The Winnipeg Art Gallery's Qaumajuq Inuit art centre is the realization of a vision 60 years in the making. It is its time to shine.
The official opening of the stunning $65-million, 40,000-square-foot centre, is a two-night virtual affair on March 25 and 26. It is open to the public on March 27.
Massive gallery, powerful messages
Posted: 12:00 PM Mar. 19, 2021
By: Alan Small
INUA, Qaumajuq's first exhibition, offered curators large-scale opportunities and challenges; the installations speak to the painful, dehumanizing treatment suffered by Inuit at the hands of missionaries and government officials.
The inaugural exhibition at Qaumajuq includes a shipping container that serves as an audio-visual installation, a giant poetic textile that is about 10 metres tall and a replica of a hunting shack used by one of Canada’s greatest filmmakers.
INUA, an Inuktitut acronym short for Inuit Nunangat Ungammuaktut Atautikkut and translates to "moving forward together," also includes a bust of an Inuit person wearing a hooded parka, the face replaced with a code: W.3-1258.
While the serpentinite sculpture’s size is small when compared with the larger works of INUA and of Qilak, Qaumajuq’s giant three-storey main gallery, W.3-1258 makes a huge statement that will be difficult for visitors to forget.
That’s because W.3-1258 is a self-portrait by Inuvialuk sculptor Bill Nasogaluak.
"This piece, W.3-1258, that’s my Eskimo identification number," he says. "That’s who I was known as, W.3-1258, not as Bill Nasogaluak. The title is very significant to this piece. And why? It’s flat, no features. I was trying to bring across to the viewer that we were faceless. We were just a number.
"I could look up at school and beside my name it would say W.3-1258. That’s why there’s no features on it. We were faceless. It’s a portrait of myself, because that’s my number, that’s all I was ever known as."
In Inuit tradition, elders name newborn children after parents, grandparents, other ancestors or important friends. Those single-word names are used among friends and other Inuit while others use them as their legal names. For instance, Kablusiak, Nasogaluak’s grand-niece and one of the curators of INUA, is also the name of Nasogaluak’s mother.
Missionaries and government officials had difficulty pronouncing the traditional names. In response, federal officials in 1941 gave Inuit tags to wear around their necks or on their parkas with an identification code that the government used for record-keeping.
Nasogaluak grew up in Tuktoyaktuk, N.W.T., but now lives in southern Ontario. Since he was from the western part of the Arctic, or Inuvialuit, his ID begins with the letter W.
"It was powerful. I didn’t allow myself to think about it too much because I’d cry all day and not get any work done," Kablusiak says of W.3-1258, which was commissioned by the Winnipeg Art Gallery for INUA.
"But his work is so beautiful and powerful and I think it’s a really great opportunity to shine a spotlight on this history a lot of people don’t know about for some reason.
"I’m learning that a lot of people don’t know about the history of that, which is super-disheartening. Both my parents have numbers, aunts and uncles. It’s a really long history that ranges all across the North."
Krista Ulujuk Zawadski, the curator of Inuit art for the Nunavut government, says she sees the "E-numbers" etched into sculptures or written on drawings or prints.
"A few years ago I was on a panel at the WAG, and we were talking about E-numbers, because it was in one of the shows, and I got a little bit emotional about it," she says.
"Someone in the audience kind of shrugged it off and said ‘it’s just like a social insurance number,’ and I just felt really hurt that people don’t grasp this history."
Use of the identification numbers ended in 1970 when Ottawa introduced Project Surname, in which people were allowed surnames for identification.
A person’s name is a theme in one of INUA’s bigger installations, by Inuit artist Lindsay McIntyre, who is also a professor at Emily Carr University of Art and Design in Vancouver.
The work is a portion of a home from the 1950s and ‘60s and follows the life of Kiviaq, who was McIntyre’s uncle. He was born in 1936 on a trap line near Chesterfield Inlet, Nunavut, but was given the name of David Ward by his white stepfather, who took him to Edmonton.
Ward became a top amateur boxer and tried out with the Canadian Football League’s Edmonton Eskimos in 1956. He became a city councillor in Edmonton during the 1970s and ran for mayor. When his bid fell short, he went back to school and earned a law degree, becoming Canada’s first Inuit lawyer.
He successfully fought government agencies and the Law Society of Alberta to legally change his name to Kiviaq, and the installation shows his law society certificate with Kiviaq printed on it, among other mementoes and photos he kept during his life. He died of cancer in 2016 at the age of 80.
His story is well told in the 2006 film Kiviaq Versus Canada, a documentary by Nunavut filmmaker Zacharias Kunuk, who follows Kiviaq’s story and his battle for greater rights for Inuit when dealing with the federal government.
Kunuk is from Igloolik, Nunavut, an island between the mainland and Baffin Island. He has an identification number, too, and since he grew up in the eastern Arctic, his starts with an E.
"In the olden days, the government couldn’t pronounce our names right because we inherit names of our forefathers," he says. "When I was born, I was named after my grandmother, so my father called me Mother."
The filmmaker is best known for directing the 2001 movie Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner, the first to be written, directed and acted entirely in Inuktitut. It earned the Camera d’Or prize at the Cannes Film Festival, and in 2015 was named the greatest Canadian film of all time by the Toronto International Film Festival.
Kunuk’s hunting shack, or at least a re-creation of it, is another of INUA’s large installations. Instead of weapons there are four television screens that show modern life in Nunavut, says co-curator Heather Igloliorte. There are youngsters learning crafts, an elder skinning part of an animal and public hearings into an expansion of an iron-ore mine on Baffin Island.
"This is Inuit-owned land, right down to the core of the Earth," Kunuk says, explaining that hunters who live off the land notice how the mine is affecting their prey.
"Right now the main concern is the iron dust is falling on the land. Animals like foxes are turning red, rabbits are turning red, ptarmigans are turning red.... The mining company is more concerned about their proposal, they want to build a railway, they want to double their (production) and the people in the area are concerned about what they eat, so it’s a big controversy going on."
These larger installations would be difficult, if not impossible, to fit into a regular-sized art gallery. There is nothing regular about Qilak (pronounced key-lack). It is the Inuktitut word for "sky," and its height, wide-open space and 22 skylights evoke the vastness of the Arctic and the Prairies.
Igloliorte, who is from Nunatsiavut, in Labrador, but is also a professor of art history at Concordia University in Montreal, recalls the opportunity and challenges that Qilak presents.
"Not only were we working with all that vertical space and that great big room with no straight lines, also we had to think about how the exhibition would look like from the mezzanine level, because you can look down over the exhibition," she says. "What does this look like from a bird’s-eye view?"
A poetic tapestry by Greenlandic performance artist Jessie Kleemann drapes across almost the entire three-storey gallery, and a salon-style arrangement of Inuit wall hangings climbs up another of Qilak’s walls. Much of Qilak’s white walls remain exposed, showing the opportunity for future exhibitions to take advantage of the gallery’s height.
"I’m excited to see what other curators do in that space in the future because it’s so big. I hope that artists walk in there and they think ‘Wow I never thought about a work that’s 40 feet tall or 100 feet in diameter,’" Igloliorte says.
"We’re kind of freed up from those impositions of what galleries are supposed to look like, so maybe that will help artists think more freely about what their work will look like."
The COVID-19 curveball forced the all-Inuit curatorial team — Igloliorte, Kablusiak, Ulujuk Zawadski and Nunavik curator Asinnajaq — to use computer programs and video-conferencing apps to work with WAG curators and designers Jocelyn Piirainen, Nicole Luke, Mark Bennett and Kayla Bruce to create INUA.
Normally curators are on site and decide where each artwork should be placed, but it wasn’t until January, during INUA’s installation, when they were all able to travel here to see the space in person.
"I couldn’t wrap my brain around it. It didn’t feel real," Kablusiak says. "For so long we were looking at the layout in this (3D modelling) program called SketchUp, which helps to place artworks. I kind of got used to the space looking at a computer screen and all of a sudden, this is a real place that exists.
"The scale is so immense. Even the ceiling height, I found myself staring at the building for a couple of days, in awe."
While Qilak is certainly striking, the curators believe INUA will also create moments of awe, even with smaller items, such as Inuit jewelry that has been part of the Nunavut government’s art collection, that has been rarely, if ever, viewed by the public.
"We hope we are setting an exciting new direction, not for just how the (gallery) exhibits Inuit art but how the whole world exhibits Inuit art," Igloliorte says.
"We hope people appreciate that this is us trying to show an Inuit way of looking at Inuit art."
What's in a name? Everything
Posted: 12:00 PM Mar. 19, 2021
By: Jen Zoratti
Language keepers and elders honour the Inuit art centre, WAG and the Indigenous land they sit on with Inuktitut words laden with meaning, feeling and a spirit of healing.
Krista Ulujuk Zawadski has a ritual she does whenever she enters the collections of an art gallery or museum for the first time. She introduces herself and speaks to the art and objects in Inuktitut.
"Sometimes, I’ll just blab on in Inuktitut," says the Inuk researcher, curator and Arctic anthropologist over the phone from her home in Rankin Inlet, Nunavut.
"I’m usually in collections alone so I do it freely, but if other people are around I’ll whisper so I don’t sound like I’m talking to myself.
"It’s my way of Indigenizing the space and for the artifacts and belongings and art to hear Inuktitut. When you think about a lot of these things that have been extracted and disconnected from our land and our people and our language, some of these things have been in museums for hundreds of years. They haven’t heard our language in that long.
"So, to reconnect these inanimate objects with our language, to me, it’s a powerful thing for me to do. Sometimes, it’s the only thing I can do for these artifacts."
Zawadski is one of the Inuktitut language keepers asked to name Qaumajuq, formerly known as the Inuit Art Centre, at the Winnipeg Art Gallery. Inuktitut for "it is bright, it is lit," Qaumajuq (kow-ma-yourk) is just one of the names given to the Inuit art centre and WAG buildings, as well as the spaces within them, by a circle of language keepers and elders.
"We always knew the Inuit Art Centre wouldn’t always be called the Inuit Art Centre, and that it would be given an Inuktitut name," says Julia Lafreniere, head of Indigenous initiatives at the WAG as well as a member of the WAG Indigenous Advisory Circle.
In August 2020, language keepers representing all four regions and dialects of Inuit Nunangat, the homeland of Inuit in Canada — Inuvialuit Settlement Region (northern Northwest Territories), Nunavut, Nunavik (northern Quebec) and Nunatsiavut (northern Labrador) — gathered virtually with language keepers from Indigenous nations in Manitoba.
"It’s always been a balance between honouring the Inuit culture but also honouring the Indigenous nations of the land that the WAG sits on," Lafreniere says. Inuktitut, Anishinaabemowin (Ojibway), Nêhiyawêwin (Cree), Dakota, and Michif (Métis) will now have a more visible presence throughout the buildings. Spellings were provided by the language keepers based on their regional dialects.
What stood out to all of the language keepers and elders, Lafreniere says, was the natural light that floods the space — so unlike traditional art galleries and museums.
Theresie Tungilik, special adviser for the arts and traditional economy for the Government of Nunavut, is one of the Inuktitut language keepers who contributed to the naming. Light, Tungilik says, is important to her culture and is reflected in many artworks; many Inuit communities experience 24-hour darkness in the winter.
"When you have that long darkness, and the sun finally starts coming back, you really want to celebrate it," Tungilik says via Zoom from her office in Rankin Inlet.
"Because now you know, you’re not always going to feel tired, you’re going to be more energized, this time is going to give you that wonderful feeling of feeling healthier and happier, and just feel-good energy. And so, to us Inuit, light is very important. Naming the Inuit art centre Qaumajuq was the perfect name for it."
Tungilik was born in 1951 on the sea ice; her mother went into labour while travelling, so her father and uncle built an igloo so mother and baby would be protected from the elements. Tungilik spoke only Inuktitut until she was seven.
"It’s been my main mother language all my life," she says.
"To be a language keeper is something I’m very proud to hold," Tungilik says, pointing out that, prior to the grim advent of the Canadian residential school system, the languages of the North were strong.
"But many of us never really let go of our own language, and to keep it alive is a really vibrant feeling to have. And it really makes you connect to your own culture and the lifestyle you first began in the beginning."
Within Qaumajuq, many of the building’s spaces now bear names that relate to light and sky.
The skylight-studded main Inuit gallery is appropriately called Qilak (qui-lack), which is Inuktitut for "sky." Giizhig/Kisik (Gee-shig/Key-sick), the name of the mezzanine gallery means "sky, heaven, day" in Nêhiyawêwin/Michif/Anishinaabemowin.
The main floor corridor between the WAG and Qaumajuq is called Ohni Izanzan (OH-Nee ee-ZHAN-zhan), which refers to an "an everlasting light no matter what happens and how things may dim the light it is always there and will not go out, meaning the light of life, the light of our way of life/language, the world’s light," in Dakota/Lakota.
"They wanted to name (the buildings and spaces) after the natural light in the space, but also the light that is Indigenous culture and Indigenous language," Lafreniere says. "Though our cultures have been attempted to be extinguished and we’ve been colonized, there’s always a light of hope in our culture, and that’s brought forward in the Indigenous languages."
"Though our cultures have been attempted to be extinguished and we’ve been colonized, there’s always a light of hope in our culture, and that’s brought forward in the Indigenous languages." –Julia Lafreniere
The Indigenous naming initiative at the WAG is a response to both No. 14(i) in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada’s Calls to Action as well as Article 13 in the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which both underline the importance of language preservation.
"The language taking up space in a colonial institution is really significant — and not just space, but significant space," says Lafreniere, adding that she hopes other institutions take notice and do something similar.
"It has given us more ownership of the building," Tungilik says. "Even though it’s not our possession, as a whole, it feels like it belongs to the Inuit and the Indigenous people of Canada. If it’s going to be significantly Inuit art in that building, it’s only right to have it in our language and for our language to also be seen and heard."
Elder Mary Courchene is a residential school survivor who was born and raised on Sagkeeng First Nation. She is also an Anishinaabemowin language keeper who contributed to the naming.
For a long time, Courchene’s relationship to her language — to her identity — was fractured by residential school.
"I hated who I was," she says. "I thought my ancestors were ignorant and were primitive because that’s the history I learned." Courchene has a vivid memory of her father welcoming her home from school in Anishinaabemowin, and her interrupting him, saying, "We don’t speak like that anymore."
But it was her father who instilled in her the importance of language, of remembering who she was and where she came from — gifts she’s since passed along as in her career as an educator and, now, an elder-in-residence for Seven Oaks School Division. "I thank my dad every day," she says.
When Courchene came to Winnipeg to attend the University of Manitoba in the 1970s, she avoided the WAG. "I thought it was for the elite," she says. "So, of course, I never went there."
When thinking about an Indigenous name for the Winnipeg Art Gallery, a colonial institution established over 100 years ago, Courchene wanted a name that represented the light of a new era, a name that made everyone feel welcome.
"When settlers first came to our country, we did not chase them away," Courchene says. "We welcomed them. So, the art gallery is Biindigin Biwaasaeyaah (BEEN-deh-gen Bi-WAH-say-yah). Biindigin, which means ‘Come on in!,’ and Biwaasaeyaah, ‘the dawn of light is coming.’ And the light meaning our world, our worldview. Our worldview is reflected in the art, and everything. Art, to me, is our life. Life is art."
"With Qaumajuq and the WAG moving forward with Indigenization and really making reconciliation a priority, Qaumajuq has sort of helped bring the WAG into the light," Lafreniere says.
Indeed, the WAG is delivering on the commitment it evinced in 2017’s history-making Insurgence/Resurgence, the WAG’s largest-ever exhibition of contemporary Indigenous art, curated by Jaimie Issac and Julie Nagam.
Zawadski remembers seeing artist Joi T. Arcand’s gold-foil Cree syllabics climbing up the WAG’s main staircase as part of that exhibit.
"That, for me, was such a powerful experience and affirmation that the WAG is doing so much to Indigenize the space," she says.
At 38, Zawadski is part of a vanguard of younger curators and artists — along with Issac, Nagam, and many others — who are reaching across generations, looking back while moving forward. Zawadski is part of the curatorial team behind INUA, the inaugural exhibition at Qaumajuq. Inua means "spirit" or "life force" across many Arctic dialects, but it’s also an acronym for for Inuit Nunangat Ungammuaktut Atautikkut or "Inuit Moving Forward Together."
It’s a title that reflects the vision for Qaumajuq, a place where culture, art and language lives in the light, a light that will kept burning by future generations.
Fittingly, the ground-floor classroom and research space at Qaumajuq is called Pituaq (pit-two-aak). Pituaq is the foundation of the qulliq, the traditional oil lamp, or the stand on which the qulliq is lit; the heart of the home and also, a constellation in the sky. The entrance hall, meanwhile, is called Ilavut (eelah-voot), which is Inuktitut for "our relatives."
"This building has to belong to all ages," Tungilik says. "Not just the past, not just the well-known, but also the emerging and the learning. And people who have interest in our culture — they can come to this place and learn all about that.
"What Qaumajuq can offer is continuous education about Inuit way of life, whether it was long ago or how we survive today, and what we hope the future will bring to us.
"And it will always be moving, like the Northern Lights. Like the Northern Lights, it will never stop or be still."
firstname.lastname@example.org Twitter: @JenZoratti
Illuminating a new path
Posted: 12:00 PM Mar. 19, 2021
By: Alison Gillmor
The open, expansive and transparent design of Los Angeles-based Michael Maltzan Architecture shines brilliant light on Qaumajuq's astonishing collection of Inuit art — and the WAG's commitment to reconciliation
Qaumajuq, the name given to the new Inuit art centre by a circle of Indigenous language keepers, is an Inuktitut word meaning "it is bright, it is lit." Light is the defining quality of this open, expansive structure, designed by Los Angeles-based Michael Maltzan Architecture.
There is the light that streams through an undulating, south-facing wall of glass, dissolving the division between interior and exterior, between the centre and the city streets.
There is the light that funnels through 22 adjustable skylights in the main gallery, flooding this high-ceilinged 8,000-square-foot exhibition space with natural illumination.
There is the light that moves through the curving glass walls of the new Visible Vault. Starting in the basement and rising up two levels, this transparent tower gives direct visual access to almost 5,000 carvings that might otherwise have been stowed in closed-off underground storage areas.
"The naming circle honed in on the light in Michael’s design," says Stephen Borys, director and CEO of the Winnipeg Art Gallery, as he conducts an in-person walkthrough of the new building.
That sense of brightness, openness and visibility has an immediate esthetic effect. With its extensive use of glass, the structure interacts with the distinctive quality of northern prairie light as it shifts over the course of a day and through the changing seasons.
It’s also functional. Countering the older museum model of closed-in rooms with artificial lighting, the decision to illuminate the main gallery with natural light enhances viewer experience.
(Sunlight is thought to combat "museum fatigue," the phenomenon of visitors becoming physically tired and mentally enervated as they move through big exhibitions.)
Just as importantly, light signals Qaumajuq’s commitment to transparency, as museums around the world try to find new ways to present and contextualize Indigenous art. As Borys suggests, "The light exposes what we are doing now. It helps to keep us honest and responsible.
"It uncovers rights and wrongs."
Qaumajuq connects to the main Winnipeg Art Gallery, the late-modernist landmark designed by Gustavo da Roza, but it’s not just an addition. It’s a distinct structure in dialogue with the original, responding to but not replicating it.
The 1971 WAG structure, with its dynamic and dramatic angled faces, was built at a time when museums were often thought of as fortresses, protecting the precious objects they stored. Maltzan’s structure, with its open expanses of glass, reflects more recent trends in museum practice, as institutions look for new ways to bring in audiences and connect with their cities’ communities.
"For Michael, there’s Gus’s building and there’s his building, but it’s more than just two buildings side by side," says Borys.
"Michael’s building respects and acknowledges Gus’s building. It fits in."
There are sensitive echoes of the original. Qaumajuq’s entrance hall — given the Inuktitut name Ilavut, which means "our relatives" —soars to precisely the same height as the corresponding ceiling in Eckhardt Hall. The two structures connect on all levels, so that visitors can easily move between them, and this connection is reinforced by long vistas and by unexpected views, such as a window that frames a juncture between da Roza’s hard-edged lines of Tyndall stone and Maltzan’s curves of granite.
Along the Memorial Boulevard side, the newly renovated gallery shop is a transition between the two structures, with new angled windows cut into the original wall, drawing in passersby.
Tucked between the southern "wings" of the original WAG, Qaumajuq has a much smaller footprint than the main building, but it opens things up visually, with that welcoming ribbon of glass topped by organic waves of white granite bricks. With complex convex and concave lines and a refracting, subtly irregular surface, the granite wall suggests banks of snow carved by the wind.
The added 36,000 square feet of the new building means that curators can do more with the WAG-Qaumajuq’s Inuit art collection, the largest public collection of contemporary Inuit art in the world. But it’s not just about doing more: it’s about doing it differently. For Borys, Qaumajuq asks an important question: "How do you exhibit Inuit art now, when it’s been exhibited one way for such a long time?
"It’s about rethinking, reworking, and, as (WAG Indigenous Advisory Circle co-chair) Julie Nagam says, ‘unpacking’ the colonialist way art is presented in North America. It’s a way of responding to the TRC’s (Truth and Reconciliation Commission) calls to action," he continues.
"It’s not a regime change but a rethinking of voices and representation."
Along with a curving mezzanine gallery, designed to showcase more focused and intimate exhibitions, there’s the central gallery, called Qilak for the Inuktitut word for "sky," with its soaring nine-metre-high ceilings. "Michael wanted to reference the space, the light and the scale of the North," Borys explains.
The three-level tower of the Visible Vault is an engineering component, its steel frame helping to support the gallery levels. But there’s a spiritual dimension, as well.
"For Inuit elders, many of these objects are animate. When they’re taken from an underground vault and up into the light, they come alive," Borys says.
Maltzan’s design looks out to the city and invites the city in. "For the first time the WAG and some of what we do is exposed," says Borys. "People can see what’s going on, and I think that will increase accessibility."
The new building "helps create a cultural campus, with layers of programming — research, study, teaching," he says. "Art still leads, but there are other things happening."
There’s the expanded gallery shop, a new main-floor café along with green space for gathering outside, and a steeped 85-seat theatre that can be completely open to the street or closed off with a custom-made curtain.
Borys is excited to see how people will interact with these new spaces, how they will respond to the art, and how Qaumajuq, as a cultural and communal centre, might evolve and change over time.
"The building is done," Borys says. "But the reconciliation process is just beginning."
Hope for brighter days
Posted: 12:00 PM Mar. 19, 2021
By: Eva Wasney
For Winnipeg's Inuit community, Qaumajuq is much more than an art gallery; it's a connection to home and history — and the city where they've chosen to live.
For many Inuit who call Manitoba home, the new Qaumajuq centre at the Winnipeg Art Gallery is more than a tourist attraction; it’s a reclamation of their place in the world and a beacon of hope for the future of reconciliation.
Qaumajuq means "it is bright, it is lit" in Inuktitut and for Janet Kanayok that’s exactly what the gallery represents — a bright, welcoming spot in an otherwise dismal time following her relocation to Winnipeg.
"I feel like we’ve kind of been ripped off," she says.
Kanayok moved to Winnipeg from Ulukhaktok, a small coastal hamlet in the Inuvialuit region of the Northwest Territories, with three of her four children in the summer of 2019 seeking better access to health care.
She missed her tight-knit extended family immediately, but took solace in the affordability and convenience of living in a large urban centre.
"Finding that things are so readily available and accessible was kind of mind blowing," she says. "If my kids need an appointment we just go to the hospital or to the clinic, we don’t get flown out."
Today, convenience is tinged with disappointment. The coronavirus pandemic has made it difficult to find community in Winnipeg and Kanayok has experienced racism for the first time in her life.
"Not only me, but my kids (too). Where I’m from it’s a pretty Inuk-dominated community, so we were never treated differently because of our skin colour," she says.
Racist encounters while shopping or walking down the street have made her feel "very unwelcome, and kind of disgusted that people are like that."
In low moments, Kanayok wonders why she’s stayed. The move has been especially difficult for her youngest daughter, 10, who has been homesick since the family arrived.
Kanayok sees Qaumajuq as the morale boost they so badly need. On Monday, she’s taking the kids out of school and onto a bus for the first time so they can experience the gallery together during the WAG’s Inuit, First Nations and Métis preview event.
"Through our artwork, people will be able to hear us and they’ll see us and know that we’re here." –Janet Kanayok
"Bringing (my daughter) here, I’m hoping it’ll give her a sense of peace and a little bit of contentment," she says, pausing to collect her emotions. "And let her know that she’s surrounded by work that our own people did… that this is something so huge that she should be proud to be Inuk; and that Winnipeg is also very proud of Inuit art, that’s why they have this whole place for them."
She also hopes the gallery will give other Winnipeggers a better understanding of her people.
"Inuit are traditionally really quiet and really humble people, we don’t like to brag or boast about stuff," Kanayok says. "So I think that through our artwork, people will be able to hear us and they’ll see us and know that we’re here."
There are more than 1,300 Inuit living in Winnipeg and rural Manitoba, according to a recent study led by the University of Manitoba.
The number of people leaving Inuit Nunangat — an Inuktitut term for the Inuit homeland made up of four regions, Inuvialuit, Nunavut, Nunavik and Nunatsiavut, which stretch from the northern tip of the Yukon to Newfoundland and Labrador — has grown exponentially over the last decade, says Rachel Dutton, executive director of the Manitoba Inuit Association, where Kanayok is employed as a family support worker.
"We’ve nationally got nearly 40 per cent of Inuit living in urban centres," Dutton says. "That continues to grow as the needs continue to hit crisis levels in all of Inuit Nunangat in terms of food insecurity, overcrowded housing, very low employment rates… (and) inadequate health care."
Relocation can be a choice, but other times is necessitated by circumstance. Inuit from central Nunavut make roughly 16,000 trips to Winnipeg annually to access health services, where they stay in a boarding home or hotel.
Those with chronic illnesses requiring long-term care, such as dialysis or cancer treatment, may end up moving to the city permanently. Many young people also head south to pursue post-secondary education.
The transition to Winnipeg from a small northern community can be a difficult one, says Nikki Komaksiutiksak, executive director of the Tunngasugit Inuit resource centre.
"There’s a large number of homeless Inuit that we see around Winnipeg," she says. "Why is that? I mean there’s addictions, there’s mental-health issues and not knowing how to access resources."
Komaksiutiksak is an Inuit activist and throat singer from Chesterfield Inlet, Nunavut, who has lived in Winnipeg for most of her life. She helped found Tunngasugit in 2017 as a space for Inuit to gather and get help navigating Manitoba’s housing, employment and social assistance programs.
The centre also offers language, sewing and soapstone-carving classes, as well as access to traditional foods; during the pandemic, Tunngasugit and the MIA have been supplying hundreds of local families with emergency hampers fortified with "country food," such as caribou and arctic char.
Advocacy and public education are core to both organizations. In her role with MIA, Dutton often finds herself giving lessons on Inuit history, geography and politics to government officials. At bare minimum, she hopes the opening of Qaumajuq will make politicians more interested in Manitoba’s Inuit community.
"(It’s) yet to be determined the impacts that does have in the changing of the tide so that everybody who is a decision maker understands who the Inuit are, what their history is," Dutton says. "And how that history continues to impact (them) as a people disproportionately when it comes to health care, housing, education."
Komaksiutiksak, who will be performing at Qaumajuq’s opening ceremonies, believes the gallery will shine a much-needed light on Winnipeg’s Inuit population, who have long been overlooked and lumped in with other Indigenous groups.
"Pretty much all my life we’ve been silenced. We haven’t been given a voice at any table provincially, federally or municipally," she says. "It’s going to give a lot of representation to the Inuit way of life, our history, our culture that you only get a one-pager (about) in a textbook in high school."
Tunngasugit is embarking on a yet-to-be announced education partnership with the WAG. Local Inuit groups also have a standing invitation to hold programming at Qaumajuq, says Julia Lafreniere, the gallery’s head of Indigenous initiatives. "I really want it to be somewhere that they feel comfortable — the most comfortable," she says.
Jenelle Sammurtok knows first-hand the importance of learning about and practising Inuit culture away from the homeland. Her mother is from Chesterfield Inlet and she was born and raised in Winnipeg. As a kid, Sammurtok and her sister maintained a connection with their Inuit heritage through local drum dancing and throat signing programs. As an adult, she’s learning how to speak Inuktitut.
"It makes me feel like it’s not going to get lost," she says of the language. "It brings me closer to my culture and it does give me a sense of community."
Sammurtok is currently co-ordinating the Manitoba Inuit Association’s COVID-19 response program. Pre-pandemic, she did outreach work with local Inuit high school and post-secondary students. She’s looking forward to bringing them to Qaumajuq when the dust settles.
"I’m just really excited for the students to be able to connect at a different place where you can see Inuit art," she says. "It’s something that we need and it’s something that’s going to heal people. Inuit art is a healing journey for a lot of people… they take their pain and (turn it) into something good."
"Inuit art is a healing journey for a lot of people… they take their pain and (turn it) into something good." –Jenelle Sammurtok
Storytelling is Michael Arvaarluk Kusugak’s chosen artform. The Inuk children’s author, known for books like A Promise is a Promise and Baseballs for Christmas, has been correcting harmful stereotypes about Inuit through personal stories for more than 30 years.
"Inuit have been misunderstood for a long time," he says over the phone from his home north of Gimli. "So many people go up North for a little while and they decide they should write a book about this place… when they write about us, they give us characteristics that are absolutely not true."
Kusugak was born in Repulse Bay, in what is now Nunavut, and attended residential school in Yellowknife, where he first encountered inaccurate, sensational books about Inuit, like Top of the World by Swiss author Hans Rüesch (which was later adapted to the film The Savage Innocents). His writing career has taken him around the world, but he and his wife decided to settle in Manitoba in 2019 to be closer to family still living in Nunavut.
To Kusugak, Qaumajuq is another way to get the real Inuit stories out into the world; the gallery also feels like a member of the family.
"We found a carving (there) that my father did and I didn’t know my father carved because my father died when I was 25 years old," he says.
The carving is of a man in a kayak outfitted with a float for seal or whale hunting. The hunter is currently missing a paddle, and Kusugak, although he’s not a carver himself, has considered making one from a piece of musk ox horn in his garage.
Links between the gallery’s art collection and the local community are surprisingly common. Kanayok and Sammurtok both have family members with work in the vault and Kusugak also has several friends with pieces on display.
"It’s absolutely wonderful to see all their works all together," he says. "My wife remarked one day, ‘You know, it’s like visiting old friends,’ and that’s exactly what it’s like, just like visiting old friends. And a lot of those people have passed away, but they still live on in their art."
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A dream 60 years in the making
Posted: 12:00 PM Mar. 19, 2021
By: Alan Small
Any collection, even the world's largest collection of Inuit art, has to start somewhere. Qaumajuq's roots date back to 1957 and a collection bought at the Bay.
Any collection, even the world's largest collection of Inuit art, has to start somewhere.
It was 1957 when the Winnipeg Art Gallery acquired its first artwork made by an Inuit. It's called Mother Sewing Kamik, and the 33-centimetre-tall stone and ivory piece was sculpted by Pinnie (Benjamin) Naktialuk of Inukjuak, Que., a village on the eastern shore of Hudson Bay.
Two years earlier, the sculpture caught the eye of Ferdinand Eckhardt, who was the WAG's director from 1953 to 1974. It was among several Inuit sculptures on sale at the Bay's downtown store in Winnipeg, just down the street from the WAG's old home at the Civic Auditorium.
Eckhardt convinced the gallery's Women's Committee to raise funds and buy it, says Nicole Fletcher, who is the gallery's collections co-ordinator.
In the book Journey North: The Inuit Art Centre Project, which the WAG is releasing along with Qaumajuq's opening, Stephen Borys, the gallery's current director and chief executive officer, writes that Mother Sewing Kamik was purchased, along with some other soapstone carvings from the Bay, for $85.
But the WAG didn't accumulate close to 14,000 works by about 2,000 Inuit artists from across the Arctic by saving up for Bay Days.
Not long after the purchase, Eckhardt declared Inuit art would be one of the WAG's priorities, and in 1960 the gallery began buying prints from artists from Kinngait (formerly Cape Dorset), Nunavut, and later the gallery purchased 139 Inuit-made works from George Swinton, who was with the University of Manitoba's School of Art and had also taken an interest in Inuit artists and their work.
Much of the WAG's collection of Inuit art has also been accumulated from donations by individual collectors and organizations. A donation of 4,000 works of art in 1971 put the gallery, and Winnipeg, on the Inuit art map.
"The collector was Jerry Twomey, his family (owned) T&T Seeds here in Winnipeg," Darlene Coward Wight, the WAG's curator for Inuit art, says.
"He's a geneticist. He decided he was going to retire to California and breed roses full time, so his 4,000 pieces he had amassed over the '50s and '60s came to the gallery."
Coward Wight will mark her 35th year at the WAG in May and during that time she has curated 95 Inuit art exhibitions and made many trips across the Arctic to visit artists and view their work.
She began learning about Inuit art, the artists who make them and life in the North in 1982 when she landed a job with Canadian Arctic Producers, the marketing arm of artist co-operatives in Nunavut, the Northwest Territories and Yukon. Whale-bone carvings from artists in the high Arctic caught her attention.
"Because the work was often shamanic in subject matter — that area was quite remote at that time, and there hadn't been a whole lot of acculturation in terms of religion — they were still close to their shamanic beliefs, which was in the art. I was just fascinated by that," Coward Wight says. "I really loved the very expressionistic style."
That first journey was to what is now Taloyoak, Nunavut, one of Canada's most northern communities, about 2,200 kilometres north of Winnipeg. She borrowed a parka and boarded a DC-3, a Second World War-vintage plane that carried freight and passengers, to visit the talented artists.
"It took two days to get there and I was sitting on the plane next to freight because freight was the most important thing to the North," she says. "There was one other person on the plane. He was from Spence Bay (the name for Taloyoak until 1992) and he was pointing out muskox on the ground and he said he could see them by their breath. I'll always remember that."
As the WAG's collection grew, its board of directors had to figure out how and where to display the works because only the ones chosen for exhibitions have been seen by the general public. The rest have remained stored in the WAG's basement vault.
Coward Wight remembers discussions beginning back in 1986 about how to show off the collection. She said studies were even launched to find a solution.
Hopes for a dedicated space for the collection began to take a positive turn in June 2008 when the board hired Borys, who grew up in Winnipeg and was the chief curator of the John and Marie Ringling Museum in Sarasota, Fla., as the gallery's director and CEO.
"Over the years there's been talks about doing that and it always ended up going away," Coward Wight says. "(A new building) just seemed to be too good to be true, but there was a real commitment, and the board, when they hired Stephen, it was to get this done, and he was very excited by the idea of a building because he has an interest in architecture.
In 2012, Los Angeles architect Michael Maltzan was commissioned to design a building devoted to Inuit art. Momentum continued to build in 2015 when the Nunavut government decided to loan its collection of art, about 7,400 pieces, to the WAG until it had built its own art and heritage centre.
Ground was broken in February 2018 for an Inuit art centre and it received its name, Qaumajuq, in October 2020.
"It actually happened. I still can hardly believe it," Coward Wight says.
Fast-forward to 2021, and Coward Wight was among those who spent five weeks selecting, arranging and placing about 4,500 stone sculptures from both the WAG and the Nunavut government's collection in Qaumajuq's Visible Vault.
It's a tangible creation of more than 60 years of foresight going back to a time when cars sported fins and Elvis sang hits.
"With our digital platform there will be four screens around the vault and people can zoom in on a shelf or on a piece and find out about it," she says.
"Every shelf was figured out in advance and it's all organized by community. When you visit the vault, you can walk around Baker Lake, you can walk around Pangnirtung and Cape Dorset. You can see the different stone types that are used in the different communities and the different styles and artists."
While the WAG's Inuit art collection and its rich history will have a place at Qaumajuq, the new gallery will also draw future generations of Inuit artists who are already challenging perceptions of what people from the North can create, says Kablusiak, an Inuvialuk artist born in Yellowknife who was part of the curation team for INUA, Qaumajuq's first exhibition.
"You know when something sounds so good, you're like, 'This can't be real, it sounds way too good.' To see it come to life, years later, I need to give my head a shake because it's so surreal," Kablusiak says.
"The opportunities that are going to rise for Inuit artists in the future are going to be so exciting."
Opening the drawers
Posted: 12:00 PM Mar. 19, 2021
By: Alan Small
For years, only shadows knew much of the Inuit art at museums in Canada and around the world. Qaumajuq ushers in a new era for Inuit artists and their previously stored-away creations.
For years, only shadows knew much of the Inuit art at museums in Canada and around the world.
Expect Qaumajuq, the Winnipeg Art Gallery’s new building devoted to Inuit art, artists and curators, to change that.
"I thought it was a perfect idea, because these museums — not only the Winnipeg Art Gallery — you go into the museum basements, there are drawers and drawers and drawers and drawers of Inuit art," says filmmaker Zacharias Kunuk, who is from Igloolik, Nunavut.
"I’ve gone to museums from Ottawa, New York, Philadelphia where they have Inuit artifacts. I’m amazed to find in these museums what my ancestors had time to do."
The drawers at the Winnipeg Art Gallery have been opened, and one glance at the thousands of stone carvings on display in Qaumajuq’s Visible Vault reveals the old days and old ways of approaching Inuit art are over.
"No one has actually created a centre like this and it is way overdue," says Pat Feheley, who runs Feheley Fine Arts, a downtown Toronto gallery that is devoted to showing and selling art from the Canadian Arctic.
Feheley, who until just recently had been on the Inuit Art Foundation’s board, has been making regular trips to the North every year since the late 1960s. She’s become one of Canada’s leading experts on Inuit artists and the works they create, and played a role in Qaumajuq’s capital fundraising campaign.
"Much of (the WAG’s) collection will be on view, which will be better because there was always just a small portion of it on view, and that’s a problem with the Art Gallery of Ontario, the National Gallery, Musée des beaux-arts de Montréal, where there’s one gallery or they’ll have a special exhibition," she says.
"Obviously they are large museums and they have European, Canadian and other Indigenous (exhibitions)."
Qaumajuq has also upped the ante for other museums and curators.
‘‘For me, Qaumajuq represents a long-awaited major leap forward in how we exhibit and understand Inuit art in the South," writes Christine Lalonde, the National Gallery of Canada’s associate curator of Indigenous art in an email from Kinngait, Nunavut.
"I think it’s fair to say that, despite the committed and best efforts of many people working with Inuit art, exhibitions, writing, collecting, in other words our whole understanding of art by Inuit, has been somewhat random and partial."
Inuit artists, curators and leaders are taking a greater role in how their works are displayed. The Inuit Art Foundation now has an all-Inuit board of directors, and four Inuit curators, assisted by curators and staff at the WAG, created INUA, Qaumajuq’s inaugural exhibition.
Indigenous curators have put together exhibitions before but INUA takes Indigenous involvement in the process a step further, Feheley says.
"The difference here is the knowledgeable Indigenous people from all four parts of the Inuit Nunangat were involved from the very early point, so they’re not coming into a generalized space," she says. "They actually helped create the space."
Qaumajuq also provides an opportunity for the Nunavut territorial government to show its 7,000-plus artworks, which are on loan to the WAG until it builds its own climate-controlled museum.
In the meantime, the WAG is offering travelling exhibitions to the North and is digitizing the collection so it can be viewed around the world by anyone with an internet connection.
"For me, what’s important is access to collections, and that’s one of the things I love about Qaumajuq, is that they’re bringing out so much in the Visible Vault," says Krista Ulujuk Zawadski, Nunavut’s curator for Inuit art and one of INUA’s curators.
"This jewelry installation, the jewelry has been siting in collections since the 1970s and that just kind of irks me. It makes me think, ‘Why are they sitting in boxes in storage when Inuit or other artists could look at it and take inspiration from this type of work?’"