s completely different. It’s important that we get to see some of the younger people drawing, just like older guys do, and get them to catch up to the older ones, who have been drawing for a while. I would prefer young ones and old ones drawing together, to see what the old ones are already doing and what the young ones want to do with their drawings.

What is Kinngait like? 

Many people don’t know what kind of a town it is and that we have some kinds of mountains around us. Since a long time ago there was a Kinngait, I couldn’t know that much about it way back then, but maybe I’d like the people curious to know that it’s surrounded by Nunavut and Arctic land and water.

‘Untitled (My GG’s Camp)’

How has Kinngait changed over the years you have known it?

Kinngait is different now, but in some ways the same as it was when I was younger. We have so many new buildings, and big school buses and other equipment that we didn’t have before, but the people here still go hunting or fishing, spend time with family and do other traditional things. That’s why my drawings may be about Kinngait long ago, or the Kinngait that we’re living in now, and the old and new can even be together in a drawing. ‘Untitled (My GG’s Camp)’ is an imagined illustration of what the landscape in Kinngait used to be, and a way of living that no longer exists. It comes from a story that has been passed down by my great grandmother.

What do you like about working in pencil crayon?

I’ve always worked in pencil crayon, sometimes I use other things, but mostly I work in pencil crayon. I like using them because there are so many colours and I can make some small details in the people or in the landscape. I can go through so many pencil crayons, especially when the drawing is large, so I’m very glad that Kinngait Studios always has lot of them around!


I also asked The Perimeter’s team to explain what was going on in four of the works…

This colourful untitled group portrait features a common motif in Ashoona’s drawing practice of artists presenting their artworks. Here, the front-facing figures confront the viewer with direct gazes. A small face peeks out from the pouch of an amauti parka. This design allows for convenient transport, and for the mother to bring her baby from back to front for breastfeeding while protecting the child from the harsh elements. Ashoona illustrates the multiple roles assumed by many women in her community as artists, mothers, and caretakers. The nesting image of the child in the coat echoes the nesting drawings within the composition – a common visual strategy found in many of Ashoona’s works. The drawings being presented by the figures contain portraits of community members, a voyeuristic glimpse of someone sitting reading a book near a window, and multiple planets celebrating the New Year across space and time.

This untitled drawing from 2016, depicts two figures wearing variations of amauti parka styles. A triangular shaped qulliq is placed between the two seated figures. This traditional seal or whale oil lamp was originally used for heat in an igloo or tent but now has been adopted for more symbolic use. In many ceremonial practices, a community elder will light a qulliq and provide a story or prayer. Vegetable oil is now often used in lieu of animal oil. This domestic scene captures an intimate view of contemporary daily life in Kinngait.

‘Untitled, 2021’ is one of Ashoona’s larger scale drawings to date and part of her presentation in the 59th Venice Biennale in 2022. In this work, Ashoona confronts us with the merging of animal and human extending out from one another. The lines between fiction and reality are blurred, where the body morphs and cohabits into a hybrid fantastical form. The drawing presents a woman with a platypus mouth and webbed fingers reclining back on a bed of ice as a poncho-wearing, tentacled walrus confronts his own reflection. This confrontation of a subconscious narrative is consistent throughout Ashoona’s compositions, bringing to life a surrealist vision of the interior and social experience within her unique iconographic drawings.

In this untitled drawing from 2013, a group of figures dressed in colourful attire appear engaged in various leisure activities—two boys practice bicycle tricks on homemade ramps, parents promenade with their children, and friends share ice cream cones. Though Kinngait is covered in snow for the majority of the year, Ashoona depicts members of her community enjoying the short period of warm weather.

Top Photo Courtesy Wiki Commons

‘Shuvinai Ashoona: When I Draw’ runs to 26 April at The Perimeter, 20 Brownlow Mews, London WC1N 2LE.

Read More



, ,