“Being in art school has allowed me to ask myself questions,” explained emerging artist Niap (Nancy Saunders), the 2017-18 winner of the IAF’s Virginia J. Watt Scholarship, when we spoke in late January. “Why do I choose certain materials or subjects? Why do I want to do this work? I ﬁnd now, the thinking process happens through or during the creating—while I’m painting or carving. I didn’t know that people ‘thought’ art in that way. Being in school has broadened my idea of art and has expanded my vocabulary.”
Now based in Montreal, where she studies studio art at Concordia University, Niap divides her time between the city and her home community of Kuujjuaq, QC—a place that continues to deeply inﬂuence her work. “When I was young in Kuujjuaq, there were no activities outside of school—no dance classes or piano lessons. The only thing that I found was easy to access was pen and paper. I would go camping and bring my pen and paper and draw the landscape. I was maybe eight or nine,” says Niap.
In the ensuing years, Niap explored various career paths, including education and arts administration, but nothing “woke [her] up in the morning or kept [her] up at night”—until she began to more fully investigate her artistic practice. What followed has surprised even Niap herself. “Four years ago, I had no idea that I could this. I didn’t even know I could be an artist, but the positive response from my community [has been] really important to me. I have been learning more about and ﬁnding this new pride in my culture, which has allowed me to create depth in my work. I think my generation of First Nations, Metis and Inuit people is reafﬁrming our culture, and I am taking a stand on who I am as an Inuk woman.”
Within the past few years, Niap’s art world has included a major institutional commission with a mural for the Canadian Museum of Nature in Ottawa, international travel to create new works and to present on her practice and an offer of commercial gallery representation, with even more projects and commissions on the horizon, including an exhibition at OBORO in Montreal with Dutch performance and visual artist Nick Steur.
Qajuuttatuqak (old cup) (2015) Watercolour and marker 27 x 20 cm
Niap will work alongside Steur, who works primarily with materials such as stone, sand, steel and water, to realize a series of suspended audio-sculptural works depicting concepts such as wind or water through stone, shadow and song. Niap, who has been working in stone for the past four years, relishes the chance to both push and respond to the material, explaining that working with stone requires an artist to have both a vision for the ﬁnal piece and the ability to allow that vision to shift and evolve. “Carving is so unforgiving,” she explains. “If you make a mistake, you have to work with your mistake. I’m always making notes about sculptures I’d like to do, and what really interests me is taking ephemeral things, like the northern lights or a series of throat songs, and [giving] them physical form.”
This impulse to embed her work with complex and layered narrative ties Niap to established and well-regarded artists such as Mattiusi Iyaituk, an artist whom Niap counts as an important inﬂuence. “There are amazing opportunities for Inuit artists,” concludes Niap before we end our call. “I feel like I’ve tapped into something great.” For those of us following Niap’s artistic development, the feeling is mutual.
This article first appeared in the Spring 2018 issue of the Inuit Art Quarterly
Saunders and other artists will be at Northern Lights 2020 in Ottawa February 5th to 8th