An artist determined to hold on to her cultural traditions, Kenojuak Ashevak Memorial Award 2023 longlister Gloria Inugaq Putumiraqtuq has built up a body of work that she calls a visual history of Inuit land, traditions and resilience.
Taught by her mother Winnie Tatja, who served as a lifelong mentor to her, Pututmiraqtuq’s practice focuses on depicting the teachings of her mother and ancestors as a method of passing traditional knowledge to the next generation and ensuring it survives.
Here, IAQ Associate Editor Jessica MacDonald hears from Putumiraqtuq about the knowledge she has stored within five different works.
Gloria Inugaq Putumiraqtuq Composition (Ice Fishing & Caribou Hunting) (2002) Wool and felt 114 x 145 cm Courtesy Canada Council Art Bank © the artist
Composition (Ice Fishing & Caribou Hunting)
Begun while Putumiraqtuq was living in Montreal, QC, and completed after she moved to Iqaluit, NU, this composition functions like a family tree, captured in one conversation between the artist and her mother. “I was trying to put everyone in our family together,” Pututmiraqtuq says, explaining that her brother had recently moved away from home to the coast of Hudson Bay. During a recent conversation, her mother had told Putumiraqtuq about how her brother had begun to catch seals and polar bears in his new home that spring.
The line of geese depicted along the top is present as a sign of springtime, when the geese start to return North—Putumiraqtuq’s mother had mentioned specifically that the geese were coming back to nest and breed—while the rabbits are depicted because her brother “really likes rabbit.”
Beyond being inspired by her mother’s story, Pututmiraqtuq adds that Tatja’s stitchwork continues to influence how she creates. The bird feather design seen here and on many of her other works replicates the stitch Tatja used for the same purpose, although Pututmiraqtuq admits that her mother’s were much more densely embroidered. “Many of her stitches were touching each other, one by one,” she says. “I tried that, but I had no patience to stitch like that…it takes way too long.”
Gloria Inugaq Putumiraqtuq Summer Camp (2001) Felt, embroidery floss and duffle 93.98 x 138.43 cm Courtesy Feheley Fine Arts © the artist
Putumiraqtuq’s wallhangings often act as snapshots of a larger story, capturing an event or her own memories down to the minute detail. Summer Camp recalls a memory from when the artist was seven or eight years old, camping on the land with her mother, father and brother. When her father spotted a herd of caribou, he went out to hunt, and her mother followed shortly after to help, disappearing over the hill and leaving Putumiraqtuq and her younger brother (then about five) behind. “I remember that so well,” says the artist. “I told my brother to come and follow… I didn’t want to be far from them in case something happened.”
Her father walked towards the herd for more than two hours. “He kept walking and walking and walking,” says Putumiraqtuq. “Later I found out that he was getting the herd to run so my mom could catch them.” But in driving the herd back towards her mother, he was also driving them towards the children.
They came towards them “like black shadows,” says Pututmiraqtuq, who took shelter with her brother behind a huge boulder. “The herd is running beside us, it was very loud, like thundering, the ground was shaking, my brother was crying… I never forgot that.” Although no one was hurt and her parents came back with game, the incident still makes Pututmiraqtuq’s voice shake when she speaks of it.
Gloria Inugaq Putumiraqtuq Composition (Summer Camp Scene) (2001) Duffle, felt and embroidery floss 94 x 147 cm Courtesy Canada Council Art Bank © the artist
Composition (Summer Camp Scene)
In Composition (Summer Camp Scene), Putumiraqtuq shows off various summer activities, from camping to harvesting fish, caribou and seals. Rather than a literal depiction of story elements here, Putumiraqtuq has created an imagined scene of a camp preparing for a meal, with children following the parents and everyone helping out. The seals and water are drawn from stories she had heard of seals getting stuck in bodies of freshwater, rather than representing the setting of an actual camp. “I just wanted to add something with water,” she explains.
Despite the loose interpretation, small details add key meaning to the piece. “I put [the ulu under the tent] because my mother would prepare to start cooking,” says Pututmiraqtuq by way of example. “She would leave it there and when we got up to the camp she would start cutting.” While the ulu and water bucket are made out of felt, Pututmiraqtuq explains that she primarily uses embroidery thread to create thinner details like spears, tent ropes, antlers and branches. ‘I couldn’t make those using my felt,” she says.
Gloria Inugaq Putumiraqtuq Summer Camp Drying Fish (Dark Green) Felt, embroidery floss and duffle 50.8 x 68.6 cm Courtesy Feheley Fine Arts © the artist
Summer Camp Drying Fish (Dark Green)
Summer Camp Drying Fish is another portrait of a family out on the land drawn from Putumiraqtuq’s mother’s stories, but it’s a tale whose true conclusion she had to wait years to learn. Winnie Tatja had been out on the land with her sister and brother-in-law in search of food, but they were having trouble locating caribou or other food sources. They had only one dog left, and were starting to go hungry. The group split up, with Tatja going one way and her sister and brother-in-law going another—”it was the last time she saw her and her brother-in-law,” says Putumiraqtuq.
“She never talked about her or him until one day, about ten years ago, we were searching for a family tree,” she continues. Putumiraqtuq’s mother and father had stayed in the Qamani’tuaq (Baker Lake), NU, area, while her aunt and uncle were presumed dead. But they somehow made it all the way to Iqaluktuuttiaq (Cambridge Bay), NU, more than 650 kilometres away, where they settled and had a family. “And that’s how we found out we have extended family in Cambridge Bay,” says Putumiraqtuq. “It was a nice feeling to learn about them.”
Gloria Inugaq Putumiraqtuq Summer Camp and Hunting Scene (c. 2002-2010) Felt, embroidery floss and duffle 45.7 x 72.4 cm Courtesy Lando Auctions © the artist
Summer Camp and Hunting Scene
This piece was a custom commission made sometime between 2002 and 2010. Although Pututmiraqtuq doesn’t remember the date exactly, she has a strong memory of what the client asked for: something with caribou, summertime and hunting, with a special wooden dowel hanging system. “I braided some yarn for the hanger,” says Pututmiraqtuq.
When asked how she feels about creating using someone else’s specifications, Putumiraqtuq explains that every commission is different, and some people are more specific than others about what they want. “I don’t mind,” she says. “I concentrate more on how they like it. They are very happy when they see it.”
Here, Putumiraqtuq created a line of geese flapping their wings asynchronously above a harvesting scene featuring caribou and plants. “My mother collected branches during the summer,” she recalls, explaining that she based the plants off of a picture of Tatja clipping the twigs off branches, which she used to make a mattress-like layer under the iglu bed and caribou skins to prevent the skins from getting wet.
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.