Shuvinai Ashoona’s parents are the renowned Cape Dorset sculptor Kiugak Ashoona (1933-2014) and graphic artist Sorosiluto Ashoona (1941-2011); her grandmother is Pitseolak Ashoona (1904-1983), the most celebrated of first-generation Cape Dorset women graphic artists. Shuvinai herself was born and raised in Cape Dorset and has lived her whole life in Inuit communities.
The artist’s earliest drawings from the 1990s are mostly delicately rendered ink landscapes, but by the late 1990s, her landscapes had morphed into densely drawn, dark and claustrophobic imaginary rock formations. As can be seen in this drawing, landscape – real or visionary – has remained an important part of Shuvinai’s iconography, which, however, now ranges widely – and wildly! – to include hybrid octopus-humans and other monstrous creatures; eggs, oval stones and miniature imaginary planets; and an array of other inventions that range from the dreamy and whimsical to the nightmarish and grotesque. Shuvinai’s imagination is astonishingly fertile, definitely otherworldly, and frequently macabre.
Viewers of Happy Mother could be forgiven if they judge Shuvinai’s title to be sardonic rather than literal, for the scene appears disturbing to say the least. Charged with angst and even horror, the image seems to spring from an altered state of mind or consciousness, much as some Surrealist or Outsider art does. Inuit references are less obvious. The woman’s mutant body might suggest traditional Inuit transformation imagery, and the bird creature could be a helping spirit, but might it possibly be the father or a midwife? The compelling nature and ambiguity of Shuvinai’s images have propelled the artist to the forefront of a new school of Inuit graphic art with crossover appeal to collectors and curators of contemporary art.