Video: Meet the new wave of Inuit artists

Shipping containers dot the landscape of many northern communities, but in a downtown art gallery, it was an unexpected touch in a new exhibition space.

When Qaumajuq at the Winnipeg Art Gallery unveiled INUA, its inaugural show for Inuit artists in early 2021, a full-size, red shipping container, doors open, was placed in the centre of the room.

It's not what you think of when Inuit artwork comes to mind. And yet, it was perfect for the occasion.

Qaumajuq is a first-of-its-kind gallery for Inuit art and culture in the heart of downtown Winnipeg. The large-scale installation commissioned for the exhibit was created by Glenn Gear, a multi-disciplinary artist and filmmaker of mixed Inuit-Settler ancestry from Corner Brook, Newfoundland and Labrador.

“That container really is a container for so many of my thoughts and wishes about Labrador, about culture and about my place within it,” Gear said. “It's very much a space of reflection, but also it's a love letter to Labrador.”

The walls of the installation, called Iluani/Silami (It's Full of Stars), painted with black and white murals on the inside, featured constellation maps, Inuit mythology, and cartoons. Iluani and Silami mean “inside” and “outside” in Inuktitut while It’s Full of Stars is a reference to the protagonist’s awestruck line in 2001: A Space Odyssey. 

Entering the space, the viewer saw Gear’s vision of the past on one side, and his vision of the future on the other. Both sides were connected by a large circle that looked like a porthole, where video recordings captured in Labrador, the birthplace of his Inuk father, were projected.

The video recordings were set to a soundtrack of ocean waves, recorded along Labrador’s coastline. If you listened closely, you could hear the steady beat of a drum. Gear said it was a last-minute addition to the installation, but it was the single most memorable element of the experience for Marisa St. Godard, a tour guide and art facilitator at Qaumajuq.

Even with so many things to look at, St. Godard recalled often closing her eyes when she stepped inside to listen to the drum.

“It just does something in your chest,” she said of her favourite work in the exhibit. “This sense of calmness and peace.”

St. Godard and Gear have never met. When Gear was at Qaumajuq, building the installation for a few weeks before opening, pandemic measures were in place, limiting the number of people he encountered. St. Godard didn’t start working at the gallery until that summer, initially taking a position with the gallery’s Indigenous art camp.

Art has facilitated an experience of self-discovery for them both. In Gear's case, research and archival work have allowed him to learn more about his father’s history and his own place within it. St. Godard, meanwhile, is discovering new things about herself through Qaumajuq.

St. Godard has always identified as Inuk. She was born to an Inuk mother and adopted at nine months old by a non-Indigenous couple. While her parents took many avenues to keep her in touch with her Inuit culture, it wasn’t until St. Godard started working at Qaumajuq that she truly came into her own.

“That's when I started to really feel connected,” she said. “I think it's powerful to learn about who you are as a person, but then share it with others at the same time.”

St. Godard’s connection to Qaumajuq is indicative of the space, carefully created by the Winnipeg Art Gallery. After decades of discussions about building this centre for Inuit art, the gallery moved forward with Qaumajuq by including elders, knowledge keepers, and members of the city’s Inuit community to make decisions at every step of its process.

That’s important because, during the last century, Indigenous people didn’t often have a say in decisions about Indigenous art.

The Canadian art scene has its own world of politics. Who says what is art and what is not? Who interprets that art? Who puts a price on that art? All are significant questions.

And historically, Indigenous voices were among those excluded from that process in galleries, museums, exhibits, art history books and academia.

Qaumajuq is part of the overdue evolution of how art galleries and museums in Canada curate and collaborate with Indigenous artists and communities, moving beyond colonial art practices that are dominated by a Euro-Western view.

By including Indigenous voices in these conversations, galleries and museums are moving forward in collaboration and stewardship with the next generation of Indigenous curators and artists.

St. Godard was raised southeast of Winnipeg, part of a welcoming and nurturing family, with dogs and cats and horses to love and care for. As a kid, her parents, Patricia and Jim, would read her books about Inuit art and people, filled with colourful pages depicting northern landscapes and lifestyles.

“It was just something that kind of always had this little spark in me where I was like, ‘Oh, I kind of look like these people,’ and in a way sort of gave me a sense of belonging,” she said.

St. Godard met her birth mother at 14 years old, but understood that would be the limit to their relationship. It was a big moment for St. Godard and with her parents' support, she was able to begin to understand her own story. Following that meeting, St. Godard slowly began to meet other members of her biological family, some of whom are prominent members of Winnipeg’s growing Inuit community.

During her first training shift at Qaumajuq, virtually teaching art classes to remote communities, St. Godard heard a last name that sounded familiar: it was her biological auntie’s last name, except it belonged to a kid in Chesterfield Inlet, Nunavut, over 2,000 kilometres away. It turned out the small hamlet on the western shore of Hudson Bay was the home community of her biological mother and many of her relatives still live there, including children in the art class.

While Marisa’s familial circle expands, she is very quick to acknowledge the support and love of the people who raised her.

“It's definitely a gift,” she said, “I don't think I'd be the person that I am today without my parents.”

As Gear unboxed new pieces of artwork on his dining table at his quaint Montreal apartment, a collage from photo archives in Labrador, he spoke about his work, which often explores his identity as an urban Inuk with ancestral ties to Labrador, or Nunatsiavut. His father is from Adlatok Bay.

“Many of us come from hybrid backgrounds or backgrounds that are very complex. There is a period where you mourn what you didn't have — certainly, I went through that. But then you find more and more instances and places where there is such a cultural connection,” he said.

“You find your lost aunties and uncles, you begin to hear some of the stories you needed to hear as a kid, and you start piecing things together in more meaningful and complex ways.”

Glenn gathers stories, archives, photos, and objects on the topic he’s interested in for a piece. When he started to dig into his personal history — his father’s story — he started to understand why his father couldn't speak about his culture or his connection to his past. It’s one of the reasons Gear uses words and phrases in Inuktitut from his region as titles for his work.

“That's important for me to reclaim that language because it was very broken with my father, him being a child of the residential school system. He didn't have Inuktitut as his language, even though his mother, my grandmother, spoke it fluently,” he said.

“Part of my work is an act of repair and remediation of that whole process of trying to reconnect, trying to understand the language and learn it one word at a time. There's joy within that process, struggling through language and struggling through culture and making those connections.”

Gear’s work is a departure from traditional Inuit handicrafts. He uses technology to build his creations. But he’s not alone. More young, Inuit artists are creatively merging traditional folklore, colours, and methods, with digital tools to design and share their work.

“Inuit art is video art, it’s performance, it’s textiles, it’s based in so many different mediums. It's painting and drawing,” he said. “It's not just the prints and sculptures of yesteryear. I mean, it continues to be that, but it's so much more. Inuit art is contemporary art right now and I think that's what a lot of people are beginning to realize.”

After nearly 10 years of development and construction, Qaumajuq’s 40,000-square-foot space opened in March 2021. The contemporary architecture is an addition to the Winnipeg Art Gallery (WAG), founded in 1912, and one of Canada’s oldest civic art galleries.

The WAG purchased its first piece of contemporary Inuit art in 1957 and since around that time, the city has been a hub in the national and international market, piquing the interest of art collectors and academics.

Qaumajuq is now home to the world’s largest public collection of contemporary Inuit art with over 12,200 pieces in its permanent collection, acquired mostly through donations from private collectors.

Qaumajuq means “it is bright, it is lit” in Inuktitut. Qaumajuq-WAG’s Indigenous Advisory Circle included Inuit perspectives throughout the process. From its conception to its opening day, everything about Qaumajuq was developed through collaboration.

“We have to realize that this is all here in trust for other people to see. And so, we need that cultural input,” said Darlene Coward Wight, Inuit art curator at the WAG.

The centrepiece of Qaumajuq can be seen from the sidewalk outside. The visible vault, a stunning three-storey glass showcase, holds 4,500 pieces of work. Two storeys above ground showcase stone carvings, while whalebone, ivory and antler are underground, out of direct sunlight.

It was curated over 10 months by Darlene Coward Wight, who included art from 25 Inuit communities, spanning generations. It's art that was once safely stored out of public view, but is now the first thing visitors see when they walk in.

“We really wanted to be able to show the world that, ‘here they are,’” she said.

Coward Wight, who is not Indigenous, joined the WAG as Inuit curator in 1986. After receiving a master’s degree in fine art from Carleton University, she took an interest in Inuit art and took a trip to the north to learn more. Coward Wight discovered her passion for sharing the stories of the artists behind the carvings and sculptures, something she still loves today.

“It’s so important to have that connection because otherwise, we're not doing justice to the work," she said.

Since Coward Wight began at the WAG, there have been discussions about building something special to display the gallery’s collection.

“You don't have to pay a fee to see our visible vault. We really wanted to make it more accessible. That was the big thing,” she said.

In her nearly 40 years as a curator, Coward Wight has curated 96 exhibitions. The latest is called Inuit Sanaugangit/Art Across Time, a joint project with former assistant curator of Inuit art, Jocelyn Piirainen. It’s underway at Qaumajuq-WAG and runs through the end of 2023.

Curatorial practices have changed a lot since Coward Wight started her position in Winnipeg nearly 40 years ago.

“We're trying very hard to get beyond a colonial attitude towards art, just opening up, being transparent, bringing people into the process, and not just saying, ‘well, this is the way we do it and that's that’,” she said. “We're very interested in the transparency and the communication and the inclusiveness of what we're doing.”

Coward Wight relies heavily on research to craft biographies and catalogues about artists, their work, and communities. The gallery’s Inuit art collection consists mainly of donated pieces, so

Coward Wight and the collections team trace the known history of each one to determine if it was acquired ethically and with the knowledge of the artist. This act of gathering information allows Inuit artists of the past and present to share their stories and experiences through their work.

“The more that people know about other cultures, I think the more opportunities we have for mutual understanding and empathy,” Coward Wight said. “We are trying to bridge that gap to help people understand and to see it here.”

Inuit and their ancestors have been skilled artists and carvers for thousands of years. Pieces from as early as 200 BCE still exist today.

But what’s known as contemporary Inuit art, crafted since 1949, has a complex history and in many ways, is a representation of the acceleration of colonization in the north.

Around that time, Canadian artist James Houston travelled to Inuit communities to purchase carvings. He was hired to do so by an entity now known as La Guilde in Montreal, a non-profit organization founded in 1906 with a goal to promote Indigenous and Canadian artwork.

Houston organized an exhibition with pieces he bought during those trips and it was seen as a success. The exhibition was popular with collectors and it attracted the attention of the federal government, which was looking for ways to get the north on a wage economy.

Making art for money was one stream the government pushed, subsidizing income for artists, shifting communities away from traditional ways of life and popularizing Inuit art on the international market.

Art was sold and shipped to market through Hudson’s Bay Company and later through community-owned co-ops, some of which still operate today.

A number of communities flourished and remain growing hubs for internationally renowned Inuit artists, most famously Cape Dorset/Kinngait. But many others struggled.

Conversations about the ethics of colonial art systems like this are happening in galleries across the country.

The National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa only purchased its first work of Indigenous art in the mid-1980s, indicative perhaps, of how much the Canadian art world viewed the significance of Indigenous works. Now, it’s overhauling its approach in a big way.

“Institutions don't change themselves. People change institutions,” said Steven Loft, vice-president of the new Department of Indigenous Ways and Decolonization, launched by the National Gallery in 2022.

Loft is Kanien'kehá:ka (Mohawk) of the Six Nations of the Grand River, with Jewish heritage.

“For the first time in this institution's 80-year history, you have not one but two Indigenous people at the highest level of decision-making at our executive management level,” Loft said. “When you start bringing in those lived perspectives, that starts to change things from the inside.”

In addition to reviewing the policies and mandates of the National Gallery, Loft said his team is not just part of the internal conversation about Indigenous art, but about how the Gallery operates.

“We're starting to devolve and lose this notion that there is one art history and that's that Euro-Western one that most people here probably learned if they learned art,” Loft said.

“There's an Indigenous art history of this land. There's Indigenous art histories from other lands. We're starting to understand the plurality of cultural expression and getting away from this notion of a dominance of one kind.”

The Gallery programs its exhibits three years in advance, naturally forcing a forward-looking approach. And while there’s been pushback about the new department and the staff shakeup that ensued, Loft isn’t deterred. There’s an inherent understanding that in order to create lasting change, moving away from the status quo, though challenging, is necessary.

“This is about power and privilege and institutions like this are built on power and privilege. Unfortunately, we have to deal with that history,” he said.

“We have to move forward and by moving forward, we commit to a much more not just inclusive but equitable, understanding culture. And I think that's exciting work.”

“Thirty years ago, we didn't have the language to really think about what decolonizing a space would mean,” Gear said. “I think now there's a lot more dialogue with Indigenous and non-Indigenous folks that challenge those hierarchies or those very oppressive structures that are quite harmful.”

As an artist, Gear has an opportunity to work with curatorial and collections teams at galleries. He believes they’re more open to hearing what young people have to say, emerging artists, and they’re thinking about the future with a new mindset, something that gives him a lot of hope.

“I think things have really shifted right now with the way that galleries think about how they engage different communities, indigenous communities, how they engage curators, and how they engage larger communities with other projects that are outside of the gallery,” he said.

“It's a really exciting time, I think, for Inuit art and Inuit artists.”

St. Godard is part of that conversation as a young artist. Her parents speak unequivocally about how art and a position at Qaumajuq have shaped the woman she’s become: more connected to her Inuit culture than ever, surmounting hurdles to arrive at that place in her young life.

Sitting with her dog on her bed and sunlight shining through the window on a frigid winter day, St. Godard looked around her room, sharing the space with visitors.

It’s a teenage dream: colourful posters cover the walls; photos of past moments with family and friends are pinned to cork boards; a closet is neatly stuffed with her clothes.

But what stands out about Marisa’s room isn’t how tidy it is for the occasion. It’s the art on the walls, painted in her last years of high school as she started to come into herself and discover a style that flowed naturally onto a canvas.

There’s a tarot card set, each with curved corners, depicting life and death. There’s a portrait of a woman on a black background, with her mind cracked open, and vibrant thoughts spilling out of it. Expansion of the Mind is what St. Godard calls the piece, a nod to her own transformation after a number of challenging years. With the support of her family, Marisa continues to explore healing through art and build relationships with her biological family.

St. Godard has aspirations of using her artistic abilities to help other Indigenous people heal from intergenerational trauma. While she hasn’t mapped out exactly what that looks like, St. Godard knows Qaumajuq has unlocked a new world of possibilities.

“Art is definitely something that I do see in my future. I don't know what I'm going to do with it, but something,” she said. “We'll see what the universe has lined up.”


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