For 20 years Mathew Nuqingaq, CM, has been a central figure in Inuit jewellery making, achieving wide recognition for his innovative forms made of materials unique to the North. In this interview, Nuqingaq reflects on a storied career, the opportunities for future Inuit jewellers and artists, and the inspiration he draws from Inuk ingenuity.
ASHLEY KILABUK-SAVARD: How did you get started making jewellery?
MATHEW NUQINGAQ: I went to the Christmas craft fair at the Nunavut Arctic College (NAC) in 1994 to buy ornaments. I saw some artwork on the walls and also jewellery made by the students and thought to myself, Wow! This is so beautiful. I was used to seeing jewellery in Sears and other stores, but it all looked the same. These pieces, made by the students at NAC, were different—they told stories and legends. I fell in love with jewellery and I thought, I could do this.
I started taking all the night courses at the college. I was accepted in 1995 as a half-time student and worked as an elementary school teacher during the day. I did that for three years. After I graduated, NAC received funding to have me teach during the day and in the evening I would make jewellery. But that didn’t work. By the time the evening came I was too tired with no energy left. I decided to stop teaching and now I’ve been making jewellery for 20 years.
AS: Who initially inspired you?
MN: When I was a kid my parents carved, not all the time, mostly in early springtime before we would go camping. Their carvings were so beautiful; to me they were like real animals. Years later when I was at NAC in 1997, I went to the Great Northern Arts Festival in Inuvik, Inuvialuit Settlement Region, NT, and met amazing artists like Paul Maliki, Joseph Shuqslak and Inuk Charlie. They were inspiring. Their carvings were amazing and as artists they were confident and loved what they were doing.
Nathalia Okalik modelling Nuqingaq’s Large Qulliq Earrings (2019) COURTESY MATHEW NUQINGAQ
AS: What are some of the difficulties you face as a jeweller working in the North?
MN: It’s my job to ensure that I’m making art and that I have all the materials and tools to make things as well as clients to purchase it. It’s my full-time career, and I have worked hard to get where I am. Everything is far away, but then again not too far if you really want it. I use what we have here. It has always been Inuit ingenuity to take what you have and make it work. I have easy access to natural materials like ivory and stone. It’s a matter of using it in different ways and as many ways as possible. It’s mainly silver that I need to order and that can take three days to get here.
AS: When you were starting out as an artist, was it difficult to get your work into galleries?
MN: We were quite lucky starting out at Nunavut Arctic College. Our graduation pieces were exhibited in Vancouver, BC. In discussion with other artists we started to figure out that galleries operate because of us. If they didn’t have these pieces—our pieces—they wouldn’t exist, and that was important for us to learn.
A lot of the time, social media will help get work out there and good photographs are really important. The galleries are watching everything that is happening in the art world, and sometimes someone will see something I post on Facebook or Instagram and then I’ll get an invitation to have a show and participate in a workshop. We need to create art also because if we don’t create it, we’re just waiting for something and we can’t wait for something, we have to make it happen. As artists we have to create something, create excitement and create a demand.
AS: How do you source materials like ivory, antler, horn and claws?
MN: I get them from all over. The ivory comes from hunters mostly. Antlers are getting scarce because of the decline of the caribou population, so they have been going for quite high prices. Hunters will drop by to sell some claws and bones. Social media is really good; I’ll have hunters from all over Nunavut message me when they have claws and bones for sale.
Mathew Nuqingaq HER (2019) Hockey stick, leather and brass 3.2 × 15.9 × 15.2 cm COURTESY FEHELEY FINE ARTS
AS: You recently started using more unusual materials to make things. Can you talk about why this started and what made you think to do it?
MN: There are so many possibilities, so many ideas that I have in my head. Ideas start in my drawings and then grow and grow. Sometimes I’ll get ideas in the middle of the night or early in the morning and I’ll have to wake up and write it or draw it out. There are so many ideas and so many fun possibilities for unusual materials, like using cereal boxes to make snow goggles or taking old violins and hockey sticks and transforming them into something else. Anything can become art.
I have so many ideas that it will take a lifetime to do them all. I’ll never stop. Ideas are kind of like a sickness, because once they get in there, they want to come out and be shared. Like, Snow Goggle Whiskers (2019), the goggles I made using walrus whiskers and a muskox horn base. The idea came to me and it seemed crazy but once I got to work it started to look pretty good. The ideas come in and they just need to go out or they’ll eat me.
Mathew Nuqingaq Snow Goggle Whiskers (2019) Walrus whiskers, muskox horn and waxed thread 10.2 × 26.7 × 12.7 cm COURTESY FEHELEY FINE ARTS
AS: What are some of your favourite things to make?
MN: That’s a hard question. It’s always changing, the ideas are always changing and that’s the beauty of it. The qulliq, it’s been my favourite lately. I make earrings using the qulliq shape. I can’t get away from it. It’s a very simple design but still so very elegant.
AS: The qulliq has such beautiful and strong symbolism. What does it mean to you?
MN: Warmth. The qulliq has always symbolized warmth for me. It has been around for a long time, it has kept our people warm since the beginning until quite recently. For all those years it was the main thing that kept Inuit warm in the igloo. Like the qajaq and qamutiik these are the tools that have been around forever and sometimes are still the best. So, the warmth is the biggest thing for me, and beauty of course.
AS: You use many traditional motifs and Arctic imagery in your work. Please describe why this is important to you.
MN: It’s where we came from. Inuit were traditionally nomads. We couldn’t carry much but we could carry small things such as jewellery and amulets and so I like to think that the tradition I work in is ancient.
I’m working on a qajaq piece right now, and the inspiration came from the beginning of life in Inuit legends. Kiviuq was the one who travelled and saw the world in a qajaq. The qamutiik design, it’s still the best and it hasn’t changed much. Nowadays we have nuts and screws and bolts but they are still lashed together to withstand the rough terrain. The igloo itself was insulation from the cold, but it came from the cold. These are the beautiful and old inventions that were created long ago that are still used today. Since my start as an artist I have taken these elements as inspiration and tried to simplify them in my pieces as much as possible, but simple can be difficult.
AS: How does it make you feel when you see people wearing your creations?
MN: I feel pride. I still get shy and sometimes embarrassed but I always feel very proud and happy to see people wearing my creations.
AS: Do you have any dream projects that you hope to work on in the future?
MN: I haven’t really thought about it at all. I don’t think I have just one dream project because things are always coming up. I’m still pretty young, I think! [Laughs]
Aayuraa Studio in Iqaluit (2019) PHOTO INUIT ART FOUNDATION
AS: Your studio, Aayuraa Studio, is considered a hub for jewellers in Iqaluit. Can you tell me more about it?
MN: The studio is an old house. It was one of the first houses built in Apex in the 1950s. They were called the 5-12, 512 square feet. This one was moved to Iqaluit from Apex a long time ago. When we bought it, we gutted the whole building. Everything is recycled and most of it came from the dump. The cabinets were going to be thrown out in the garbage by the school, and the chairs, which have old government of NWT and NU stickers, were thrown out at the dump. The bench and tables were made from doors and there is an airplane nose as a fume hood. It’s hard to look new after 12 years of being here.
The studio is called Aayuraa Studio. It is named after the traditional snow goggles. In my region, Qikiqtarjuaq, the aayuraa is the crack in the ice that goes from land and gets wider and wider. The slits on the snow goggles look like them and that’s why they’re named aayuraa. I’ve been fascinated with them for many years, and I made them out of wood for a long time. So, when I became a jeweller, I started to make them out of any kind of material I could. I had a big exhibition called Masquerade recently at Feheley Fine Arts in Toronto, ON. To me, aayuraa means looking to the future and that’s why it is the name of the studio.
Mathew Nuqingaq Sedna Earrings (2019) Copper 12.7 × 7 × 1.9 cm COURTESY FEHELEY FINE ARTS
AS: You have become a mentor to many young jewellers, why is mentorship and helping others important to you?
MN: We need more Inuit jewellers. There is a good program at Nunavut Arctic College and more people should be taking it. The demand for high quality, thoughtful products is there. Being a jeweller is like any other job. We make our opportunities for ourselves and thankfully there are many organizations that help artists to become self-sufficient. There’s lots of room for more Inuit to own businesses. More people should study jewellery making. Inuit artists have so many beautiful designs and ideas that need to be made—and we’re very good at it.
This interview has been edited for clarity and condensed.
This interview first appeared in the Winter 2019 issue of Inuit Art Quarterly.