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How One Artwork Smashes the Boundary Between Past and Present

Uqallaqatigiinngniq: Sharing Voices

Jul 16, 2021
by Chantal Jung

Shuvinai Ashoona’s Taking Pictures of the Creature (2016) offers a view familiar to Ashoona devotees: the recognizably firm and colourful pencil strokes of a seemingly everyday scene appearing on a two-dimensional surface. The horizontal, flowing pencil lines give the work a unique perspective that allows for an accessible approach to the subject matter. It is a perfect continuation of her personal iconography of imaginings and traditional stories from Inuit and popular culture. The viewer is able to recognize the subjects and partake in the story, despite not knowing exactly what might be happening.

The bold strokes shape a colourful humanoid creature in green, staring somewhat in surprise at the humans with their cell phones hanging out nearby. In the vein of previous work like Composition (Attack of the Tentacle Monsters) (2015) or Creatures (2015), Ashoona gives a glimpse into contemporary everyday Inuit life, but also creates a dream sequence about an Inuit future that includes a welcoming combination of humans, the land, and spiritual creatures.

Although it does not appear near water, this creature looks like a qualupalik dressed in an amautik to me. A human-like green being with long hair and fingernails, the qualupalik is usually seen as a frightening sea monster, often found kidnapping misbehaving children in traditional Inuit stories. While this creature doesn’t have long hair, all the other descriptors match. Here, the being curls its long tail and watches the humans closely. What is often seen as frightening becomes intertwined with the mundane, as the creature depicted here seems to peacefully coexist with the individuals taking photos on their cell phones. I wonder if Ashoona chose to match the qualupalik’s amauti to the blue jacket of one of the nearby spectators to allow the qualupalik to blend in easier with the humans, maybe even to lure them closer.

Adding cell phones helps Ashoona blur the stereotypical boundary between traditional and modern Inuit life. While historically Qallunaat have described Inuit as catching up with contemporary capitalist society, this art piece is a wonderful example of how Inuit are not behind the times, but are continuously adjusting to their circumstances. The piece challenges what we label ‘modern’ and shows how it is possible to maintain traditional belief systems while also using technology.

On the other hand, Taking Pictures of the Creature shows a pervasive feature of contemporary society: the need to capture every moment in time with our cell phones. The qualupalik is not protected from being captured on camera, and the wandering humans ignore the possible threat of the green creature. Curiosity trumps the limits between the spiritual and human world, and the viewer becomes part of the adventure of witnessing the qualupalik in person, heedless of the potential danger.

In this piece, Shuvinai Ashoona to me stays true to her personal iconography with the heightened level of detail and the strong use of bold colours. Further, Ashoona takes the legacy of her artistic family—the Ashoonas and the Pootoogooks are particularly well known for their use of colour pencils and depictions of everyday life—and takes it a step further by connecting spiritual beings with contemporary Inuit life and the land, perhaps indirectly challenging the idea that there is a difference between the creatures and humans.


This series was made possible with the generous support of the TD Ready Commitment.

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