Tarralik Duffy is an explorer of ideas. The multi-talented artist and writer from Salliq (Coral Harbour), NU, traverses disciplines, from the sun-bleached beluga-vertebrae jewellery that she produces under her label Ugly Fish Design to her popular Inuktitut syllabics–printed leggings, to her pop-art illustrations of everyday objects. Yet all are infused by a sly wit and Duffy’s deep connection to Inuit identity and experiences.
We spoke to Duffy, who is currently based in Saskatoon, SK, about being shortlisted for this year’s Kenojuak Ashevak Memorial Award, her desire to honour the myriad of ideas that inform her practice and her dreams of making art that (literally) pops.
Tarralik Duffy Charlie Adams (2019)
Inuit Art Quarterly: When did you get your start as an artist?
TD: I think I always wanted to be one. When I stopped looking, that’s when I stumbled on it with the bones. I didn’t think anyone would be interested in them—it was just something that I thought was beautiful. I wanted to salvage what was there, which was a way of incorporating my culture. The idea of not wasting was always there—I could take something that’s decomposing and rotting on the beach and turn it into something beautiful.
I was also spending some time with my older sister, who is an artist, and we’d sit and drink tea or coffee and just draw. The things I was drawing at the time were not very interesting or particularly good, but I just liked doing it. The hours would pass and then I’d have something at the end of it and it felt good and so encouraging.
IAQ: How have you seen your career unfolding over the last couple of years?
TD: This year has been a dream. A couple of years ago, I was really at this crossroads. A few things needed to happen in my personal life that were very difficult in order for me to do what I needed to do. What got me through was people believing in me, and people purchasing my art or my earrings.
As far as my career, I had to make a choice whether to take this seriously. I love art so much. There’s something about it that is so beautiful and enigmatic. It’s magical and you can never tie it down. For lack of a better word, I’m following the muse, or the urgency to honour those ideas. I think that’s where the power is, and as far as my career, I always want to do that.
I always want to honour the idea, whatever it is: write that article, or write the novel, or draw that picture or go clean that beluga carcass and turn it into earrings.
Tarralik Duffy Qinalugaq/Beluga Bone Dangles (2019)
IAQ: Could you talk about how you transform all these different ideas. Is your process driven by instinct?
TD: I suppose I like to follow urgencies. With the beluga bones, I started working with those after I was walking along the beach and I saw a couple of them washed up on shore. I thought they would make really beautiful earrings. It became this obsession to search for the bones. I never thought that they would become as popular as they are.
With the syllabic leggings, I just kept picturing them in my mind. If a picture comes and keeps presenting itself, I’ll do it. I don’t know how to explain the process other than there are stories that I just can’t stop thinking about, and I definitely feel like I have to complete them.
IAQ: Is time ever a consideration for you?
TD: I have this multitude of things that I’ve always wanted to accomplish and to create. But we’re also in this really image-driven society right now with social media and so you’re always being bombarded with people creating things constantly, and you feel the need to keep up with that. I’m not in competition with anybody, I just want to make the best use of my time.
Tarralik Duffy Ugly Fish Designs Syllabics Leggings and Dress (2017)
IAQ: If you need to take a time-out break in the studio, are there things you do to procrastinate?
TD: I’m hyper-focusing on whatever story that’s going on in the world that captures my interest, like the Britney Spears case. I will consume everything that is out there, whether it’s reading comments on a YouTube video or watching someone’s Instagram stories. I like to take myself out of my own world for a bit.
IAQ: When you get absorbed, let’s say it is the Britney Spears conservatorship story, could something from that experience make its way into a future piece?
TD: Definitely. I am informed by everything around me ... You learn from everything that you consume. I really want to draw Britney, but I also don’t want to exploit her any more than she’s already been exploited.
IAQ: What do you listen to in the studio when you’re creating?
TD: I listen to a lot of stand-up comedy. I like to listen to people talk and rant, and so I’ll listen to maybe Bill Burr or Norm McDonald, or sometimes different podcasts. If there’s a season of RuPaul’s Drag Race going on, I’ll consume everything about people’s reactions or reviews. I do listen to music if I’m writing sometimes, like binaural beats. But I can’t really listen to other things as I need to focus.
IAQ: Do you ever snack in the studio?
TD: No eating and boning! I’m not really a Pringles person, but one time they happened to be around and I put a Beluga bone disk in my mouth instead of the chips.
Tarralik Duffy Black Gold (n.d.)
IAQ: I am curious about some of the objects that you chose to draw. They’re very recognizable, like the China Lily soy-sauce bottle. Are you drawn to them for their aesthetic, or your personal relationship to them?
TD: If you grew up in Nunavut, there are these images that have been in front of you for your whole life, like China Lily. It’s literally everywhere you go—on the table at your grandma’s house, or at your aunt’s house, at the store. It’s very graphically beautiful, it’s got that marketing simplicity that I just love and the contrast in colours.
It’s the same with Klik and other products you wouldn’t think of as Inuk or part of our culture, but they’re things that I have grown up with and we’ve claimed them as our own. They’re visually interesting, too, because they’re very much colonial things that we have become reliant on as we’ve become communities and don’t always just live off the land anymore.
If you look at older Inuit artists like Kenojuak Ashevak, CC, RCA, with the birds, they drew what they were surrounded by, it was beautiful because these are the things we always see. Now we still see the animals and the land and the beauty of what’s around us, but we also have these new things that are very different.
Look at pop cans. They’re everywhere—that definitely informs my work. I also select items I keep thinking about, like Pepsi and pipsi. I thought was a funny play on words because pipsi is dried fish, and then there’s the big Pepsi versus Coke [battle] in Nunavut
Tarralik Duffy Inuit Pop Art (2015)
IAQ: When you found out you were shortlisted for the Kenojuak Ashevak Memorial Award what was your first reaction?
TD: What a great honour. I think it cements this feeling that you are doing what you should be doing and to keep pushing yourself. I feel like I’m incredibly blessed for lack of a better word. I was comparing myself to our ancestors, what they did with what they had. That’s part of what pushes me too: I’ve been given so many tools, and I have so much at my disposal
I want to honour Kenojuak. She’s an amazing artist. I remember one time when I was first trying to draw, I was not copying her birds—because she said one time that she hopes people never copy her—so I was just trying to do the flow and those big feathers. I was almost weeping because there’s such a presence about her and the owls. When I look at her pieces, there’s a palpable power or life force. And so just to be even named alongside her name in any way is very touching to me. What a powerful, powerful woman.
Read interviews with the other shortlisted artists
This interview was conducted by video call in August 2021. It has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Join the shortlisted artists for a conversation about their work and contemporary Inuit art on Tuesday, August 24 at 7 PM EST on Zoom.
The winner of the 2021 Kenojuak Ashevak Memorial Award will be announced on Wednesday, September 8 at 7pm EST via Zoom.
Register today to secure your seat!