Over the course of a few very intense years, 2023 Kenojuak Ashevak Memorial Award longlister Gayle Uyagaqi Kabloona has grown her practice from knitting and crocheting to ceramics, prints, posters for projects at the National Arts Centre, and textile works that grace the walls of Art Gallery of Guelph.
Still astonished by recent partnerships with brand heavyweights like Canada Goose, Google Pixel and Canada Post, Kabloona continues to bring traditional Inuit stories and the visual language of her grandmother, Victoria Mamnguqsualuk (1930–2016), and great grandmother, Jessie Oonark OC, RCA, (1906–1985), to bear on ever-growing projects.
Here, IAQ Associate Editor Jessica MacDonald hears from Kabloona on five works that illustrate her narrative-driven approaches in multiple media.
Gayle Uyagaqi Kabloona Irngusiit (2021) Ceramic 15.2 x 10.2 x 10.2 cm each© the artist
These Irngusiit mugs are one of Kabloona’s early hits: hand-built clay mugs with faces inspired by Luke Angulhadluq (1895–1982). Kabloona had been making wheel-thrown vessels previously, but it was a messy process and while setting up her new studio she decided to try hand-building. “I loved it,” she says. “Hand-building took out all the things I didn’t like from the wheel.”
Introduced to Angulhadluq’s work early in her career, Kabloona quickly became fascinated with his masculine faces. “I had seen female faces, because my grandma and my great grandmother both depicted a lot of women, but I had never seen a male face represented that simply,” she says. “I became obsessed with the little tiny goatees and the noses that meld into the mustache that meld into the mouth.”
These faces have become a recurring motif in Kabloona’s work ever since she was outbid on one of Angulhadluq’s pieces at auction and decided to make something similar for herself. She has now created dozens of these mugs, and there are more to come—”a lot of people want them, so I’m actually working on some right now,” she says.
Gayle Uyagaqi Kabloona Malina (2021) Ink and paper 48.3 x 66 cm© the artist
This work was created as part of a sustained dialogue with the work of Kabloona’s grandmother, Victoria Mamnguqlsuak. While writing a story for Inuit Art Quarterly recasting the gendered violence in traditional legends from a modern, feminist perspective, Kabloona created Malina in response to her grandmother’s print Sisters, Going Up (2001), which she detailed in her article.
Applying a feminist lens to traditional stories has become a major theme throughout Kabloona’s work. “I have seen the trend in these stories of violence against women and want to bring attention to it,” she says, adding that she didn’t realize the violent nature of the narratives she was taught until she became an adult.
Malina is based on the legend of the sun and the moon, but Kabloona says the picture is a different way to think about that legend. “It’s Malina waking up early, lighting the qulliq and bringing light and warmth, and in that way she is the sun,” she says. Outside of the original article, however, this piece is rarely seen: the only prints made belong to Kabloona and Panniqtuuq (Pangnirtung), NU, performer and musician Avery Keenainak, on whose face Kabloona based Malina.
Gayle Uyagaqi Kabloona Turbot Sedna (2022) Ink, gouache and paper 66 x 48.3 cm© the artist
Turbot Sedna was created during Kabloona’s time as an artist in residence on the HMS Protector, a British naval icebreaker on its first trip to Canada, and is one of the three artworks commissioned for the trip that will be on display at the British High Commission in Ottawa. “Trying to figure out what I could do to make Inuit art for the biggest colonial power in the world was a little mind-boggling at first,” admits Kabloona, but she ultimately found inspiration from the stories of the ship’s sailors.
The sailors told her that what stuck with them most out of all the places they had been were the local legends of the ocean, so Kabloona told them the story of Sedna, which got her thinking about the violence also present in that story. “I see people depicting her like she's the powerful sea goddess, which she is, but her origin story was an unconsenting marriage to her husband and a betrayal by her father—that her father killed her,” she says.
She decided to combine Sedna with a turbot, rationalizing “if the sea creatures come from her body, then she must be in every single creature in the ocean.” Kabloona also admits “I love turbot—they’re delicious and weird looking.” The fish scales were created using a small, three-inch linocut block that she moved around to create the pattern, and then she painted with gouache to fill out the rest of the body and head.
Gayle Uyagaqi Kabloona Tiriganiaq (2022) Wool duffle and embroidery floss 116.8 x 95.8 cm© the artist
Tiriganiaq continues Kabloona’s interest in the feminist retelling of traditional legends, refocusing the story of Kiviuq’s Fox Wife—who is variously kidnapped, held hostage and chased—on her personal autonomy. “I envisioned her alone, the central character in her own story,” says Kabloona. “She can still transform into a human or fox, but she's not anybody's wife and she's not a victim of domestic violence.”
It was Kabloona’s first foray into wallhangings and larger works in general, the outcome of an artist residency at the Art Gallery of Guelph in 2022 where she worked with Taqralik Partridge and Shauna McCabe, who ultimately curated the exhibition ᑲᔪHᐃᐅᑎHᐃᒪᔭᑦᑲ | Kajuhiutihimajatka | What I’m Carrying On to spotlight this work.
The Art Gallery of Guelph has an extensive collection of Inuit art from Qamani’tuaq (Baker Lake), NU, that includes many examples of work by Kabloona’s family. The artist was able to create the piece in the same space where the exhibition was eventually set up, surrounded by examples of wallhangings created by Qamani’tuaq artists. She inspected these wallhangings as she went to gain insight on things like the type of stitches used to represent fur, or border design. “My cheap self would just cut four strips and sew them together at the corners to make the border,” Kabloona says “But looking at the wallhangings there, it was always one huge piece with a hole cut out of it. So that’s what I did… It was amazing to be in the physical presence of these artworks.”
Gayle Uyagaqi Kabloona Uvagut (2022) Wool duffle and embroidery floss 114.3 x 207 cm© the artist
An almost-seven-foot-long wallhanging commissioned by Canada Goose for their Las Vegas, Nevada, store, Uvagut is Kabloona’s second-ever wallhanging. Based on a painting that she created early in the pandemic, the many hands refer both to Kabloona’s own process of hand-making her art as well as the history of artisans and seamstresses in her family and Inuit culture as a whole. “There’s so much meaning put into things that people have hand-made for you,” she says. “It keeps you warm. It's beautiful. It's technical. It’s something nice to do. It shows love and it creates a lovely product.”
The prevalence of dots across the piece is part of Kabloona’s play with positive and negative space—carried over from her printmaking work—but also echoes the tattooing on the hands. In the Kivalliq region, dots in kakiniit and tunniit often symbolize family and other significant people.
“Just for a little bit of colour I did a blanket stitch in different colours on all the little dots,” says Kabloona. “I like that from far away it looks just like a black and white piece so it's really striking, but then when you get close there are little colourful details to look at.”
Read more about the other longlisted artists.
The Kenojuak Ashevak Memorial Award is made possible through the support of individual donors and RBC Emerging Artists.