Afro-Inuk writer Jaelyn Terriak tells the story of what happened when she finally found her perfect art niche in the exhibition They Forgot That We Were Seeds.
Through my casual and usually passive interactions with art, there is often little I can identify with. Although engaged, I’m not necessarily akin to the art I try to connect with, creating a subconscious apathy towards art altogether.
But when I see Inuit art, the feeling of seeing myself, my culture and my people represented is ineffable. It is so exciting for me. I immediately want to share with those around me—to help them pronounce the artists’ last name correctly, to explain the significance of what they’re looking at and to share my experience.
I’m assuming this eagerness to share is the result of underrepresentation, but can’t know if my non-Indigenous peers experience the same introspective process. This is particularly because my personal experience with Inuit art and laying claim to it in public spaces is layered with one more complexity—I am Inuk, but I am also Black. So I keep the experience to myself in order to avoid uncomfortable questions about my physical appearance and identity.
Nevertheless, seeing any mode of Inuit art provokes a sense of pride, comfort and relief. It provides a space for me, is undeniable for me. For once, I am the expert and am not second-guessing my response. But I still long to see my intersectionality simultaneously represented.
This doesn’t mean to insinuate that my identities cannot exist separately—they absolutely do. But they also exist together. That intersection between my Inukness and my Blackness is unique to me. It tells a story and a history that encompasses exactly who I am.
Katherine Takpannie Katinniaqtugut (2020) Digital Photograph Courtesy the artist
For the first time recently, I was able to see both of my identities through Katherine Takpannie’s artwork Katinniaqtugut (2020), as a part of a greater exhibition curated by Kosisochukwu Nnebe, They Forgot That We Were Seeds (2020) at Carleton University Art Gallery in Ottawa, ON, which I attended with my class as a Carleton student. The exhibition explored Canada’s colonial history by delving into the trade of goods and people, but exclusively from the perspective of Black and Indigenous women.
Takpannie’s series of eight photographs bore witness to an intimate gathering between Indigenous and Black women through the sharing of food—an integral part of Nnebe’s curatorial vision for the exhibition. The first thing I identified was a young Inuk girl lighting a qulliq—a traditional lamp made out of soapstone. Then I noticed a bottle that had the word “sorrel” written on it.
I am very familiar with sorrel, a drink made from dried hibiscus and a leafy green called sorrel, which is soaked with spices overnight. I look forward to my Guyanese granny’s Christmas version every year.
For the first time in this type of setting, in a room full of students, I spoke out with ease, without fear of looks or criticism from others. If anyone in the room knew what they were looking at in this moment, it was me.
The description of Takpannie’s artwork in the online guide, written by Nnebe, posed a question that resonated with me: “What does it mean to understand Indigenous people and people of African descent as Indigenous to their own lands and displaced from it in very different ways? What are the ways in which we can hold space together?” As children of immigrants and Inuit in Canada living outside of Inuit Nunangat, it is important that we ask ourselves these questions. Our existence, and the continuation of our culture, is based in this idea of “holding space” and “creating space” with and for one another.
While Takpannie’s work addresses the importance of food as a mode of holding space for folks of intersecting identities, her piece also speaks to the historical role Ottawa has played both as a hub for Inuit who have been displaced from their communities and as a hub for the intersectional identities that have come as a result of this displacement. Many Inuit youth like myself have a story that begins in Ottawa. I’m not sure where else you would find a bottle of sorrel and a qulliq in the same work of art.
A photo of myself cutting up tuktu (caribou) at the National Gathering in Montreal, QC, in February 2020 as part of my work at the Canadian Roots Exchange.
My Anânsiak, like many Inuit, moved south to Ottawa for employment, education and opportunity. She raised my mother here, and in the late 90s I was born. My mother met my Guyanese family—who adopted me later in my life—in Ottawa. My Guyanese grandfather immigrated to Canada for educational purposes after many years as a diplomat.
In the earlier parts of my life I was raised by my Anânsiak and Atâtsiak in Nain, Nunatsiavut, NL. My earliest and most vivid memories come from being out on the land with them and spending the spring at our cabin. Things changed drastically for me when I moved to Toronto, ON, with my Guyanese family at around nine years old. It was a different world, a completely different culture. I lived between two worlds that most people in Toronto didn’t understand.
It wasn’t until I went back to Ottawa for university at age 18 that I felt it was easier for folks to comprehend my story, and thus my identity. Many young people around my age had similar stories—a mother who came to Ottawa from Inuit Nunangat for the same reasons my Anânsiak did, and a father who was of a different background. We could all identify with one another.
Living in Ottawa for the past six years, I’ve noticed a significant number of Inuit youth, younger than me, who are going to have similar stories to mine. Growing up, there was a complete lack of representation for Afro-Inuit. I often felt alone and isolated. Takpannie’s photos show Inuit representation in a new light, and the ways we must consider intersectional identities and histories when creating and engaging with art. I’m hoping to see more of this in the future, not just for myself, but for the generation behind me.