The National Gallery of Canada announced today that the artist collective Isuma, led by Zacharias Kunuk and Norman Cohn, will represent Canada at the 58th International Art Exhibition – La Biennale di Venezia, 2019.
Isuma, meaning “to think, or a state of thoughtfulness” in Inuktitut, is Canada’s first Inuit video-based production company. It was co-founded in 1990 by Kunuk, Cohn, Paul Apak Angilirq (1954-1998), and Pauloosie Qulitalik (1939-2012) to preserve Inuit culture and language and to present Inuit stories to Inuit and non-Inuit audiences around the world.
“Since the mid-1990s the Isuma collective has been challenging stereotypes about ways of life in the North and breaking boundaries in video art, including the first video-based work to win a major film award at the prestigious Cannes film festival,” said National Gallery of Canada Director and CEO, Marc Mayer. “Isuma’s participation in Venice also marks the first presentation of art by Inuit in the Canada Pavilion. I am convinced that the international art world will be inspired by the insights that Kunuk and Cohn's collaborative work will elicit at the next Venice Biennale.”
Isuma’s ground-breaking features, documentaries and television series have been screened at the Cannes Film Festival (2001, Caméra d’or) and Documenta 11 and 14 (2002, 2017), as well as at the Edinburgh International Film Festival (2001), the Flanders International Film Festival Ghent (2001), the Toronto International Film Festival (2006) and the Sundance Film Festival (2009), among others. Their work is represented in major art institutions including the National Gallery of Canada.
Works such as Atanarjuat The Fast Runner, Nunavut (Our Land), Maliglutit (Searchers), Hunting With My Ancestors, The Journals of Knud Rasmussen, and the first Haïda-language feature, Edge of the Knife, currently in-progress, not only feature Indigenous languages – principally Inuktitut – and producers, directors, actors and writers, they also uniquely reconstruct traditions and stories. The Igloolik Isuma archive, now in the National Gallery of Canada Library and Archives, also forms a valuable part of the work the collective has undertaken over several decades and includes thousands of hours of raw footage and interviews with Inuit elders, providing a detailed local history and rare access to Inuit culture.
“Inuit went from Stone Age to Digital Age in my lifetime,” said Zacharias Kunuk. “I was on Baffin Island, living on the land, and I saw the last of that era. Since we have an oral history, nothing is written down – everything is taught by what you see. Your father's fixing up the harpoon; you watch how he does it and you learn from it. For the medium I work in now, it was the same. Oral history and new technology match. I am trying to do this with my videos – tell the story behind how we lived. We try to make everything authentic so a hundred years from now when people see our films they’ll know how to do it.”
“Isuma’s style of community-based filmmaking merged early activist video with ancient values of collective survival,” noted Norman Cohn. “Isuma was founded as a collective: Zach and I with our late partners, Apak and Qulitalik. In our first ten years, whole families worked on our films: Zach’s family, Qulitalik’s family, Tatigat’s family, Samuelie Ammaq’s family and Akkitirq’s family, elders, and children. Over three decades, hundreds of people came together to fill our films with artfulness through handmade clothing and tools, igloos and songs, and actors re-living their ancestors’ memories in experimental storytelling through video. Collective survival depends on the art of working together for a common purpose, of putting the group before the individual. We hope to represent that view of video art in Venice in 2019.”
Isuma was selected by a national committee of experts in contemporary Canadian art comprised of: Naomi Potter, Director and Curator, Esker Foundation; Matthew Hyland, Director, Oakville Galleries; Candice Hopkins, independent curator and writer; Josée Drouin-Brisebois, Senior Curator of Contemporary Art, National Gallery of Canada; and Marc Mayer, Director and CEO of the National Gallery of Canada. The project curator, who will be selected by the artists, will be announced in 2018.
La Biennale di Venezia is among the most prestigious contemporary art events in the world, and the only international visual arts exhibition to which Canada sends official representation. Exhibitions for the Venice biennial are commissioned by the National Gallery of Canada and produced in partnership with the Canada Council for the Arts. The Canadian representation in 2019 is made possible through the generous financial support of Presenting Sponsor Royal Bank of Canada, and through the National Gallery of Canada Foundation. The 58th Biennale di Venezia will take place from May to November 2019.
In 1985, Zacharias Kunuk received a professional artist’s grant from the Canada Council for the Arts for the Inuktitut-language video From Inuk Point of View. Kunuk was the video’s director; Norman Cohn was cameraman; Paul Apak was editor; and elder Pauloosie Qulitalik told the story, and by 1990, the four partners formed Igloolik Isuma Productions Inc. to produce independent video art from an Inuit point of view. Early Isuma videos featuring actors recreating Inuit life in the 1930s and 1940s were shown to Inuit at home and in museums and galleries around the world.
Over the next ten years Isuma artists helped establish an Inuit media arts centre, NITV, and Artcirq, a youth media and circus group. In 2001, Isuma’s first feature-length drama, Atanarjuat The Fast Runner, won the Caméra d’or at the Cannes Film Festival; in 2002, both Atanarjuat and Nunavut (Our Land), a 13-part TV series, were shown at Documenta 11 in Kassel, Germany. Isuma’s second feature, The Journals of Knud Rasmussen, opened the 2006 Toronto International Film Festival, and its third feature, Before Tomorrow, written and directed by Igloolik’s Arnait Video Productions women’s collective, was screened in World Cinema Competition at the 2009 Sundance Film Festival. In 2008, Isuma launched IsumaTV, the world’s first website for Indigenous media art, now showing over 6,000 films and videos in 84 languages. In 2012, Isuma produced Digital Indigenous Democracy, an internet network to inform and consult Inuit in low-bandwidth communities facing development of the Baffinland Iron Mine and other resource projects; and in 2014, produced My Father’s Land, a non-fiction feature about what took place during this intervention. Recent projects include the feature drama, Maliglutit (Searchers), the TV series, Hunting With My Ancestors, and the first Haida-language feature film, Edge of the Knife. See www.isuma.tv/isuma, https://twitter.com/IsumaTV, https://www.facebook.com/isumaTV.
Dr. Zacharias Kunuk O.C.
Born in 1957 in a sod house on Baffin Island, Zacharias Kunuk was a carver in 1981 when he sold three sculptures in Montreal to buy a home-video camera and 27” TV to bring back to Igloolik, a settlement of 500 Inuit who had voted twice to refuse access to outside television. After working for six years for the Inuit Broadcasting Corporation as producer and station manager, Kunuk co-founded Igloolik Isuma Productions Inc. in 1990 with Paul Apak Angilirq, Pauloosie Qulitalik and Norman Cohn. In addition to Atanarjuat The Fast Runner, Kunuk has directed more than 30 videos screened in film festivals, theatres, museums and art galleries. He has honorary doctorates from Trent University and Wilfred Laurier University; is the winner of the Cannes Camera d’or, three Genie Awards, a National Arts Award, and the National Aboriginal Achievement Award, and just recently, the 2017 Technicolor Clyde Gilmour Award from the Toronto Film Critics Association. Zacharias Kunuk was named an Officer of the Order of Canada in 2015.
Born in 1946 in New York, Norman Cohn travelled to Igloolik in 1985 to meet Zacharias Kunuk and Paul Apak after seeing videos they had made while working for the Inuit Broadcasting Corporation. In 1990, assisted by a Guggenheim Fellowship, Cohn moved to Igloolik, where, with Kunuk, Apak and Pauloosie Qulitalik, he co-founded Igloolik Isuma Productions, and helped develop Isuma’s style of “re-lived” cultural drama by adapting the authenticity of video observation to the art of Inuit storytelling. Cohn’s experimental video work began in 1970 in the U.S.; he immigrated to Canada in 1976 and became a Canadian citizen in 1981. In 1983, Cohn’s exhibition of 16 videos, Norman Cohn: Portraits, opened at the Art Gallery of Ontario, the National Gallery of Canada, Vancouver Art Gallery, Musée d’art contemporain de Montreal and 49th Parallel Gallery in New York. In 1987, his experimental non-fiction feature Quartet for Deafblind was shown at Documenta 8.
Paul Apak Angilirq
Born in 1954 on the mainland near Igloolik, Apak was a hunter, dogteamer and still photographer when he began his career in 1978 as a trainee in The Inukshuk Project, Canada's first venture to train indigenous TV producers in remote communities. Apak joined Inuit Broadcasting Corporation in 1981 and in 1992 was honoured by IBC with a Special Recognition Award for his career contribution. An experienced adventurer, Apak filmed The Qidlarsuaaq Expedition driving one of three dogteams retracing a 19th century Inuit migration from Igloolik to Qanaaq, Greenland; and Through Eskimo Country, helping to build and sail a traditional walrus-hide boat from Siberia to Alaska through the Bering Strait. Apak wrote the story and Inuktitut screenplay for Atanarjuat The Fast Runner based on interviews with elders. He passed away in December 1998 before the film was completed.
Born in 1939 on Baffin Island, Qulitalik was Canada's first unilingual Inuk filmmaker, working for Inuit Broadcasting Corporation in Igloolik from 1990-1992 and receiving a landmark Canada Council grant in 1992 as Isuma's producer for Saputi (Fish Trap). Qulitalik served for many years as Chairman of Igloolik's Community Education Committee, concerned with ensuring Inuit culture was included in the school curriculum. As elder Chairman and co-founder of Isuma, Qulitalik oversaw the cultural authenticity of every Isuma production, and played lead acting roles in many, including Qaggiq, Nunaqpa, Saputi, the Nunavut (Our Land) TV series and Atanarjuat The Fast Runner. Qulitalik passed away in 2012.
Canada’s participation at the International Art Exhibitions of La Biennale di Venezia
For more than 60 years, the Canada Pavilion, situated in the Giardini in Venice, has featured the work of the most accomplished Canadian artists, curated by the country’s most renowned curators. Canada’s representation at the Venice biennial has played a part in shaping the role and place of Canadian contemporary art within international circles, helping to launch or elevate the international careers of many of the country’s most celebrated artists, including Emily Carr, David Milne, Jean Paul Riopelle, Alex Colville, Guido Molinari, Michael Snow, General Idea, Geneviève Cadieux, Janet Cardiff & George Bures Miller, Rebecca Belmore, David Altmejd, Shary Boyle, and Geoffrey Farmer.
About the National Gallery of Canada
The National Gallery of Canada is home to the most important collections of historical and contemporary Canadian art. The Gallery also maintains Canada’s premier collection of European Art from the 14th to the 21st centuries, as well as important works of American, Asian and Indigenous Art and renowned international collections of prints, drawings and photographs. In 2015, the National Gallery of Canada established the Canadian Photography Institute, a global multidisciplinary research center dedicated to the history, evolution and future of photography. Created in 1880, the National Gallery of Canada has played a key role in Canadian culture for well over a century. Among its principal missions is to increase access to excellent works of art for all Canadians. For more information, visit gallery.ca and follow us on Twitter @NatGalleryCan, Facebook, YouTube, and Instagram.
About the National Gallery of Canada Foundation
The National Gallery of Canada Foundation is dedicated to supporting the National Gallery of Canada in fulfilling its mandate. By fostering strong philanthropic partnerships, the Foundation provides the Gallery with the additional financial support required to lead Canada’s visual arts community locally, nationally and internationally. The blend of public support and private philanthropy empowers the Gallery to preserve and interpret Canada’s visual arts heritage. The Foundation welcomes present and deferred gifts for special projects and endowments. To learn more about the National Gallery of Canada Foundation, visit ngcfoundation.ca
About the Canada Council for the Arts
The Canada Council for the Arts is Canada’s national public arts funder. We champion creative freedom and innovation and invest in artistic excellence so that Canadians may enjoy and participate in a rich cultural life, and so that Canadian artists may be celebrated at home and abroad. We also conduct research, convene activities and work with Canadian and international partners to advance the sector and help embed the arts more deeply in communities across Canada and around the world. We are responsible for the Canadian Commission for UNESCO which promotes the values and programs of UNESCO to contribute to a more peaceful, equitable and sustainable future for Canadians. The Canada Council Art Bank operates art rental programs and helps further public engagement with contemporary arts.
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