I first saw Shuvinai Ashoona’s drawings when I went to the Justina M. Barnicke Gallery at the University of Toronto in 2009 to install my own beside them. Nancy Campbell had curated us together, the first of the series of two-person exhibitions she presented at the JMBG, pairing northern and southern artists. I walked in to the gallery, where they had just ripped the brown paper off Shuvinai’s newly framed work. I was stunned. I ran from one to the other. I intuited the energy of her drawings as flying; when an artist is deeply lost in their work and it’s going very well, they fly. These drawings were high as a kite. I had never seen anything like them and I immediately felt, this is home. This is the shared home of imagination.
In February 2011 I traveled to Cape Dorset to meet Shuvinai, and spent three weeks drawing alongside the artists at Kinngait Studios. Shuvinai and I made our first drawing on the same page, which she titled Universal Cobra Pussy. Spending time with her on that trip I learned that Shuvinai often does not communicate in a linear, direct manner. Though completely lucid, understanding all she hears and as intelligent as anyone, her language is free-style poetics—like some kind of abstract shorthand riffing on Christian, visionary and pop-culture references. Ashoona responds to regular conversation with non-sequiturs; often she doesn’t seem to be synced. But the longer I spend talking with her, the more I catch meaning out of the corner of my ear. Communication happens indirectly, with a non-linear timeline and shifting subjects. This reminds me of how art works.
I saw Shuvinai a few times in Toronto after my first trip to Nunavut. She came to my old studio in the Junction to check out my ceramics and drink tea. Another time I took her to the new Aquarium to share that underwater freakout. In late summer this year, I made four drawings in Montreal and left half of each blank. At the same time, Shuvinai made three in Cape Dorset, leaving regions of white space. I flew up in late September 2015, and for five days we worked side by side again at the Kinngait studios. Swapping drawings, we spent all weekend alone listening to music, chatting, cracking jokes and quietly filling each other’s paper. Once in a while we’d go back onto the same page while the other was working. But mostly it was a straight exchange, an offering, giving up control and authorship to shared belief and trust. For me, the experience was thrilling, a fantastic game, and very serious at the same time. I had a lot I wanted to say to her in those drawings.
I asked her about her experience collaborating with me, after the opening reception of our co-exhibit, “Universal Cobra” on November 7, 2015. Our conversation refers to details contained in the two works in the slideshow above.
Shary Boyle: …Remember when I gave it [Self Portrait] to you, and I just gave you that guy, all alone?
Shuvinai Ashoona: It seems like everybody else…. It appeared to be like me and they exchanged, the face exchanged, I don’t know if it was me.
SB: Did you think it was you?
SB: I didn’t think it was you either.
SA: Then it turned itself to be according to this one [she points at the figure on the left], but it’s not me, for the rest of my life.
SB: So who is that?
SA: Maybe some…grandchild?
SB: Those are mirrors, eh? So is this little snake showing that person?
SB: And is that your coat?
SA: Yeah. But I forgot the pockets.
SB: Where’s she going to put her phone?
SA: I don’t know.
SB: And the rabbits. All of a sudden there’s these little bunnies in your work. They’re so soft. Is that because her foot is bare and you wanted to keep it warm? It’s so soft.
SA: No I was thinking that eh, I really don’t care, I didn’t expect them to be under her foot but I think I put them the way that they are.
SB: To balance the nest with the eggs, and so you put it there to balance like in the composition. But is she just stepping on the bunny because she doesn’t care about it?
SA: Yup I think so.
SB: It’s more like ah, whatever, I’m going to crush you because I don’t even see you.
SA: Yeah. Exactly.
SB: And these little eggs you put there. Because this looks so fragile to me, the eggs are so delicate, and then that big peg leg is going right into those delicate eggs. Did you think about that?
SA: No. They go take the eggs, according to… “Hey go run after those eggs before we head off out there to the same town we came from.” It’s probably those.
SB: So there’s a time for you to go gather those eggs. When does that happen?
SA: Maybe before they get to be little babies in there.
SB: So is it in the spring?
SA: Mmm hmmm.
SB: …I’m going to ask you about [Black Marble], because I was so amazed by this drawing; it kind of blew my mind what you did with it…. You were saying something about that “world” character eating the babies?
SA: Maybe I was thinking of my spiders. But I don’t think of spiders anymore. I was thinking of how I made one little spider survive by not squashing it with my foot.
SB: That’s a nice thing. Do you have any myths about not hurting spiders, about not squashing them?
SA: No, I don’t think so. I would squash ‘em again if I had to.
SB: Here we say if you squash a spider, you’ll make it rain. But this guy you told me the other day, that world was getting so fat because he couldn’t stop eating.
SA: The spider?
SB: This big “world” guy with the spider face. That sounded kind of right to me because if he’s eating his babies it’s a bit awful.
SA: I didn’t know anything about the babies until Cain and Abel. And these two looked like Adam and Eve.
SB: Adam and Eve, yes, the head and the body.
SA: According to that…that curious snake.
SB: So they’re kind of pairings right?
SA: Mmm hm.
SB: And what’s happening with that creature and the lady there?
SA: It’s dropping it off, down where it’s supposed to go. It’s supposed to land somewhere.
SB: Oh yes it’s going to land, so it’s mid air, she’s flying.
SB: Is that a crack? A big crevice in the earth kind of? That it’s going to go down?
SA: No, I don’t think so. Like, I would tend to make it up there in the dark space.
SB: So it’s kind of like the sky. And how about this big character with the polar bear? She’s getting bigger.
SA: Curiouser and curious.
SB: Like the polar bear is so curious to see what’s happening down there, that it’s coming out. It’s going to birth itself.
SA: This one became a wolf-man or something.
SB: That one’s kind of like a wolf-man isn’t he? Because he’s got hair. But are they friends these two?
SA: Yup, for sure they are.
SB: Because he’s piggy backing him.
SA: They’re helping each other for sure.
SB: What do you think she’s doing? Is she making this picture? [Shary points to the marble sculpture with twig arms.]
SA: She’s helping out what they’re supposed to do.
SB: Yeah. I saw how you put the leaves and stuff at the end of the branches; I thought that was very beautiful. And then this guy. Is he a turtle? A snake?
SA: Maybe some sort of a snake.
SB: But he’s got this little brown penis.
SA: I know; it’s a human.
SB: That’s really funny…
SA: And the hair is blonde.
SB: Oh yeah that’s right, you were saying he’s blonde. It’s very important that that snake is blonde! This is a very wild drawing. There are a lot of stories happening that are just like dreams, eh? For me when I was doing this I thought of that museum sculpture, that she’d been there in the museum, in some old European museum, for hundreds and hundreds of years and she was just left there until her arms fell off, and she didn’t have any legs. And she was just all by herself and so lonely, in the dark, and the museum would open, close, open, close, and she’s just in there. And then there were those two pillars and she started to think, “Man, if I only had some arms I could make a drawing…”
SB: So did you like once and a while doing drawings with someone else?
SA: I did.
SB: Was it hard, a little bit confusing, funny?
SA: No. Confusing and excellent!
SB: That’s kind of true. It was the same when I saw yours. I was like, Wow, what should I do? For me I wanted to make sure that whatever I did was good enough to honour your drawing, because you did a beautiful drawing and I didn’t want to wreck it, and it’s hard because you can’t always control your art. Some things come out good and some others come out not so good. So you try your best. But it also was a really fun game. It was a nice way to hang out with you, just through making drawings. And I think in the end they came out really beautiful. So thank you for trusting me with your drawings.
SA: Thank you.