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Shuvinai Ashoona: When I Draw

by Elizabeth Fullerton
Reviews / Exhibition • 17.04.2024

Naturalism blends with phantasmagoria in the delicate, bewitching drawings of Shuvinai Ashoona (b.1961). Some offer a window into quotidian life in Nunavut, Canada, whereas others feature fantastical creatures with tentacles and multiple heads; at times, these converge, and the monstrous hybrids insinuate themselves into the everyday scenes. Born and still based in Kinngait (formerly known as Cape Dorset), a hamlet on Baffin Island in the Arctic, Ashoona takes inspiration from a variety of sources: the animal and plant life around her, Inuit mythologies, comic books, television and her own fertile imagination. The artist came to international prominence following her inclusion in The Milk of Dreams, Cecilia Alemani’s exhibition for the 59th Venice Biennale in 2022, where her works garnered a special mention from the jury. Her first solo show in the United Kingdom, When I Draw at the Perimeter, London, is a joyful affair comprising eighteen drawings, which are displayed alongside works by an older generation of Kinngait artists and archival material FIG.1 about the small but vital art scene there.

The exhibition begins with a focus on twentieth century Inuit traditions, before moving to Ashoona’s otherworldly drawings on the first floor and ending with depictions of contemporary existence on the top floor. The first work that greets the visitor, Untitled (MY GG’s CAMP) FIG.2, shows Inuit figures thickly bundled in fur-lined parkas and sealskin boots, some of whom sit on sleds being pulled by dogs through an icy snowscape. It is a scene that some Westerners might typically conjure up when thinking of Nunavut, but it is also an invitation to leave preconceptions at the door. The drawing portrays a way of life that no longer exists, one that only lives on in Ashoona’s memories of her great grandmother’s tales. As the exhibition continues, the visitor encounters drawings of Kinngait’s youth in baseball caps and jeans alongside women carrying babies in traditional amauti, or parka hoods.

The ground floor also establishes the context of Ashoona’s creative environment. Kinngait Studios, run by the Inuit-owned West Baffin Eskimo Cooperative, is the hub of artistic life in the region. The studio was founded in 1959 with the help of the Canadian artist James Houston (1921–2005), who taught so-called first-generation Inuk artists printmaking and introduced their work to international markets. Some of their work is shown alongside Ashoona’s in this exhibition. For example, her 2019 panoramic drawing of Kinngait in summer FIG.3, with its brightly coloured low-rise houses dotted along a treeless bay encircled by barren hills is juxtaposed with Large Bear (1961), a print by Lucy Qinnuayuak (1915–82), and the related printing stone FIG.4, carved by Eegyvudluk Pootoogook (1931–2000) – both artists who worked at the studio in the 1960s.

This context is significant because although Ashoona hails from a family of carvers, printmakers and painters, she had no formal art training, learning instead from observing her elders in the studio. In this remote, challenging environment plagued by poverty, alcoholism and poor health, art is something of a lifeline; nearly a quarter of Kinngait’s 1,400-strong population count themselves as artists.1 Ashoona herself turned to art after she experienced a physical and mental health crisis in her thirties, and on the advice of her sister – the sculptor Goota Ashoona (b.1967) – began to make drawings.2 Canada’s Inuit are still grappling with the brutal colonial legacy of forced assimilation and relocation as well as the impact of climate change, yet the mere act of creation is testament to the community’s resilience. As the Toronto-based Anishinaabe curator, artist and educator Wanda Nanibush (b.1976) has said, ‘There is no resistance movement led by Indigenous folks that is not also a great imagining, a creative impulse, an artistic revival that shows the connections between art and sovereignty’.3

Born in 1961, Ashoona and her family left Kinngait for a decade in the late 1970s and lived a nomadic existence, an experience that has undoubtedly shaped her outlook.4 While Ashoona’s subject-matter eschews the overtly political, her contemporary drawings offer fascinating insights into life in this harsh landscape, which is enveloped in snow for most of the year. For example, two drawings from 2015 and 2019 respectively depict different hunting activities: the former FIG.5 offers an aerial perspective of a woman flattened against the picture plane, fishing in a crack in the ice, her catch still squirming on the surface; the latter, Untitled (Catching a Beluga) (2019), captures the communal effort of hauling a whale by rope. Others show young people doing bike tricks on makeshift ramps, eating ice cream and relaxing as they compare new T-shirts bearing English and Inuktitut text. Ashoona depicts these figures with a range of skin tones, blonde, red and dark hair, blue, green and brown eyes, inspired by what she has observed on television rather than verisimilitude. With their frontal and birds’-eye perspectives, these works constitute pictorial narratives about this community, to be passed down like the tales told by the artist’s great grandmother.

Although they are illuminating and evocative, these drawings lack the febrile energy of Ashoona’s unruly non-naturalistic works, in which seemingly benign monsters invade ordinary activities, disrupting any straightforward understanding of the scene pictured. COMPOSITION (AT THE DENTIST) FIG.6, for instance, appears to portray a diminutive child held by their mother being handed a pair of tusk-like teeth by a blue creature with a clipboard balanced in its plant-like feet. To the side, a naked human is balanced between a giant squid and a squat monster with a snaking black tongue – or perhaps all three apparently distinct entities are in fact one. In another drawing FIG.7, a figure gives a piggyback ride to a colossal centipede, as creatures akin to a human-octopus hybrid, a polar bear, a platypus and a bird with jellyfish tentacles process through the town, led by a human holding hands with a three-headed monster. Given that Qaujimajatuqangit (traditional Inuit knowledge) centres on a deep bond between human and non-human, and that Inuit mythology is rife with tales of human-animal transformation, these images can be understood as an embodiment of such fluidity and interconnections.5

What is clear is that Ashoona’s compositions have grown increasingly elaborate in recent years, as evidenced by the inclusion of self-reflexive elements, such as her untitled 2021 drawing of a clothed walrus gazing at his mirror image in the water FIG.8. In Drawing like the elephant FIG.9, Ashoona portrays four curious hybrid artists – a woman with fangs, a dinosaur, a man with talons and a tusked boy with polar bear legs – who hold up their works of art, each of which portrays more humans and animals. One of these drawings within a drawing depicts an elephant in front of an easel with a prize cheque bearing the words ‘winner for showing animals do draw’. Compounding these layers of looking, two bystanders peek out at the scene from behind a curtained window in the top-left corner of the work.  

Ashoona’s exhilarating exhibition is one of a flurry of shows in the United Kingdom by Indigenous artists, including the Kinngait-based Ningiukulu Teevee (b.1963) at Canada House, London, and the Greenlandic-Danish artist Pia Arke (1958–2007) at John Hansard Gallery, Southampton. When I Draw shines a light on a way of life in a remote community, far removed from our own, and yet so much more connected to life on Earth. In addition to revelling in Ashoona’s vibrant colour palette and the playfulness of her imagination, one can certainly take heed of the intimate bonds that bind her creatures together.


About the author

Elizabeth Fullerton

is a London-based critic and art writer. She contributes regularly to the New York Times, the Guardian, Art in America, Art Quarterly and Sculpture, among other publications, and is the author of Artrage! The Story of the BritArt Revolution (2016). She is currently working on a PhD on polyphonic practices in art.


See also

Drawing in the 1990s: historical revisions and phantom visions
Drawing in the 1990s: historical revisions and phantom visions

Drawing in the 1990s: historical revisions and phantom visions

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Pia Arke: rewriting the landscape from the ground
Pia Arke: rewriting the landscape from the ground

Pia Arke: rewriting the landscape from the ground

07.01.2022 • Reviews / Exhibition