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Indigenous Language Keepers Formally Name Winnipeg Art Gallery’s Inuit Art Centre

Oct 28, 2020
by IAQ

In Winnipeg, MB, this week, a circle of Indigenous language keepers has given a formal name to the building previously known as the Inuit Art Centre. Qaumajuq (pronounced How-ma-yourk), an Inuktitut name meaning “it is bright, it is lit,” was chosen to celebrate the light that flows into the new building, which is expected to open in February 2021 after nearly three years under construction.

Directly connected to the Winnipeg Art Gallery (WAG) on all four levels, the naming represents a significant part of the WAG’s Indigenization journey. It is also the first time an Indigenous naming like this has taken place at a major art institution in Canada. As a further part of decolonizing the museum space, Indigenous guests will get free admission to the WAG-Qaumajuq when it opens in perpetuity.

“We are so honoured to gift the institution with these new names that point to a new a path forward for galleries and museums in this country,” said Dr. Julie Nagam and Dr. Heather Igloliorte, co-chairs of the Indigenous Advisory Circle at the WAG, in a statement.

In addition to Nagam and Igloliorte—who is also the President of the IAF’s Board of Directors— the naming circle was peopled by a group of fluent language keepers and Elders: EJ Fontaine, Marge Roscelli, Verna Demontagny, Eric Robinson, Taqralik Partridge, Krista Ulujuk Zawadski, Maggie Putulik, Johnny Kasudluak, Katie E. Winters, Dr. Mary Courchene, Theresie Tungilik, Holly Carpenter and Dr. Niigaan Sinclair. 

These language keepers represent all four regions of Inuit Nunangat, as well as Anishinnaabemowin, Nêhiyawêwin, Dakota and Michif (Metis) speakers, to recognize the building’s location on Treaty 1 territory and Winnipeg’s location on the unceded territory of the Dakota people and the homeland of the Metis Nation.

The circle also named the WAG itself, choosing Biindigin Biwaasaeyaah (BEEN- deh-gen Bi-WAH-say-yah), an Anishinaabemowin name meaning “Come on in, the dawn of light is here” or "the dawn of light is coming."

This was “a powerful moment of cross-cultural reflection and relationship-building,” said Dr. Stephen Borys, WAG Director and CEO. “We can’t wait to unveil this new cultural landmark in the heart of the country with these new names honouring Indigenous voices and languages.”  

The circle gathered virtually to share ideas and name the centre in their own language, providing spelling based on their regional dialects. In addition to the main buildings, the circle named the spaces within, such as the entrance hall, which becomes Ilavut (eelah-voot), an Inuktitut word meaning “our relatives”; the learning steps, which becomes Ilipvik (eelip-vick), Inuttitut for “a place where you go to learn”; and the mezzanine gallery, or Giizhig/Kisik (gee-shig or key-sick), Cree/Michif/Ojibway for “sky, heaven, day”. 

“We are thrilled to share the names of the spaces in the seven Indigenous languages of Manitoba and Inuit Nunangat,” said Nagam and Igloliorte. “The Circle demonstrates the breadth of knowledge that represents the relationship to the collection and the buildings and it has been an incredible experience for all Circle members.”

While the WAG will continue to be known as the WAG, this second name signifies the presence of Indigenous language throughout both buildings, an important reference to the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada’s Call to Action, which both make reference to the importance of Indigenous languages.

“This initiative is an act of decolonization, supporting reconciliation and Indigenous knowledge transmission for generations to come,” said Borys.

Designed by Michael Maltzan Architecture with Cibinel Architecture, Qaumajuq has been purpose-built to house Inuit art from the WAG’s collection and the Government of Nunavut collection, which is currently held at the WAG. 

Featuring Inuit-led programming, the building will include exhibition, learning and event spaces and a revamped shop, as well as a cafe on the main level. At its heart is the Visible Vault, which will showcase thousands of carvings. Its inaugural exhibition will be curated by an all-Inuit team consisting of Igloliorte and Zawadksi as well as Kablusiak and Asinnajaq.

"We are excited about the transformation and naming of the WAG and the Inuit art centre,” said Igloliorte and Nagam, affirming their commitment “to continue the process of decolonization,” at the museum.