It has been 73 years since James Houston, OC, first arrived in Nunavik and found Inuit art. He brought some of the first Inuit artworks to southern galleries, where they quickly gained in popularity with non-Inuit people. While this is an important moment in our history, many people who are unaware of our culture have paused our reality to that time.
It sometimes feels like our history is advancing in a parallel universe to southern Canadians. My generation, and the ones after, have always known life with electricity. Growing up, we didn’t always understand our heritage and the meaning of being Inuk. We heard hunting stories from our elders. My aunts and uncles recall the Hudson’s Bay Company and how they grew up to see their villages turning from cabins to houses with modern-day technologies. The nomadic lives of our ancestors are a mystery to people like me who are living in between the two worlds. We are at an ambiguous moment in our history where we are working hard to re-appropriate parts of our culture that have been forgotten, while having new interests and influences coming from all over the world.
Not only Inuit or Indigenous people, but other cultures in Canada have been simplified to exotic ideas without any nuances. While many aspects of our Inuit culture have been kept, such as hunting, fishing and berry picking, some knowledges are under threat of extinction. There are people working extremely hard to keep traces of this knowledge alive.
Seqininnguaq Qitura Poulsen Marloqiusaq (2020) Watercolour 42 × 30 cmCOURTESY THE ARTIST
I grew up in the city with barely any examples of Inuit or Indigenous models. Once in my art history class in college, there was a brief lesson about Indigenous art that only spoke about crafts made decades ago. I had to put myself out there to meet Indigenous and Inuit artists through various organizations to finally witness their true beauty and diversity. I have learned family stories and seen their achievements and their love stories in these creations. I have met Inuit from other regions and learned about their own histories, their languages, as well as our cultural similarities and differences. Working with artists has not only given me the opportunity to see wonderful artwork, but also made me grow as a person.
One of the artists I had the chance to meet is Seqininnguaq Poulsen. Although they are from Greenland, we share similar experiences. We both travelled, got into activism, and most importantly, we reconnected with our Indigenous identities and culture. Seqininnguaq makes watercolour portraits that are great examples of our generation’s values. They are colourful, vibrant and could provoke apoplectic feelings in some viewers because of Seqininninguaq’s comfort with exposing nudity in their art. They also portray tunniit, as seen in their work titled Marloqiusaq (2020), which was used for the cover of Uyarakq’s song “Move, I’m Indigenous.” As Inuit, we don’t know all the meanings related to the tunniit since the practice was banned, and many elders who knew about their meanings have passed away. There were few traces of them in archives, but since we don’t know everything, some Inuit are now defining their own meanings in their personal rituals of getting tunniit.
In Marloqiusaq, Seqininnguaq uses women’s and men’s tunniit to showcase gender fluidity. Their work shows resilience, acceptance and healing. I can understand Seqininnguaq’s work more than ones from my parent’s or grandparent’s generations. We are young artists trying to establish ourselves in the art industry while being Inuk and trying to find ourselves as we grow in our identity. Our interests are vast, and we went through the same phases and trends as most other youth. As we cherish our ancestors’ culture and re-appropriate the knowledge, we are also redefining what being Inuk means.
Olivia Thomassie is a young artist and activist who works at Avataq Cultural Institute as a program agent to support Nunavik artists. She makes beaded pieces and has directed three films with the Wapikoni Mobile.
This Feature was originally published in the Summer 2021 issue of the Inuit Art Quarterly.