Inuit Art Quarterly’s Associate Editor, Napatsi Folger speaks with Sobey Art Award–shortlisted artist Laakkuluk Williamson Bathory on her art, inspiration and feelings on being named a finalist for the prestigious $100,000 prize.
Napatsi Folger: It’s very exciting to hear that you first made the longlist and now the shortlist for the Sobey Art Award. How did you first find out that you were nominated?
Laakkuluk Williamson Bathory: I knew that Taqralik Partridge had nominated me. I thought she was crazy to do it, but as it turns out it's going well. I got a phone call from Tarah Hogue who is a curator at the Remai Modern in Saskatoon and she actually let me know both times for the longlist and the shortlist.
NF: Were you surprised?
LWB: Yes, I was very surprised. I think that so many of us Inuit and Inuit artists do things on our own out of necessity, like me doing these performances and people outside building qamutiiqs, building cabins and all the things that we do in our lives. We make them ourselves, both out of necessity and because of our cultural values to keep on innovating and inventing and being a part of our environment. I felt like I was just doing my own thing. And it turns out that a lot of people have been plugging into what I do. I'm so appreciative that they seem to like it.
NF: How do you feel being one of the four circumpolar Indigenous artists on the longlist, and one of three Inuit?
LWB: It was wonderful to see so many Northerners and so many Inuit on the list. Something that I've always dreamed of and hoped for, and pushed for is Inuit working at a high level of creative excellence. The way that northern Indigenous and Inuit artists are succeeding right now, on a national level—there's some amazing work coming out of people who are really pushing themselves, and expressing themselves.
NF: Is that kind of representation important to you? How do you think it affects Inuit in general and Inuit who are paying attention and invested in the art world?
LWB: We always talk about decolonization, and finding ways of uplifting ourselves out of the oppression that we have always faced. But it goes to show that we're actually doing this thing where the more people express themselves, the more people feel like they belong, and they can see that Inuit are very individual within our collectivity. And it gives me such pleasure to be able to see that Inuit are going to become even more accepting and self accepting, and creative, weird, funny and smart. Things that we've always been, but in this new colonial setting that has been this blip in our history, it's happening more.
It's so important in the context of art, but also as it relates to kids coming up and down the streets, to be able to see that we all have individual souls and intellects. It's completely congruent with the way that we're named and the way that we were appreciated, even as babies and small children.
Laakkuluk Williamson Bathory and Jamie Griffiths Silaup Putunga Iluani (Inside the Hole in the Universe) (2018) COURTESY THE ARTISTS
NF: Do you have feelings about being nominated for the Sobey Award as a performance artist rather than as a visual artist, which has traditionally been the case for big awards like this?
LWB: I think it's really important, especially going back to the idea that Inuit artists are exploring art, that there are so many of us that are not just multidisciplinary, but kind of undisciplined. That is not the right word, because we do work with an awful lot of discipline and rigour, but we apply our artistic practice and artistic intellect into many different genres. I really want to encourage people to continue to do that because the more siloed you get, the less understanding, spontaneity and improvisation there is. It’s so important to be able to think on our feet. To be on the shortlist with all these incredible visual artists is a lot for me. I'm the only Indigenous person on the shortlist now.
A number of years ago, I made a decision to stop performing in public. My performance is very intense, and I need to be able to capture people's attention and concentration. In a public setting there's always one or two people who come in and take my work out of context, or they make some sort of a racist remark, or I feel unprotected from people who feel like they have the right to touch me or be all over me in ways that I'm not consenting or controlling. There is actual consent and communication going on when I'm coming into people's space when I perform, it has to be mutual.
It was very difficult over the years to perform in public, so I just stopped. I've been quite grateful that this banner that’s up in Vancouver, BC, of our piece, White Liar and the Known Shore: Frobisher and the Queen (2021) is like Jamie and I caught mid-performance, but nothing's happening to our physical selves. It's just a facsimile of us.
I think the last time I did a show in public would have been for the Pan Am games in 2016 with Tanya Tagaq at Nathan Phillips Square in Toronto. It was a strange performance because they had very high security. There were thousands of people in the square, but there were several fences between the audience and us. We had to show our passport to go backstage. So I was on stage, very protected in a physical sense and performed with Tanya and her band and the choir. That was a safe environment, it was the last time I had people coming and going in an outdoor setting like that. Otherwise it's always in theatres and in places where the audience feels safe to concentrate on what I'm doing and vice versa.
NF: Do you ever film your performance art?
LWB: Since the pandemic I've definitely done a lot of Zoom performances. I also have a few film pieces. There's one called Timiga nunalu, sikulu (My body, the land and the ice) that came out in 2016 and was a part of an exhibition called #CallResponse. It's a film about how my woman's body is a part of the environment. I'm wearing a uaajeerneq mask and I'm nude, and everybody is allowed to gaze as much as they want upon the vista. And then just when they think that they're being voyeuristic or objectifying me, I turn over and you can see my face and I got them! The joke's on them.
Laakkuluk Williamson Bathory and Tanya Tagaq Timiga nunalu, sikulu (My body, the land and the ice) (2016) Installation view COURTESY BLACKWOOD GALLERY PHOTO TONI HAFKENSHEID
LWB: We just released a new film called AATOOQ (Full of Blood). Which is part of this performance art band that I have with Cris Derksen who's a Cree Mennonite cellist, and Christine Tootoo from Kangiqliniq (Rankin Inlet), NU, and Jamie Griffiths. We call it a performance art band because we're mixing visual projections, video work with live performance and music and storytelling. We showed AATOOQ (Full of Blood) at a festival in Halifax for a month in June. And the National Art Centre is going to start showing it as well over the summer.
NF: As a shortlisted artist, you are also going to have a show at the National Gallery of Canada. Do you know what you're going to be presenting there?
LWB: I've talked to the curator and conservator a couple times now, and I’m pretty excited to put together what I'm going to give to the exhibition. A couple of years ago, a nanuq came to our camp in the middle of the night, and my husband and I came face to face with it. I had to shoot it right in the middle of the chest, with our sleeping babies in the bed next to us. It was a very poignant, intense, scary, beautiful night. We ended up with this bear that we cut up and gave all the meat away.
I had to give the skin up to the Amaruq Hunters and Trappers Association (HTA), because I declared it a defence kill. We were within a foot of each other. And there are an awful lot of politics around what constitutes a defence kill because of the pressures of non-Inuit and the global world getting so concerned about polar bear populations, and anthropomorphizing their experience through the climate crisis. So I had to give that hide up. The HTA kept it but didn’t store it properly so it rotted.
In the end, through a complicated series of decisions, they gave the skin back to me, but it was very rotten. My daughter and my neighbours and friends helped me salvage as much of the skin as possible. Now we have this mottled, balding, oddly shaped nanuq skin which can't be turned into mitts or into jewellery or pants or anything like that. So I'm going to stretch it again and then put it in a huge innirvik [wood frame hide stretcher]. It could have been a huge skin, but it was so damaged. I'm going to make a film of myself dressed in an outfit I am making that has the colours of uqsuq, the fat.
It’s like I’m honouring the inside of the bear, I'm inside and trying to come to an understanding with the bear. I'll project that film onto the skin.
NF: That's so cool. So that's your plan for the National Gallery?
LWB: Yes, I'm going to put it into the National Gallery exhibition, so I had to have this conversation with a conservator because it's natural skin. The gallery needs to be able to protect it from pests. So it's going to become another thing where I'm going to be collaborating with the conservator, she's going to have to learn how to string it up, and take it down. Because once a week, she's going to put it into a freezer and put it back up again.
NF: That'll be a learning curve. That's so cool. How big is the skin?
LWB: I would say, it's about six feet by five feet. It's kind of an amebic shape. It's not round. It's got all these strange things happening to it.
Laakkuluk Williamson Bathory performing in Kiinalik: These Sharp Tools in Toronto, ON, 2017 COURTESY BUDDIES IN BAD TIMES THEATRE PHOTO JEREMY MIMNAG
NF: Do you see the Sobey nomination affecting or changing your work at all?
LWB: I don't think I can get any more affirmation that I'm on the right path with the things that I'm trying to explore and express so I feel very reassured that I'm doing things that are good for me and my family and good for the people that I connect with. The prize money is very helpful.
NF: Are there projects that you weren't able to do and now you can follow through with them because of the prize money?
LWB: Yes, definitely, more writing, more creating. This also coincides with the reopening of the world. I want to do that in a diligent, caring, careful way. I don't want to just go back to touring like I was before the pandemic. I want to do it with a lot of intention, bringing a lot of the things that my family learned during the pandemic into what I do now. Which is a lot of peace and calmness.
I literally went from crawling all over people in the audience and sharing breath and sweating together, to doing Zoom performances where it's just me in my studio. So it's affected it completely. Going to the cabin to have time to be on the land to speaking with my family and telling our family stories, that kind of inner peace has been really important.
NF: Do you think because of COVID—even when we're opening up more—you’ll need to change that interactive aspect of your performance?
LWB: Definitely, yes. Our show Kiinalik: These Sharp Tools, the one that I wrote with Evelyn Perry and Cris Derksen performs in and Elysha Poirier does the projections on stage for us. We were supposed to go to Ireland in October, and we decided to postpone it, because we don't know if the audience would be ready for that type of upfront interaction yet, but also, I'm not quite ready. I'm double vaccinated, but do I just go into a space like that? No. So it's actually something that I mourn that I don’t get to do that right now. It's wild. It's weird. It's surreal. It's beautiful, and ugly, and sexual. I know that it's going to change once I do it again, in performance with people. It won't be the same as what I used to do.
NF: I have just one last question, what fuels your creativity?
LWB: I think it is the daily actions of using my body to create heat, shelter and language, love. You know, going to the cabin hauling water and creating heat out of the daily actions of being. That sense of searching for connection to nuna all the time. That's a great inspiration to me. And my family stories, and communicating. Being together in our language and in our life is a great inspiration. Taking pride in being different, not always fitting in, but also loving so much. I think that's a beautiful thing. And something that I celebrate. I get great inspiration from that as well.
This interview was conducted by IAQ Associate Editor Napatsi Folger in July 2021. It has been edited and condensed for clarity.