Although modern-day Inuit art has flourished since the early 1950s, there are remarkably few works that depict the artist in their role of creator, making this assertive self-depiction by Oviloo Tunnillie (1949–2014) exceptional. Long is the history of the artist self-portrait; in this work Oviloo asserts her unique position within a global tradition.


Oviloo Tunnillie, Self-Portrait with Carving Stone, 1998
Oviloo Tunnillie, Self-Portrait with Carving Stone, 1998
Serpentinite (Kangiqsuqutaq/Korok Inlet), 53.0 x 37.5 x 33.3 cm, signed with syllabics, collection of Fred and Mary Widding

In Self-Portrait with Carving Stone, the artist appears to merge with her material. Her robed body crouches as she holds and stabilizes a piece of carving stone against her torso and face. The rough, unfinished texture of the uncarved serpentinite enables the viewer to realize the transformation that the artist accomplishes through her work. Oviloo’s life was dominated by her self-identified role as a carver, and this was one of her frequent and powerful themes. In a 1998 interview she observed:


When I was finishing this up, I didn’t want to take this [uncarved] piece off . . . just to let the public know that this is the kind of stone that we carve before we do the actual finishing. I like carvings which have unfinished parts. . . . This is what the stone actually looks [like] before it is finished.


Oviloo’s artistic process is the subject of some of her most impressive sculptures, including this one. Her self-portraits express a range of emotions, from deep contemplation, physical exertion, and pride to the elation resulting from creative actions.


This Spotlight is excerpted from Oviloo Tunnillie: Life & Work by Darlene Coward Wight.

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