• Interviews

The Politics of Subsistence and Survival

An Interview with Curators Jaimie Isaac and Jocelyn Piirainen

May 11, 2020
by Napatsi Folger

Long before museums were shut down over health concerns, Contributing Editor Napatsi Folger spoke with the Winnipeg Art Gallery’s Jaimie Isaac, Curator of Indigenous and Contemporary Art and Jocelyn Piirainen, Assistant Curator of Inuit Art about their exhibition, subsist, which opened this past November and was set to close this month. While components of the exhibition were put online during the closure, the Winnipeg Art Gallery (WAG) is now slowly reopening its doors to the public, making this an apt opportunity to hear more about the collection of works Isaac and Piirainen assembled.

Napatsi Folger: subsist explores traditional food sovereignty and survival, and the impacts of colonial interference in those systems. I love this theme of food, because it is so central to modern and traditional Inuit life. It’s actually the basis for my own Master’s thesis, so this show is really exciting for me! Can you tell me about how you came to choose it as a central theme for the exhibit? 

Jaimie Isaac: I was researching a larger exhibition called Taking Care, which was going to be centred around the state of health and wellness on an individual and collective basis. I was interested in food sovereignty, cultural resurgences in traditional food ways, and the current means of subsistence in relation to health and food security. I also wanted to identify colonial policies of forced dislocation and disconnection between Indigenous people to their land and traditional ways and reliance on commodity-based food which has caused systemic health issues like diabetes. Taking Care instead became a chapter in a forthcoming publication, and the exhibition was postponed. 

Maureen Gruben’s work was going to be debuted in that exhibition, so I put together a smaller show called subsist that specifically addressed Gruben’s work Breathing Hole (2019), and invited dialogue around subsistence and the controversy and misunderstandings of the seal hunt but also relating it more to a cross-cultural connection with Indigenous peoples’ subsistence and Article 20 of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. 

Jocelyn Piirainen: Jamie asked if I would be involved in curating and responding to some of the pieces that she initially had in mind. Jamie always wanted to have Breathing Hole premiere in Taking Care, so she invited me to respond by drawing works from our collection and the Government of Nunavut collection and seeing what could work with Maureen’s work and other pieces like Dana Claxton’s video installation piece, Buffalo Bone China.

Installation view of subsist at the Winnipeg Art Gallery (November 2019 - May 2020) curated by Jaimie Isaac and Jocelyn Piirainen Photograph Serge Gumenyuk

NF: Food is a particularly relevant subject for Indigenous Canadians because their food sources are often highly politicized. Have you done food themed work before or is this a unique project?

JP: This is my first food centred exhibit. In creating and going through some of the different dialogues and doing the research, I’ve learned a lot about how long this issue has been ongoing.

JI: Yes, I’ve done some research and have worked with The Ephemerals arts collective on ideas of food security in the context of community, Indigenous feminism and motherhood.


Installation shot of subsist 
Photograph Serge Gumenyuk

NF: Is this show exclusively Canadian, or were there works from other countries? Where are the works from geographically?

JI: The artists and artwork represents all four Canadian regions: the north, east coast Canada to west coast Canada and the prairies. It’s quite diverse and interdisciplinary in terms of photography, drawing, sculpture, installation. 

NF: Beyond the diversity of mediums and geography, what is the mix between new pieces and older work? 

JI: It’s in one gallery—Gallery 6, and there are three loans: from artist KC Adams, The Gifts (2011); Maureen Gruben’s Breathing Hole; and Mark Igloliorte’s Seal Skin Pillow (2019), and a vinyl reproduction of a painting of a meme—Kayak is Inuktitut for Seal Hunting Boat (2019). Then there are many works from the WAG and Government of Nunavut collections, like Andrew Qappik’s Protest (1986), as well as twelve works which are unattributed. Jocelyn found some real gems from the collection. It’s really interesting to see the work in dialogue together and to unpack the idea of subsistence in those terms.

Mark Igloliorte, Inuit, Nunatsiavut Territory of Labrador. Seal Skin Neck Pillow, 2019. Collection of the artist.

Mark Igloliorte
Seal Skin Neck Pillow (2019)
Collection of the artist

NF: Can you tell me about the selection process of those works? Given that you had access to both the WAG’s collection and the collection of the Government of Nunavut, with two of the biggest collections of Inuit art in the world both housed at the WAG, how did you approach finding pieces? Was there anything surprising along the way? 

JP: The selection part is always fun for me, because I get the chance to go through our collection to see what we have available. Playing around with what works and what doesn’t fit was an exciting part of this project. There were quite a few pieces to choose from in our vault. I wanted to make sure we were opening it up beyond seal skin works to some of the caribou pieces like parkas and an amauti from the Government of Nunavut collection. There are sets of womens and childrens clothing items made out of caribou. They speak to the same idea that Inuit have always used every part of the animal in their daily lives. Nothing goes to waste. To me that idea was important when discussing issues people have around the seal hunt.

JI: It was interesting to think about how one work can say so much on its own then when in conversation with other work and objects, it provides a visual dialogue. Gruben’s Breathing Hole was a keystone work that centered and provided direction on the exhibition’s larger discussions on subsistence, material and tradition and helped inform selections from the collection. There is this amazing drawing by Omalluq Oshusiaq called Store Items I Remember from the 1950s (2014), we placed that image of commodity based foods alongside KC Adams’ digital photography, three black and white triptychs of body parts affected by diabetes and images of flour, sugar and lard that she calls The Gifts, referring to the starvation policy and government controlled rations during John A. MacDonald’s reign, which legislated Indigenous people’s ability to acquire food through traditional cultural practices. This discussion of work is also connected to Dana Claxton’s Buffalo Bone China (1997) which addresses these federal starvation policies and the traditional reliance on buffalo for subsistence. 

As a curator, I think it’s interesting how different works come together to tell a robust story when there are different elements contributing to providing layered contexts and bolstering each other or standing in tension, bringing together a larger dialogue from varying timelines and generations. Debasement and disruption of Indigenous traditional knowledge is ongoing, the seal hunt is an example of current colonial oppression. What’s more is the ongoing silencing of Indigenous knowledge systems and then, ironically, appropriating those systems without redress or acknowledgement, for example the kayak—as Mark Igloliorte brings into discussion with his meme painting. Igloliorte reminds the audience of the historical origins of the kayak as an Inuk invention and in Inuktitut, a word for a seal hunting boat—not only a tourist or sport vessel as it is thought of now.

JP: I do think that it opens up people’s perspectives and helps them to think differently. For audiences coming in to see subsist, I think it’s been eye opening to them, that they are learning about all of these issues and hearing a different side of things—the Inuit side of things. I hope that the public does do more research to educate themselves on these issues. I’d like it to change some people’s perspectives.


Installation shot of subsist 
Photograph Serge Gumenyuk

NF: Was it daunting to think about making those kinds of connections between these historical works and the contemporary pieces? 

JI: Drawing connections between the works and threads of knowledge, weaving together poignant narratives that artists have created through their work is really enjoyable as a curator and researcher. Particularly working with Mark Igloliorte and asking him if it would be okay if we turned one of his meme paintings into a blown up vinyl reproduction. He said he was fine with the transformation of his original work because a ‘meme’ is meant to be shared widely. He said the facial expressions of the hunter figures in the kayak were inspired by Luke Anguhadluq’s kayak prints. It was really cool when Jocelyn found a bunch of Anguhadluq’s prints, and we found the one that inspired Igloliorte’s painting. Jocelyn also found these beautiful sealskin-constructed kayaks, so we put three in the show to be in relation to both Igloliorte and Anguhadluq. Drawing these connections and responding to visual impulses as you’re looking through the collection, sometimes by selecting aesthetic qualities or by surprising relations rather than knowing exactly what you’re looking for. I think that’s an exciting thing about the process and access to museum collections.

JP: It was fun to look through the collection in search of pieces for the show. I found eight Inuit dolls in traditional clothing, with these wonderful stone-carved faces. They only stand about a foot high but they represent incredible craftsmanship. I believe the dolls were made in the 1980s. They’re from an artist from Kanngiqtugaapik (Clyde River), NU, and they’re a part of the Government of Nunavut collection, here on long term loan. The Government of Nunavut has quite a surprising collection which hasn’t been extensively exhibited so it is wonderful to be able to take advantage of that, to have that opportunity to exhibit their art pieces from artists like Napachee Kadlak, Qaunaq Mikkigak and Kanaginak Pootoogook, RCA. 


Maureen Gruben
Breathing Hole (detail) (2019)

Jaimie, you’ve been curating at the WAG since 2015, and Jocelyn, you became the inaugural Assistant Curator of Inuit Art last year. Have the two of you curated collaboratively before?

JP: Jamie and I opened up another exhibition earlier this year at the WAG that deals with the intersections of Inuktitut and Cree syllabics. It was really great to work with Jamie on both shows, but especially subsist, and to include all the wonderful Inuit artists and also a number of artworks that included a lot of beautiful sealskin as well. 

JI: We were both interested in addressing and implementing the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples in the other show we curated together, entitled ᐃ—which is a symbol in both Inuktitut and Anishininiwak syllabics translated as ‘I’ to embody self-determination and solidarity in collective reclamation. We wished to speak about self-determination and to acknowledge the official year of Indigenous languages. We like working together and having these conversations while developing/creating the shows.


Installation shot of subsist 
Photograph Serge Gumenyuk

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