Warm Bod­ies

Erotic Inuit Art

Inuit Art Quarterly - - FRONT PAGE - by Daniella Sanader

In Alethea Ar­naquq-Baril’s Inuk­tut-lan­guage film Avil­iaq: En­twined (2014), Vi­ivi and Ul­luriaq are two women fight­ing to sus­tain their re­la­tion­ship as their com­mu­nity pres­sures them into mar­ry­ing men. As Ul­luriaq watches mourn­fully, Vi­ivi mar­ries their child­hood friend Pit­si­u­laaq in a small cer­e­mony led by a min­is­ter and flanked by RCMP of­fi­cers. Ul­luriaq faces a sim­i­lar fate: her hus­band-to-be, Johnny, lives in town and has a good job, and they are to be mar­ried in two short days at the be­hest of her mother. Des­per­ate not to lose her lover, Ul­luriaq vis­its Vi­ivi’s tent, and the two re­con­nect (that is, they have sex) while Pit­si­u­laaq is out fish­ing. Wrapped in quilts and blan­kets— Vi­ivi’s fin­gers stroking Ul­luriaq’s long hair—the two de­velop a plan.

It is apt that Ar­naquq-Baril’s fif­teen-minute nar­ra­tive is set dur­ing the 1950s, a cru­cial mo­ment in the col­o­niza­tion of the Arc­tic by South­ern­ers—the phys­i­cal and ide­o­log­i­cal polic­ing of Inuit life un­der the aus­pices of white-cen­tred “ci­vil­ity” and “moral­ity.” As Ar­naquq-Baril ex­plains in the doc­u­men­tary Two Soft Things,

Two Hard Things (2016) di­rected by Mark Ken­neth Woods and Michael Yerxa, the 1950s and 60s was a “sud­den and dras­tic tran­si­tional pe­riod . . . [and] with col­o­niza­tion, and with that tran­si­tion, came a lot of shame.” As the pres­ence of Chris­tian mis­sion­ar­ies grew in the North—and the first res­i­den­tial schools were es­tab­lished—Inuit forms of in­ti­macy, part­ner­ship and sex­u­al­ity were in­creas­ingly sti­fled and sup­pressed. The colo­nial agenda en­forced Chris­tian stan­dards of monogamy, het­eronor­ma­tiv­ity and the nu­clear fam­ily in the Arc­tic. Avil­iaq: En­twined is a re­minder that Inuit had long fol­lowed their own self-de­ter­mined al­ter­na­tives.

Ly­ing in bed, Ul­luriaq and Vi­ivi are at a cul­tural turn­ing point. They re­mem­ber pos­si­bil­i­ties that run counter to a fu­ture of Chris­tian-en­forced monogamy: they had seen times when a man had two wives or a woman had two hus­bands. “Like in the old days,” Vi­ivi says. They con­vince Pit­si­u­laaq to take on Ul­luriaq as a sec­ond wife, and in a few short mo­ments of Ar­naquq-Baril’s sparse-yet-sweet sto­ry­telling, the three com­mit to each other as mu­tual part­ners-lovers-friends. Pack­ing up their tent in haste, how­ever, they rec­og­nize that their part­ner­ship is a threat to the het­eronor­ma­tive fam­ily unit to which they are meant to con­form. (As Ul­luriaq says, “The white men would never al­low it.”) Their at­tempt to sneak away is in­ter­cepted by the RCMP—tipped off by a jeal­ous Johnny—and Ul­luriaq, Vi­ivi and Pit­si­u­laaq are sep­a­rated. As Ul­luriaq is forced into Johnny’s ca­noe, Avil­iaq: En­twined ends with Ul­luriaq scream­ing for Vi­ivi, reach­ing out as her lover slips away.

As Nor­man Vo­rano ex­plains in his article “Inuit Men, Erotic Art: Cer­tain In­de­cen­cies . . . That Need Not Be Men­tioned,” the con­tra­dic­tory place of Inuit sex within the colo­nial-Chris­tian imag­i­nary—“of­fen­sive but tit­il­lat­ing; cen­sured but stud­ied; ubiq­ui­tous but ren­dered in­vis­i­ble”—was re­flected within Inuit art­work pro­duced for (and mit­i­gated by) white mar­kets and au­di­ences. 1 Vo­rano re­counts the story of an art­mak­ing con­test staged by an­thro­pol­o­gist Nel­son Graburn in Pu­vir­ni­tuq, Nu­navik, QC, in 1967, where lo­cal carvers were of­fered prizes for pro­duc­ing “imag­i­na­tive” works. It was an op­por­tu­nity to pro­duce work with­out a south­ern­cen­tric art mar­ket in mind, to move be­yond sell­able scenes of hunters and Arc­tic an­i­mals, and Graburn noted how many of the sub­mit­ted carv­ings blended sex and hu­mour with Inuit sto­ry­telling.

That be­ing said, the Pu­vir­ni­tuq carv­ings were still em­broiled within a com­plex net­work of set­tler eval­u­a­tion, met with both fas­ci­na­tion and repul­sion by set­tler au­di­ences in the North and South. Not only was the con­test ad­min­is­tered by a group of white judges, but also the carv­ings were quickly la­belled “weirdo art” by many col­lec­tors and were barred from in­clu­sion in the 1973 ex­hi­bi­tion Sculp­ture/Inuit: Master­works of the Cana­dian Arc­tic, a largescale, gov­ern­ment-funded ef­fort to pro­duce the nar­ra­tive of Inuit art for Canada and the world. Yet, as is often the case, white moral su­pe­ri­or­ity is deeply con­nected to an often un­der-ac­knowl­edged cu­rios­ity and de­sire for dif­fer­ence: Vo­rano re­counts the irony that many of the erotic carv­ings were pur­chased by white lo­cals in Pu­vir­ni­tuq be­fore the con­test was even com­plete. This mid-cen­tury econ­omy for en­act­ing set­tler de­sire within Inuit carv­ing is per­fectly en­cap­su­lated in an­other anec­dote of Graburn’s: “Also in the late 1960s, I saw a very Play­boy- style nude with larger de­tailed breasts in Inukjuak . . . and I asked the artist where he saw that. He said the white ra­diosonde op­er­a­tor had given him a girlie mag­a­zine and told him to ‘make one like that.’” 2

Read­ing these ac­counts, I keep think­ing of Ul­luriaq and Vi­ivi (and Pit­si­u­laaq) in their tent. In choos­ing to en­ter a non-monog­a­mous mar­riage, the three re­jected a set­tler-en­forced struc­ture for sex that thrives on deep anx­i­eties about the com­plex­ity of hu­man in­ti­macy. (A cul­ture of both monog­a­mous mar­riage and Play­boy mag­a­zine.) Their al­ter­na­tive not only ges­tures to the long his­to­ries of plu­ral mar­riage com­mon among no­madic, pre-col­o­nized Inuit fam­i­lies,

I re­main drawn to Toonoo’s work for what crack­les un­der­neath his streaks of oil pas­tel—some­thing that feels less tied to the speci­ficity of this body and more about the en­ergy, the pos­si­bil­ity it gen­er­ates in re­la­tion to mine. —

it also cre­ates space for queer ex­pres­sions of de­sire to flour­ish be­yond shame or colo­nial mor­al­iz­ing. As Ar­naquq-Baril spec­u­lates in Two Soft Things, Two Hard Things, per­haps same-sex de­sire had long ex­isted within Inuit plu­ral mar­riages, as Inuit fam­i­lies ne­go­ti­ated both the prac­ti­cal re­al­i­ties of no­madic sur­vival and their per­sonal forms of in­ti­macy in nu­anced ways. As we know, that life wasn’t ul­ti­mately avail­able to Ul­luriaq, Vi­ivi and Pit­si­u­laaq. Yet watch­ing them dis­cuss its pos­si­bil­ity opens up dif­fer­ent av­enues for imag­in­ing what sex­u­al­ity can mean—what sex­u­al­ity has al­ways meant—in the North.

Through equally bold yet vastly dif­fer­ent ap­proaches to draw­ing, Ju­tai Toonoo (1959–2015), An­nie Pootoo­gook (1969–2016) and Shuvinai Ashoona, RCA each use nude and naked fig­ures to ex­plore these in­fi­nite pos­si­bil­i­ties of de­sire in Inuit art. In his oil pas­tel and coloured pen­cil draw­ings, Toonoo was known for in­ti­mate and psy­cho­log­i­cally-at­tuned por­traits of his sub­jects. Yet in a se­ries of nude fig­ure draw­ings pro­duced by the Kin­ngait (Cape Dorset), NU-born artist be­tween 2011 and 2013, the pos­si­bil­i­ties of de­sire are felt rather than shown. In Night Time (2013) warm and cool shapes un­du­late across a dark sheet of pa­per. It’s not im­me­di­ately clear what we are see­ing: a woman’s out­stretched thighs and vulva co­a­lesce into view, yet just as quickly she re-dis­solves into a swirling mass of colour and neg­a­tive space. She’s amor­phous—all warmth and pos­si­bil­ity in an ice-blue en­vi­ron­ment—yet she re­mains just out of reach, ca­pa­ble of dis­ap­pear­ing en­tirely.

It’s easy to be taken in by Toonoo’s evoca­tive draw­ings of flesh. Per­haps they serve as a re­minder of how de­sire un­fixes us all: break­ing down our struc­tured iden­ti­ties into bod­ies that want, need and feel. Film critic Laura U. Marks de­scribes the erotic as an os­cil­la­tion be­tween what’s far and near, an on­go­ing rec­i­proc­ity be­tween touch­ing and be­ing touched: “Life is served by the abil­ity to come close, pull away, come close again. What is erotic is be­ing able to be­come an ob­ject with and for the world, and to re­turn to be­ing a sub­ject in the world.” 3 Toonoo’s draw­ings play with this col­laps­ing space be­tween sub­ject and ob­ject. In ᐋᖅᑳᒃ ( Aaqkaak) (2012) two soft forms streaked with lines of colour gen­tly press to­gether; a dark crease keeps them sep­a­rate. I stared at this draw­ing for a long time, rec­og­niz­ing its deeply felt sen­su­al­ity be­fore I could reg­is­ter what I was see­ing: a vagina, an anus, the fleshy curves of a woman’s thighs. The fact that ᐋᖅᑳᒃ ( Aaqkaak) tip­toes so closely to the edge of ab­strac­tion cre­ates am­ple room for our own de­sires to come rush­ing in. (For weeks, I thought I was look­ing at two breasts press­ing to­gether— nip­ple to nip­ple—per­haps im­pli­cat­ing my own realm of as­so­ci­a­tion and in­ti­macy, writ­ing as a queer set­tler woman.)

That be­ing said, it is rare to see a full woman’s body in one of Toonoo’s draw­ings. Women’s flesh is bi­sected and ab­stracted, an amor­phous land­scape of sen­sa­tion as op­posed to a fig­ure with agency, a per­son with de­sires of her own. Draw­ings like Re­lax­ing (2013) come close, but the im­age cuts off at her up­turned chin, the curve of her lips. Toonoo is cer­tainly not the first male artist to ren­der fe­male flesh as anony­mous and frac­tured, nor will he be the last. Re­gard­less, I re­main drawn to Toonoo’s work for what crack­les un­der­neath his streaks of oil pas­tel—some­thing that feels less tied to the speci­ficity of this body and more about the en­ergy, the pos­si­bil­ity it gen­er­ates in re­la­tion to mine. If sex is truly a messy con­ver­gence of op­pos­ing sen­sa­tions, Toonoo is cap­tur­ing them all at once: the sight of bare skin and the heat that it em­anates, the in­ten­sity of close­ness and the lin­ger­ing dis­tance be­tween bod­ies, the de­sire to reach out and the need to be touched.

Toonoo’s fe­male bod­ies are frac­tured and made amor­phous, but the sex­i­ness of An­nie Pootoo­gook’s draw­ings emerges, for me, from their un­apolo­getic whole­ness. Draw­ings like Com­po­si­tion (Man Ap­proach­ing Woman) (2001) and Erotic Scene (Four Fig­ures) (2001) show bod­ies hav­ing— en­joy­ing— sex in over­whelm­ing clar­ity, from a head tilt­ing back in plea­sure to sock-clad toes raised in the air. Much has been said about Pootoo­gook’s cel­e­brated and deeply in­flu­en­tial ap­proach to rep­re­sent­ing life in the Arc­tic—an Arc­tic ren­dered in the or­di­nary, in­fused with both the last­ing, ev­ery­day vi­o­lences of colo­nial­ism and the quiet mo­ments of love, fam­ily, bore­dom and plea­sure known amongst Inuit. Her erotic draw­ings are no dif­fer­ent: these scenes do not oc­cur in Toonoo’s am­bigu­ous, mer­cu­rial set­tings that swirl with nude flesh, but fea­ture hard mat­tresses and scratchy, blue car­pets on liv­ing room floors. Her draw­ings of sex are also draw­ings of house­plants and elec­tri­cal out­lets, a TV and stereo set in the corner, a woman who hasn’t both­ered to re­move her socks. They show de­sire in its ev­ery­day,

Pootoo­gook’s draw­ings of sex are also draw­ings of house­plants and elec­tri­cal out­lets, a TV and stereo set in the corner, a woman who hasn’t both­ered to re­move her socks. They show de­sire in its ev­ery­day, mun­dane com­plex­i­ties. —

In Ashoona’s draw­ings, preg­nant fig­ures be­come dense, en­tan­gled meet­ing places for the ecstatic and the grotesque, for myth and land­scape, for tra­di­tion and fan­tasy, for soft skin and to­tal, monstrous strange­ness. —

mun­dane com­plex­i­ties; they re­mind me that lust rarely oc­curs in a vac­uum. Sex is surely an elec­tric­ity felt against your part­ner’s flesh, but isn’t it also a hard floor press­ing against your back, a breeze waft­ing in from the win­dow, the (now cold) cup of tea you share when you’re done?

Two other draw­ings stand out to me amid Pootoo­gook’s erotic work. Woman Mas­tur­bat­ing and Woman at Her Mir­ror (Play­boy Pose) (both 2003) each de­pict lone fe­male bod­ies—a sub­ject mat­ter with long and loaded his­to­ries in all forms of art­mak­ing, but specif­i­cally in re­la­tion to the de­pic­tion of In­dige­nous bod­ies—yet nei­ther is po­si­tioned as the pas­sive muse in an artist’s stu­dio. Clad in noth­ing but red heels, one woman sits at her van­ity, ty­ing back her hair, an im­age of the Play­boy bunny on her wall. The other is ren­dered in black and white save for her red-painted toe­nails and lips, blue eye­shadow on closed lids and the soft pink of a vi­bra­tor as she mas­tur­bates near a win­dow with drawn cur­tains. I am drawn to the stances of these women: we see both of them in pro­file, they are not fac­ing us, yet they don’t fully turn away either. One is pre­sum­ably gaz­ing at her own re­flec­tion—tak­ing plea­sure in her own dark hair and the curves of her breasts—and the other, with closed eyes and a slight arch in her back, is also fo­cused wholly on her­self. As view­ers, it doesn’t feel as if we are peek­ing in on some­thing il­licit or pri­vate, yet nor do these women need our gazes for their ful­fill­ment. Their plea­sures are found in them­selves: turn­ing a cold shoul­der to dy­nam­ics of artist and sub­ject, set­tler economies of en­ti­tle­ment and sys­tems that would oth­er­wise po­lice their de­sire.

Mov­ing from sex­u­al­ity in no place to a fa­mil­iar place, to some­place en­tirely dif­fer­ent, nude draw­ings by Shuvinai Ashoona stage Inuit de­sire on a com­pletely new plane of ex­is­tence. Draw­ings like Happy Mother (2013) and Peri­dot Baby (2016) show two naked preg­nant fig­ures in var­i­ous states of mythic trans­for­ma­tion: a blonde woman clutches be­tween her thighs the head of a baby crowned in tiny worlds and a green­ish be­ing with one long breast and one small nip­ple reaches to­wards us with a sim­i­lar blue-and-green world in their palm. These “fe­male” bod­ies have hu­man fea­tures, yet they also stretch into some­thing hy­brid and unique. In Happy Mother, the fig­ure’s left hand grows long and claw-like, while a gi­ant bird clutches her torso from be­hind, per­haps guid­ing her through this oth­er­worldly birthing process. The fig­ure in Peri­dot Baby seems less tied to a cis-gen­dered bi­nary of male-fe­male, with cracked fin­ger­nails, swollen gen­i­tals and a small, brown man slid­ing into their body through a blue-green um­bil­i­cal cord. Peri­dot Baby seems a far cry from Pootoo­gook’s liv­ing rooms and Toonoo’s soft curves. Yet sit­ting with these three vastly dif­fer­ent ap­proaches to the nude form, I can rec­og­nize that each artist’s work is equally a con­struc­tion and a fan­tasy, an im­age of what might be pos­si­ble within an ex­panded Inuit frame­work for sex­u­al­ity.

It may also seem in­con­gru­ous to end an es­say on sex with images of preg­nancy—in queer con­ver­sa­tions, I am cer­tainly aware of a het­eronor­ma­tive over-as­so­ci­a­tion be­tween sex­u­al­ity and re­pro­duc­tion—yet Ashoona’s moth­ers are any­thing but nor­ma­tive. Wrapped in the wings of her bird-lover-mid­wife, she is grin­ning and her eyes are wide. She takes sheer plea­sure in this ex­tra­or­di­nary process, toes curled and arms dis­torted, as she braces for these new worlds her body is un­furl­ing. In Ashoona’s draw­ings, preg­nant fig­ures be­come dense, en­tan­gled meet­ing places for the ecstatic and the grotesque, for myth and land­scape, for tra­di­tion and fan­tasy, for soft skin and to­tal, monstrous strange­ness. In short, they are re­minders that our flesh con­tains pure, trans­for­ma­tive pos­si­bil­ity— and that’s un­de­ni­ably sexy.

I’ve been won­der­ing what could have been pos­si­ble for Ul­luriaq and Vi­ivi within these vastly dif­fer­ent land­scapes for Inuit sex­u­al­ity. Yet per­haps that’s not the right ap­proach. Sit­ting on the edge of their bed with Pit­si­u­laaq, the three al­ready knew what they needed, what new forms of in­ti­macy they could seek within each other.

It was the colo­nial-Chris­tian struc­ture sur­round­ing them that wished to re­ori­ent their plea­sures into fi­nite, “civ­i­lized” path­ways. Re­cent draw­ings by Ju­tai Toonoo, An­nie Pootoo­gook and Shuvinai Ashoona also de­pict nude bod­ies and sex­ual plea­sure from the com­plex and nu­anced po­si­tions of Inuit artists liv­ing un­der con­tem­po­rary Cana­dian set­tler colo­nial­ism. In their work, naked flesh stretches for­ward and back­ward across Inuit his­tory and cul­ture, it em­bod­ies mun­dane in­ti­ma­cies and fan­tas­ti­cal al­ter­na­tives. It re­minds us that there is re­silience in seek­ing plea­sure where you need it.


1 Nor­man Vo­rano, “Inuit Men, Erotic Art: Cer­tain In­de­cen­cies . . . That Need Not Be Men­tioned,” Inuit Art Quar­terly 23, no. 3 (Fall 2008): 22.

2 Nel­son Graburn, “Cloth­ing in Inuit Art,” in Arc­tic Cloth­ing of North Amer­ica-Alaska, Canada, Green­land, eds. J.C.H. King, Bir­git Pauk­sz­tat and Robert Stor­rie (Mon­treal & Kingston: McGill-Queen’s Uni­ver­sity Press, 2005), 138.

3 Laura U. Marks, Touch: Sen­su­ous The­ory and Mul­tisen­sory Me­dia (Min­neapo­lis: Uni­ver­sity of Min­nesota Press, 2002), xvi.


An­nie Pootoo­gook (1969–2016 Kin­ngait) — PRE­VI­OUS SPREAD Mak­ing Love2003–4Coloured pen­cil and ink 51 × 66 cm Ju­tai Toonoo (1959–2015 Kin­ngait) —Night Time2013Co­loured pen­cil50.2 × 64.8 cm


Ju­tai Toonoo — ABOVE ᐋᖅᑳᒃ (Aaqkaak) 2012Colour­ed pen­cil65 × 50 cmIn­scribed: Demon­stra­tion of be­ing loved

BELOW Re­lax­ing2013Col­oured pen­cil and oil pas­tel115.6 × 127 cm

An­nie Pootoo­gook — LEFT Com­po­si­tion (Man Ap­proach­ing Woman) 2001Ink51 × 66 cm OP­PO­SITE Woman at Her Mir­ror (Play­boy Pose)2003Colour­ed pen­cil and ink 66 × 51 cm

Shuvinai Ashoona (b. 1961 Kin­ngait) — LEFT Happy Mother2013­Coloured pen­cil and ink 123.2 × 127 cm


RIGHT Birthing Scene2013C­oloured pen­cil and ink 127 × 71.1 cm

Shuvinai Ashoona — BELOW Peri­dot Baby2016Co­loured pen­cil and ink 121.9 × 78.1 cm

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