• Review

Isuma: 58th International Art Exhibition/La Biennale di Venezia

Nov 18, 2019
by Reneltta Arluk

As part of the Pilimmaksarniq/Pijariuqsarniq Project: Inuit Futures in Arts Leadership summer institute, 20 of us writers, academics and artists flew to Venice, Italy, to witness the opening of Isuma’s historic installation in the Canada Pavilion at the 58th Venice Biennale; my first foray into this prodigious happening. I was welcomed to the Giardini by Lucy Uyarak Tulugarjuk’s smiling face, which I had been following on Facebook as she shared pictures of her family interlaced with behind-the-scenes photos of Zacharias Kunuk, OC, ON, and, the Isuma team preparing for the exhibition. In anticipation, I walked towards the pavilion.

Joining several Inuit smiling for photos beside a large ISUMA plaque affixed to the building’s exterior, I was informed that signs are not normally permitted outside of the pavilions. However, in a clever turn, Kunuk had called it an installation and this was why it had been allowed. The Isuma sign will prominently share space with Canada’s permanent lettering for the run of the Biennale. A fitting gesture as Isuma is the first Inuit-led collective to be invited into this international site and during the United Nations Year of Indigenous Languages.

Inside, a volunteer handed me a postcard of a familiar face: Kunuk at his home in Kapuivik, NU. The installation comprises comfortable benches placed parallel to four large screens playing One Day in the Life of Noah Piugattuk (2019), a film that presents the Canadian government’s historic relocation of Inuit to permanent settlements. The 112-minute feature is based on the true story of Iglulik elder Noah Piugattuk who, when visited by a Qallunaaq man called “Boss,” was asked to abandon his nomadic lifestyle and relocate to Iglulik with his community. Piugattuk ultimately refuses, and what follows is a complex series of misunderstandings and mistranslations.

Performed in Inuktitut and English, the feature is presented with Italian, French and English subtitles creating an immersive, multilayered environment throughout the pavilion. The large audience crowded together intently listening to the sounds of Inuktitut while reading subtitles. There was a flow to the installation, like a river, as the pavilion itself contains no sharp corners. In the middle stand two trees of formidable size that, like Isuma, also claim space.

Holding the fullness of languages and sound, the space is strikingly absent of objects, the only item, a map belonging to Kunuk’s father that reveals in syllabics where to hunt seal. There are no carvings, no drawings, no sealskin; and no Kunuk, at least not physically. Instead, the artist is in the exact spot near Iglulik where the events of the film took place 50 years prior, hosting the real-time broadcast Silakut Live from the Floe Edge. Throughout the exhibition’s run, the filmmaker will convene elders in conversation on the implications of the mining activity currently underway near their community. During the preview week live stream, we watched the conversation between the five men intently, intimately, calmly yet energized. There we were, over 5,500 kilometres away, with a mass of people witnessing the voices of community members speaking on what is important to them, now. Kunuk, always conscious of his audience, deftly shifts the focus and attention from Italy to Nunavut.

As the celebrations outside began, I perched myself up on a ledge above the crowd of hundreds and started my own live stream as Uyarak spoke Inuktitut on Italian soil. As Isuma’s female voice in Venice, and someone who has been a part of Isuma for over 20 years, Uyarak’s attendance at the Biennale was critical. A director in her own right and assistant director of One Day in the Life of Noah Piugattuk, Uyarak brings a voice to the official opening that is not represented in the largely male cast of the film or on Silakut Live. Her words were generous, expressing gratitude to the all-women curatorial team—asinnajaq, Catherine Crowston, Josée Drouin-Brisebois, Barbara Fischer and Candice Hopkins—for their creative diligence. While perhaps unintentional, having Isuma represented by three Indigenous women—asinnajaq, Hopkins and Uyarak—on this international stage feels timely and strikingly responsive to the silenced voices of Indigenous women in Canada.

Isuma’s presentation at the Canada Pavilion shares its knowledge of generations and openly addresses ways the Canadian Government has and continues to displace Inuit sovereignty. The absence of key members of the collective at the Biennale in favour of broadcast discussions on the Mary River mine’s proposed disruption of walrus breeding grounds reflects their commitment to environmental stewardship. Though ice is shrinking and sea levels are rising, language remains integral, as does community. As the first Inuit voices included in the national entry, these messages from Isuma remind us it is imperative that we listen. Through a dynamic fi lmic portal comprised of a full-length feature and live stream, the collective made both physical and digital space for Inuit perspectives to be heard.

The title of this year’s Biennale is “May You Live in Interesting Times,” which is strikingly apt. May we indeed.

This Review originally appeared in the Fall 2019 issue of the Inuit Art Quarterly.