• Feature

The Tides That Bind

Art and Activism from Rigolet to Venice

Apr 22, 2020
by Jason Sikoak

For the first time ever, Inuit artists took center stage in the Canada Pavilion. However, this high profile global art event, with its massive influx of cultural tourism, often comes with a high and problematic price—its significant impact on the city itself and its surrounding environment. Artist Jason Sikoak explores Isuma’s low-carbon, digital answer, drawing parallels between environmental activism at the Venice Biennale and in his hometown of Rigolet, Nunatsiavut, NL.

 As I sat and watched Isuma’s film One Day in The Life of Noah Piugattuk (2019) during the preview week of the 58th Venice Biennale, I could not help but be impressed by the minimal carbon footprint that the exhibition left. Not only were no physical artworks carted to Venice, many of the artists involved in the media art collective were not in attendance, including Isuma co-founder Zacharias Kunuk, OC [1]. In addition, Silakut: Live From The Floe Edge, a real-time webcast from northern Qikiqtaaluk (Baffin Island) hosted by Kunuk, not only shifts perspectives on Inuit art from Biennale to Inuit Nunangat, reinforcing the North as the central location of the collective’s focus, but further employs contemporary media to relay the impacts of mining development and climate change across the Inuit home-lands to audiences in Venice and beyond. This commitment to lessening the environmental impact of the show by refraining from transporting numerous physical objects and individuals prompted my asking: why isn’t the rest of the world following the Inuit example? Why is the world not listening to the voices of Inuit, when it is our homelands that are most affected by climate change?

 Isuma’s subtle statement in lessening the carbon footprint of their exhibition is not the first case I have seen, nor will it be the last, of our people guarding the lands and waters that we have used in a sustainable manner since time immemorial. Well over ten years ago, the local landfill of my community of Rigolet, Nunatsiavut, NL, was becoming a blemish on the landscape. The Inuit Community Government, at the behest of the residents, passed a motion to ban the use of plastic bags. Prior to the ban, as one would come into the community from “up the bay,” all that could be seen were white shredded plastic bags blowing in the trees, particularly if arriving on a snowmobile. It resembled a dystopian version of prayer flags; as if put there by the Earth itself, begging for change. What followed was an extensive cleanup of the area surrounding the landfill, along with a guarantee from the local Northern store to no longer bring in single-use plastic bags.


Billy Gauthier
Northern Frigidaire Diet (2012) Serpentine, antler, muskox horn and slate 8.8 x 10.1 x 8.8 cm

 The people of Rigolet, however, did not stop there. In October 2016 residents of the community, along with other Indigenous groups and allies, protested the development of the Nalcor Muskrat Falls Hydroelectric Project in Labrador on the Churchill River over fears of flooding and increased methylmercury levels in the ecosystem. From this protest, seeing that there was little to no adequate response from the government of Newfoundland and Labrador nor Nalcor, the company in charge of the project, a group of almost 50 men and women stormed the gates and occupied one of the onsite worker’s camps. Although they knew that the hydro- electric proposal, or “The Monster” as it was dubbed by some, was a project that could not be stopped at this stage in its development, the community remained grounded in their right to safe water. As one clear and collective voice, the Innu, Inuit and members of NunatuKavut came together to remind the provincial government that they had both an ethical and legal obligation to uphold their promise to clear soil, vegetation and trees from the proposed flood area to reduce the amount of methylmercury that would leach into the ecosystem as a dangerous by-product of industrial activity.

 “Methylmercury bio-accumulates in the smallest organisms of the food web like bacteria, to herbivorous fish, to fish-eating fish, to mammals and humans,” explains Makkovik, Nunatsiavut, NL, resident, biologist and artist Jessica Winters. “At each step of the food chain, methylmercury concentration increases; organisms at the top of the food chain can have a methylmercury concentration 1 million times higher than that of the aquatic environment within which it lives,” [2]. This means methylmercury levels in fish, seal, birds and bird eggs will feasibly increase tenfold, resulting in a two-fold increase in humans, most notably affecting expectant mothers in Rigolet.

Though the protesters who staged a hunger strike, including artist Billy Gauthier, writer and activist Delilah Saunders and Jerry Kohlmeister, were promised action from the three Indigenous governing bodies in the region—the Nunatsiavut Government, Innu Nation and NunatuKavut—along with the Government of Newfoundland and Labrador in response to community protest, no action has been taken to clear the vegetation in the flood area behind the dam.


Heather Campbell
Methylmercury (2017) Ink on mineral paper 71.1 x 48.3 cm

How does this relate to Venice and the Biennale? For an event that will see an average of half a million visitors during the course of its six-month showing, I am saddened by the amount of pollution that will come of it—contaminants from airlines, cruise ships and more. While in the city, I could not help but think about home, our lands and what so-called progress will do to the once pristine waters of Nunatsiavut. Around almost every corner in the historic city brought us to a canal and, frustratingly often, to some floating refuse. This non-biodegradable trash, as unsightly as it is, will eventually build up and damage delicate ecosystems.

 Although Rigolet and Venice are a world apart, by examining the ocean's currents it becomes apparent that we are more closely connected than we might think. The Labrador current, for example, runs north to south along the province’s coast and brings the looming icebergs from Greenland to the bays of the island of Newfoundland. In turn, it pushes the Gulf current that runs south to north along the eastern seaboard of the United States, bringing north the warm tropical waters of the Gulf of Mexico, westward, across the Atlantic, shaping weather patterns in areas such as Great Britain and the coastlines of continental Europe. Conscious of these global implications, the dedication of our people in our attempt to preserve our way of life and homelands does not end at the individual or even the collective level, such as with Isuma. On Friday, June 7, 2019, in the town of Inuvik, Inuvialuit Settlement Region, NT, Inuit Tapariit Kanatami (ITK) launched the National Inuit Climate Change Strategy (NICCS), which proposes coordinated actions intended to shape climate policy rooted in Inuit values for the benefit of Inuit Nunangat and beyond.


Tom McLeod
Untitled (2019) Digital Photograph
Courtesy the Artist

 Though unseen currents connect us, both Inuit and Venetians are also linked by our dependency on the health of our water systems for our food, well-being, transportation and more. As sea levels continue to rise due to a warming climate, both the far reaches of the North and the seemingly floating city of Venice face new challenges threatening their ways of life. Despite the contribution of large-scale international exhibitions like the Biennale to the ongoing climate crisis, Isuma has offered a low-carbon alternative rooted in the stewardship of their lands and waters while poignantly addressing these critical issues implicating us all on the world stage. Isuma, meaning “to think” in Inuktitut, is asking the world to do just that; to think about the lands on which we live and to place the lives of those who will follow above the pursuit of profit.



1 Though Isuma co-founders Zacharias Kunuk and Norman Cohn were not in atten-dance, Lucy Tulugarjuk and Jonathan Frantz represented the collective in Venice.

2 For additional information, see Nunatsiavut Government, Lake Melville: Avativut, Kanuittailinnivut Scientific Report (Nain: Environment Division, Department of Lands and Natural Resources, Nunatsiavut Government, 2016).

This piece was originally published in the 2019 Special Issue of the
Inuit Art Quarterly on the Venice Biennale.

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