Contact, Resistance and Exchange: SakKijâjuk and the Art of Labrador Inuit
Although the world has become familiar with Inuit art from Nunavut, the art of Labrador Inuit has often been given short shrift. This lack of mainstream awareness and acceptance is a shame, given the vibrancy, humour and technical skill apparent in the new book, SakKijâjuk: The Art and Craft of Nunatsiavut by Heather Igloliorte.
Far from being a watered-down version of Inuit art, the art of Nunatsiavut is an entity unto itself, and the product of a culture that has some 400 years of contact with the outside world, from Basque whalers to Moravian missionaries. Its people have also had ready access to “non-Inuit” materials such as wood and beads, which have naturally found their way into the arts of the region.
Unfortunately, as Igloliorte — herself from Nunatsiavut — writes in her introduction, “Instead of viewing our centuries-old history of contact, resistance and exchange as a fascinating subject worthy of study, most Inuit art historians of the twentieth century have dismissed Labrador Inuit as too acculturated.”
One of the book’s most fascinating expressions of Nunatsiavut’s cross-cultural exchange is Jennie Williams’ photographic series, Naluljuk Night (2010– ). On January 6 (“Old Christmas Day”), in the eerie darkness of a northern winter, terrifying figures take to the streets, wearing raggedy skins and frightening masks. Emerging from the sea with sticks and chains, they chase children through the town. The only way to mollify them is by singing a song — the most common of which is an Inuktitut rendition of an old Moravian hymn.
Despite their unique culture, for many years, Nunatsiavut artists struggled to acquire the infrastructure, materials, training and promotional clout available to Inuit in other parts of the country. So dismissed was their work that, as Igloliorte points out, “Inuit artists and craftspeople in Labrador were not allowed to use the ‘igloo tag’ to authenticate their works as ‘real’ Inuit art until 1990.”
The word sakKijâjuk means “to make visible” in the Labrador Inuktitut dialect, and this new book does precisely that. Published to accompany a recent exhibition of the same name, this catalogue showcases traditional skills such as sewing and basketry, as well as unique takes on artisanal crafts from the South, and bold departures in painting, drawing, sculpture, printmaking, photography and video.
SakKijâjuk is divided into four sections: InutuKait/Elders, AkKusiuttet/Trailblazers, Ikualattisijet/Fire Keepers, and Kingullet Kinguvâtsait/The Next Generation, each with an accompanying short essay.
Inutukait/Elders is introduced by Inuk throat singer and cultural educator Jenna Joyce Broomfield, and opens with a wonderful series of slides by James Andersen (1919–2011). There are also stunning examples of traditional sealskin boots, basketry and embroidery, as well as drawings, paintings and carvings. Although many of the works in this section appear conventional, look more closely and you see the underlying insouciance that often characterizes the work of Nunatsiavut artists and artisans.
The next section, AkKusiuttet/Trailblazers, is introduced by Aimee Chaulk, editor of Them Days magazine. The art presented here suggests a growing self-confidence among the artists, as evidenced in a certain cheekiness. Dinah Andersen’s linocut And They Call Themselves Leaders (1997) features a female caribou leading two males. Michael Massie’s Boa–Tea (1996) is an elegant but highly unconventional sterling silver teapot. And Maria Merkuratsuk’s My Father’s Pattern (2015) features a pair of fur mittens made from a traditional pattern, but in dazzling fire-engine red.
In Ikualattisijet/Fire Keepers, introduced by Christine Lalonde, Curator of Indigenous Art at the National Gallery of Canada, the issue of authenticity is addressed. The works here are fascinating in their use of traditional techniques, materials and themes, but in a way that makes them both unconventional and unexpected.
Billy Gauthier’s sculpture, Song from the Spirit World (n.d.), for example, is made of bone, antler and stone, but the central figure is attenuated like a Giacometti sculpture. Barry Pottle serves up a garish and all-too-real animal head on a plate in his photograph, The Last Supper (2014). And Heather Campbell’s delicate painting 7th Generation Inuit Community (2015) imagines a world after global warming, resulting in a summery Nunatsiavut village with wind turbines and a geodesic dome.
The final section, Kingullet Kinguvâtsait/The Next Generation is introduced by Inuk artist Barry Pottle. In many ways, the works in this section suggest a people comfortable in its identity, traditional or otherwise. There are numerous emblems of the North: a woman’s parka, moccasins, sled dogs, carvings of dancing bears, an inukshuk. But each of these works is slyly subversive, embracing tradition while also kicking over the traces.
Instead of the conventional single dancing bear, for example, Ephraim Jararuse’s Dancing Bears (2012) are engaged in a stylized tango. Opting to use Western weaving techniques instead of sealskin, Chantelle Andersen has created a woven amauti with a weave structure that could only be designed by computer. And Davidee Ningeok’s Residential School Nightmare (2015) uses traditional serpentinite and bone to depict a disturbing infliction of corporal punishment.
Although SakKijâjuk is partially a cultural study, it falls squarely into the category of attractive art book. The vellum dustjacket features Chesley Flowers’ enchanting The George River Herd (1995–1996), and each of the forty-seven artists has been introduced with a thoughtful text. The images are generally presented full-page or on two-page spreads, with enough white space around them to let them breathe. There is also a map at the back to help orient those of us who vaguely know where Nunatsiavut is, but can’t quite picture it.
“Artistic practices have always been present in our communities,” Jenna Joyce Broomfield writes in her essay, “but it is only recently that these practices have been recognized as art.” SakKijâjuk is thus a welcome showcase, making visible to the rest of us what has been there all along.
SakKijâjuk: Art and Craft from Nunatisavut was published in 2017 by Goose Lane Press, and is available from the NGC Boutique. The tour of the same name, organized by The Rooms in Newfoundland, was first presented in St. John’s, Newfoundland, and is currently touring across Canada.