WAG-Qaumajuq opened its doors in March 2021 with the inaugural exhibition, INUA: Inuit Nunangat Ungammuaktut Atautikkut | Inuit Moving Forward Together, curated by representatives from all four corners of Inuit Nunangat. A year on, curators Dr. Heather Igloliorte, RCA (who is also co-chair of the WAG’s Indigenous Advisory Circle and President of the Inuit Art Foundation’s Board of Directors), Krista Ulujuk Zawadski, Kablusiak and asinnajaq discuss the themes of futurism, breaking new ground and art’s ability to reflect and engage the Inuit experience.
Krista Ulujuk Zawadski: I’m thinking through this idea that artists are breaking trail for future artists by using materials outside of what was considered the norm in Inuit art. For example, the idea that men did the carving and women did the sewing. Looking beyond that trope, we can look at Oviloo Tunnillie’s, RCA Bust (n.d.). It is a very beautiful but simple piece. And then along the same thread is Rhoda Akpaliapik Karetak’s Vessel (1994) made out of bronze. Not many Inuit artists use bronze as a medium. And then we have Olajuk Kigutikakjuk’s Fishing at the Weir (1980), which also breaks trail. It’s a big sculpture using whalebone and stone. All of these women are multimedia artists and these three pieces really popped out for me as trailblazers.
Rhoda Akpaliapik Karetak Vessel (1994) Bronze 29.5 × 29 × 23 cmGOVERNMENT OF NUNAVUT FINE ART COLLECTION COURTESY WAG-QAUMAJUQ PHOTO LIANED MARCOLETA © THE ARTIST
Heather Igloliorte: What you’re saying reminds me of why we included many of the collections-based works in the exhibition, because we wanted to honour those trailblazers. I know I have told this story before, but it’s part of why I admire Michael Massie, CM, RCA, so greatly. He was also someone that, back in the early ’90s, was working in a medium that people considered to be “not Inuk.” That alone is so unbelievable to me because he was literally working with ulus and with tea kettles and with all these other things that are so important to Inuit culture, it’s just that he was sculpting in metal instead of stone, right? And I remember former editor Marybelle Mitchell telling me that when she put that tiny image of his work in the Inuit Art Quarterly, that she never received so many angry letters. It really puts what artists are doing today into conversation with trailblazers like Massie, because of course, the IAQ is still receiving angry letters from people who feel like they are entitled to decide what should or should not be considered “Inuit art” when to me, it’s anything made by an Inuk. I think it is important that Inuit art has “a cutting edge” and that there is always work that surprises, even upsets audiences, because it ensures there is always something daring, exciting, inventive and innovative happening in Inuit art—while celebrating and honouring the past.
Krista: What sprung out at me was this idea of nostalgia and how through that nostalgia messages are conveyed really strongly. Like Couzyn van Heuvelen’s Sealskin Rug (2021); when I look at it, it evokes nostalgia for Inuit livelihood but also, it looks so comfortable. I want to cuddle up to it and feel all this nostalgia for things from back home, like seeing stretched skins everywhere. If you think about some of these pieces through that lens of nostalgia, like Pudlo Pudlat’s Women At the Fish Lakes (1977), it brings me back to when I was a kid and seeing my Aunties with their big ’80s glasses.
Lindsay McIntyre Ajjigiingiluktaaqtugut (We Are All Different) (2020) Animation on S16mm to digital video, stereo sound and mixed media Dimensions variableCOURTESY WAG-QAUMAJUQ PHOTO SERGE GUMENYUK © THE ARTIST
Heather: We got “Uncle” and the kids in Lindsay McIntyre’s kitchen, Ajjigiingiluktaaqtugut (We Are All Different) (2020), and Couzyn’s rug. All the nostalgia, the dolls do that too, I think. There’s a Maori phrase that translates to something like “walking backwards towards the future.” So, its like you’re always looking back as you head in this direction. I think that’s really lovely.
asinnajaq: Absolutely. With all of our ancestor pieces, with Lindsay’s kitchen—all of these things that feel nostalgic.  It’s also a part of how we ground ourselves. The foundation we’re coming from is always an important part of how we get to the future.
1. Editor’s note: As part of the exhibition, each curator selected for inclusion a work with familial meaning. Elisapi Uppatitsiaq Inukpuk’s dolls, Woman Adopts a Caterpillar (Auvvik) (2003) and To the Church in Kuujjuaraapik (2003), were selected by asinnajaq, her great-niece, while Kablusiak included Arnaq and Angun (2015) by their Anaanak, Ella Nasogak Nasogaluak Brown. Krista Ulujuk Zawadski chose Carved Tusk on Base (1966) by her great-grandfather, Victor Sammurtok and finally Dr. Heather Igloliorte’s “ancestor piece” is Purse (n.d.) by her grandmother Susannah Igloliorte. Together these works greet visitors at the entrance to INUA.
Shirley Moorhouse To Honour the Firekeepers (detail) (2020) Wallhanging, mixed media Dimensions variableCOURTESY WAG-QAUMAJUQ PHOTO DAVID LIPNOWSKI © THE ARTIST
Heather: Shirley Moorhouse’s To Honour the Fire Keepers (2020), for example, is another piece that does this same work where she’s not looking at it as just about her artistic practice, but honouring those who are land protectors and who are on the frontlines trying to ensure that we still have access to basic Inuit rights to land management and stewardship and can follow our responsibilities to the animals. She’s highlighting how those land protectors are also breaking trail.
Kablusiak: It’s hard for me to talk about artworks that are about environmentalism or about the destruction of our homelands. It’s really easy for me to doom-spiral into how capitalism and colonialism are such giant monsters. I just wonder, how do we fight these things that are so big and terrifying?
Shirley Moorhouse To Honour the Firekeepers (detail) (2020) Wallhanging, mixed media Dimensions variableCOURTESY WAG-QAUMAJUQ PHOTO DAVID LIPNOWSKI © THE ARTIST
Heather: I also think that is something Bronson Jacque was doing, for example, in creating The Warm Up Shack (2020)—making a demand for a future where we are more conscious of that. He wrote about fish soup in his piece for the INUA audio guide, and how he didn’t ever want to give it up. I don’t want to think that every time I have caribou, is this the last time I am ever going to have caribou again? Is it safe to eat this char? What is our environment going to be like in the future? All of that is super concerning.
It is a David and Goliath situation. I think the way that Isuma created My Little Corner of Canada (2020) was really smart, with four different scenes that come together in the space. It shows audiences how to appreciate what having a connection to the land really means. When the Elder is pointing out what happened over in this particular place, or whose relative was born there or sharing siirnaq (mountain sorrel plant) with the children, she’s sharing her knowledge of the land. And I think that people who are not from the North wouldn’t see that land as being full of landmarks and knowledge. And then it slowly turns and now we’re cleaning sealskins and the kids are on bikes, but then we’re in town and then ending with the public hearings on the resource extraction and finally we’re just reading people’s expressions. And there is just, like you’re saying Kablusiak, that complete frustration of knowing that whatever Inuit say here about their connection to the land, they are not going to be heard. The decision has already been made.
asinnajaq: What’s really incredible is that it’s a subject, I believe, Zack [Zacharias Kunuk, OC, ONu] and the Isuma team, have been thinking about in many ways before. One way is with My Father’s Land (Ataatama Nunanga) (2014), a feature film that a lot of people didn’t pay attention to because it was really agonizing to watch, frustrating, you just want to turn the TV off. But that’s the point: when you’re in these hearings, and people aren’t listening to you; they had already made up their minds. You have the translation, the messed-up communication and it’s your life on the line and you have no power. That’s what that feeling is inside of those public hearings and in those dealings.
I think that in this installation, it was another approach to sharing that information. It is so successful. Because up to one point, on one screen, there are people talking about and saying we care about you—you’ll still be able to have a relationship with the land. And then on the other side, you see people really being in relationship with the land and what’s actually at stake and who is actually the stakeholder.
Olajuk Kigutikakjuk Fishing at the Weir (1980) Stone and whalebone 29 × 50 × 56 cmGOVERNMENT OF NUNAVUT FINE ART COLLECTION COURTESY WAG-QAUMAJUQ PHOTO LIANED MARCOLETA © THE ARTIST
Krista: For me, the opening scenes of the video installation were really powerful. When the Elder pointed to a spot outside the frame and said, “Ubluriaq was born over there,” then shortly after that you see the Mary River public hearings and it was really jarring for me. It was intentionally jarring.
Heather: Yes, I think it was extremely intentional. Think about the Isuma film that you curated for the Venice Biennale, asinnajaq. Every gesture and facial expression in One Day in the Life of Noah Piugattuk (2019) is just relaying so much. That video has so much subtext—the conversation is happening on one level but the expressions and body language are having this whole other conversation. That’s what Kunuk is so brilliant at capturing.
Kablusiak: I had a conversation with Maureen Gruben in January this year as part of RBC x INUA virtual programming with WAG-Qaumajuq, and I talked to her about how white curators will often speak about her work within an environmentalism framework. That feels like a red flag to me, because that idea implies some sort of extractive relationship to the land is normal and is something that needs to be mended and called attention to. It is very opposite to how Inuit operate; our relationship to land isn’t us being “environmentally friendly,” it’s just us simply existing.
asinnajaq: It’s about being in a web of relation.
Kablusiak: Yeah, to not see environmentalism as something that’s an afterthought.
asinnajaq: It’s a core part of being and a part of the values and action.
Kablusiak: When white curators separate that out, they lose the point. The idea of environmentalism is a white concept that is outside of Indigenous Peoples being in relation to the land. So, when you say Maureen’s work is engaged with an environmental issue, you’re actually imposing a frame on her work. That is not this. She’s working from the land because it’s a part of her and she’s a part of it.
Fanny Avatituq Untitled (Nunavut) (2020) Felt and embroidery thread 156 × 94 cmCOURTESY WAG-QAUMAJUQ PHOTO SERGE GUMENYUK © THE ARTIST
asinnajaq: I think when we’re talking about this framework that gets put onto artists, the one that I think about a lot is this queer framework. I think it’s the same thing, people are being themselves be it Inuk, or Queer (or both) and making their work. Sometimes it’s really political. Sometimes it’s not, but it’s always Inuk or Queer (or both). Because of these frameworks, a lot of amazing artists get overlooked or have to spend their time breaking open the mould. I think, put less limitations on people in their art forms.
Kablusiak: When these frameworks are put upon Inuit artists, and Indigenous folks in general, do you think it’s a way of outsiders trying to figure us out? Or trying to put us in a box to gain some sort of concrete understanding? But the nature of them being outsiders means they’ll never get a true understanding.
Heather: I think that’s very insightful. A colleague of mine who’s at the University of Winnipeg took her gender and sexuality class to INUA. And the students were talking about and writing responses to it and they were talking about how you can see Jesse Tungilik’s Sealskin Spacesuit (2019) reflected in Jenny Irene Miller’s Continuous photo series (2015–16), which is like a beautiful metaphor for the future. And how those portraits look out over the whole gallery, looking out for each other and for everyone. They also really loved that pairing of Elder Fanny Avatituq’s wallhanging Untitled (Nunavut) (2020) with the spacesuit and the photos all together.
Jesse Tungilik’s Sealskin Spacesuit (2019) reflected in portrait detail of Andrew Miller (2016) by Jenny Irene MillerPHOTO JOCELYN PIIRAINEN
asinnajaq: When we were at the gallery and saw Jenny’s series installed, another feeling that I had was the feeling that our beloved people, who may be vulnerable in any way, are always watching us and seeing our actions and aware of it. And that’s an important thing for us to remember as we live our life and choose how we behave.
Krista: Is the future of art just accepting people as being people and not imposing these frameworks anymore? Am I being too optimistic?
asinnajaq: If I’m going through a hard time, fighting against something, I don’t have as much time to dream and be imaginative and make work that can really build worlds. Instead, I’m fighting against the problem. If we want to have work that’s mind blowing, the less silly things people have to fight against, the more artists can spend time thinking and making work about really important subjects.
Kablusiak: This almost feels full circle to what you had mentioned at the beginning, Krista, about breaking trail and how that path can be stomped down so people can go ahead safely.
This conversation has been edited for clarity and condensed.
asinnajaq is the daughter of Carol Rowan and Jobie Weetaluktuk. She is from Inukjuak, Nunavik, QC, and lives in Tiohtià:ke (Montreal, QC). asinnajaq’s work includes filmmaking, writing and curating. She co-created Tilliraniit, a three-day festival celebrating Inuit art and artists. asinnajaq wrote and directed Three Thousand (2017), a short sci-fi documentary. She co-curated Isuma’s show in the Canadian pavilion at the 58th Venice Biennale. She was longlisted for the 2020 Sobey Art Award.
Dr. Heather Igloliorte is a Nunatsiavummiuk-Newfoundlander from Happy Valley-Goose Bay, NL. She is the University Research Chair in Indigenous Circumpolar Arts at Concordia University in Tiohtiá:ke (Montreal, QC), where she is the Director of the Inuit Futures in Arts Leadership project. Her research focuses on Inuit and other circumpolar Indigenous art histories, material and new media art practices and research-creation, critical museology and curatorial studies. Her recent projects include the nationally and internationally touring Among All These Tundras and SakKijâjuk: Art and Craft from Nunatsiavut.
Kablusiak is a multidisciplinary Inuvialuk artist and curator who uses Inuk ingenuity to create work in a variety of mediums including, but not limited to, lingerie, soapstone, permanent marker, bedsheets, felt and words. Kablusiak holds a BFA from AUArts in Mohkinstsis/Calgary, AB, where they are currently based. In all of their creative work Kablusiak seeks to demystify Inuit art and create the space for Inuit-led representation of the diverse aspects of Inuit cultures. They were shortlisted for the 2019 Sobey Art Award.
Krista Ulujuk Zawadski is from Kangiqliniq (Rankin Inlet), NU. She is an Inuk anthropologist, researcher, independent curator and maker. She holds a master’s degree in anthropology from the University of British Columbia, Vancouver, and is currently a PhD Candidate at Carleton University, Ottawa. Through her doctoral studies, Zawadski has embarked on beading revitalization work in her community. Zawadski’s primary interests are Indigenous academic work and anthropology, museology and collections-based research, with an emphasis on fostering accessibility to collections for Inuit.
This Interview originally appeared in the 2022 Special Issue: Opening Qaumajuq of the Inuit Art Quarterly , published in partnership with WAG-Qaumajuq.