• Feature

Kablusiak Subverts Inuit Art With Camp and Silliness

Mar 23, 2022
by Billy-Ray Belcourt

In a phone interview, Kablusiak, the Calgary-based multidisciplinary Inuvialuk artist and curator, tells me wryly that Garfield sitting in an iglu (inspired by Agnes Topiak’s “Sleeping Family” 1970) (2021), a Sharpie drawing on handmade paper, should compel a viewer to ask, “How is this Garfield drawing an act of resistance?” [1] They ask this not as an invitation to contort the work to satisfy a political objective, but instead to question the way notions of Indigenous art as inescapably political limit possibilities for emotional engagement.


Kablusiak Garfield sitting in an Iglu (inspired by Agnes Topiak's “Sleeping Family” 1970) (2021) Ink on handmade paper 20.3 × 25.4 cm COURTESY NORBERG HALL
What exactly is desired from Indigenous art? There’s the anthropological frame in which Indigenous art is perceived as evidence of an incompatibility with modernity. Kablusiak tells me that this view especially coloured their adolescent understandings of Inuit art. Then there’s the newer phenomenon, in the wake of the national project of reconciliation, in which expressions of Indigenous suffering are made public and seen as necessary to establishing Indigenous Peoples as emotional subjects and to shatter the barrier of historical ignorance. Both can result in a further entrenching of white subjectivity. That is, in the cruel imaginations of settlers, our status as the injured and their status as the bearers of the world solidifies. The knowledge of our pain, situated in the past and made abstract, becomes necessary to the construction of the present-day Canadian as someone who can still lay claim to the future. But there’s another dimension that Kablusiak’s work brings into view for me, which is the idea that Indigenous art needs to express some quantifiable political value or have a larger mission of consciousness raising. A risk inherent to all of the above is that colonialism becomes the axis around which our work orbits, which Kablusiak argues can entice us to think ourselves into “a relationship with colonialism [we don’t actually] have.” That we were or are traumatized becomes the basis for our claims to political and aesthetic authority in the eyes of settler audiences. Trauma tailgates us like dust. “We’re older than colonialism, we’re older than Canada,” Kablusiak says. 


Kablusiak Piliutiyara (Robin Hood) (2020) Archival digital print from faded positive slide film 61 × 91.4 cm COURTESY NORBERG HALL
Kablusiak works with the minor aesthetic categories of the politically ambivalent, the absurd and the relatable in order to subvert the normative desire that Indigenous art solidifies a connection between Indigenous trauma and political action. Cultural theorist Sianne Ngai argues that the aesthetic categories associated with the domestic or mundane are imbued with a sense of political ambivalence and therefore deemed trivial. Triviality, Ngai says, “is not itself trivial,” but instead proof of the fact that “less rarified” and “less intense” aesthetic experiences “crop up everywhere.” [2] The politically ambivalent seems an especially useful stance for countering the long-standing anthropological drive to solidify the contours of Indigenous existence, to sculpt us into static objects of total comprehension. Kablusiak’s political ambivalence is much like Ann Cvetkovich’s, scholar of feminist and queer theory, and her collaborator Karin Michalski, in that it indicates a disinterest in dominant forms of social action to bring about meaningful change. It is not a refusal of politics but instead a way of performing the political that escapes easy analytical containment and makes use of tools not conventionally understood as methods of critique. Political ambivalence lends itself to those who purposely make art that has elements of, say, the silly or sexy, rather than participate in forms of collectivity based on woundedness or marginalization. 


Kablusiak Felt Kitties (2020) Felt and embroidery floss 14.5 × 14.5 cm COURTESY DAVID DYMENT
Kablusiak’s ethos of political ambivalence is best captured in their own words: “I like to fuck around with my art.” This notion is key, I think, to appreciating the aesthetic intervention that Kablusiak’s work amounts to. One isn’t allegiant or subservient to a grand proposition or deep seriousness but open to play, surprise, humour and even sadness, which seem much more descriptive of Indigenous life as it is lived day to day. Relatability is an important artistic principle because it makes the sites of artistic engagement more accessible. It is also not about endeavouring to extract some kind of hidden meaning in a text or artwork but rather experiencing it as an embodied and affective knowledge. We see this in a range of Kablusiak’s works, including the felt pieces Looking at Facebook (2019) and Bringing in Groceries (2019), which reveal how the domestic is a realm of visual significance and where our senses of self, individual and collective cohere. The effect isn’t a politicizing of the ordinary; it is the production of a sense of communality and intersubjectivity. Together we produce a way of life.


Kablusiak Boot Lake Road (akunnirun kuupak) (2018) Archival pigment print 81.3 × 121.9 cm Atiga Agnak, 2018, 2-channel video. Installation view of the Sobey Art Award Exhibition, Art Gallery of Alberta, 2019 COURTESY ART GALLERY OF ALBERTA PHOTO CHARLES COUSINS
Kablusiak’s series of ghost portraits also express ambivalence as a social form. Ghosts are ambivalent figures par excellence; they straddle the boundary between the real and the invented, the past and the present and, because of this, question what we consider a subject of politics or what we consider important for an Indigenous knowledge project. About the series, Kablusiak says, “If your narrative is too closed it doesn’t carry meaning as strongly to a wider audience. This [series] is very specific to me as a non-binary, Inuk, queer person who grew up primarily down south feeling sad and making ghost pictures [about] it. There’s a balance [to it]; this is just a picture of a person wearing a ghost costume in downtown Calgary. You can place yourself [in it] and project onto it as you feel.” The photographs allow for a kind of sad commons, a shared geography of sadness that nonetheless retains a specific rendering of queer Inuk diaspora. Relatability and ambivalence thus do not eliminate autobiographical particularity; they permit a multitude of autobiographies such that we understand ourselves and one another with more emotional clarity. Wanting to see ourselves in art isn’t a political failure. It is a minor fortune when art caresses us and holds our ambiguous selves. Kablusiak’s untitled 2016 series of Sharpie drawings likewise is about how, in the words of Cvetkovich and Michalski, from their experimental film The Alphabet of Feeling Bad (2012), it is “possible to share the feeling of being alone or lonely as a way to make new forms of collectivity.” [3] The drawings bear phrases like “I want to scream” and “My body is too heavy” and “Nobody liked my selfie”—all phrases that reveal the emotional truth of the absurdity of living in a colonial system. 


Kablusiak Dildo (2019) Steatite 32.2 × 4.4 × 8.3 cm COURTESY NORBERG HALL
Later works such as their steatite sculptures of condoms, butt plugs and Sharpies and the above mentioned Garfield drawings more explicitly harness the power of absurdity and camp in imagining and enacting possibilities for Indigenous art outside the scope of the anthropological. Susan Sontag teaches us that camp is a love of “the unnatural, of artifice and exaggeration” [4] and has a tenuous relation to politics. (Sontag goes so far as to say it is depoliticized but I’d argue that is more accurately politically ambivalent.) Camp is an indictment of the natural, of the way it flattens aesthetic experience and forecloses pleasure and joy. Kablusiak’s version of camp veers slightly in that it takes up the absurdity of the colonial condition and our coping mechanisms for weathering it as Indigenous Peoples. “If I’m going to be sad about colonialism and make art about it,” they tell me, “I either want it to be so fucking ridiculous that it sets people off or have it open enough that people can relate to it. The installation that I did at [the Toronto art gallery] YYZ was about my family’s experience with Residential Schools and it was an installation that [was about] trauma tourism and working through trauma with absurdity. So this installation was a mixture of ‘This is fucking awful…’ and ‘I want to laugh but I don’t want people to see that I’m laughing.’” 

To laugh about trauma is continuous with the spirit of fucking around with art. It isn’t a further pathologizing of our pain; rather, I think it affirms a part of our collective self that exceeds the boundaries of the pain. Here, Kablusiak avows their interest in upending settler expectations and Indigenous aesthetics generally. The country has for the last few decades been encouraged to tour through our trauma and feel good about it—be freed by it. This is the problem in making Indigenous cultural expressions into a form of social work. As theorist Glen Coulthard put it, we are made into objects of repair, not subjects of history and politics capable of seeing ourselves beyond a grammar of despair and deficiency. Kablusiak’s art is a radical insistence that we can fuck around, that we don’t always have to be serious, that we can instead be serious about our silliness and sadness and desire for some kind of catharsis that isn’t mediated by the state. Our feelings can be private as well as public, as ambiguous as a ghost in downtown Calgary or as specific as a steatite sex toy. No singular emotional lens can account for our futurity and indomitability. We can be as indecipherable as we wish.


[1] All quotes from Kablusiak, interview with Billy-Ray Belcourt, December 2021.
[2] Sianne Ngai, “Our Aesthetic Categories,” PMLA 125, no. 4 (2010): 948–58.
[3] Karin Michalski, dir. The Alphabet of Feeling Bad, 2012.
[4] Susan Sontag, “Notes on ‘Camp,’” Partisan Review 31, no. 4 (Fall 1964): 515–30.

This Feature was originally published in the Summer 2020 issue of the Inuit Art Quarterly. 


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