Isuma, Mallik (Jacky Qrunnut) and Japati (Gouchrard Uttak) see Boss's dogteam coming, still from One Day in the Life of Noah Piugattuk, 2019. © Isuma Distribution International Photo: Levi Uttak.

A State of Thoughtfulness: Bringing Isuma to Venice

Isuma, the artist collective from Igloolik, Nunavut represents Canada at the 58th Venice Biennale opening this May. The collective chose a team of five curators to help put their best foot forward in Venice by working together on the project: Barbara Fischer (Art Museum of the University of Toronto), Candice Hopkins (Toronto Biennial), Catherine Crowston (Art Gallery of Alberta), Josée Drouin-Brisebois (National Gallery of Canada) and myself, Asinnajaq (Inukjuak, Nunavik). For over 30 years Isuma has been creating a legacy of work that aims to bring strong Inuit forward into the future. Their work aims to stimulate thought and inspire those who engage with it or, as the word “isuma” loosely translates, "to foster a state of thoughtfulness".

Cast and crew on location, filming One Day in the Life of Noah Piugattuk, 2019© Isuma Distribution International Photo: Levi Uttak.

Isuma’s communication routes take many forms, ranging from the video art they are most known for to the curriculum developed by them that brings the Inuk perspective into classrooms. Most of their work is hosted on their website One of my favourites is TimeMachine, where one can build a story through a “comic book” format with either stock images from films like Atanarjuat or with one's own photos. Each leg of the way, the mission to bring forth thought is present – for people of all ages and backgrounds.

Installation view of Isuma at the Canada Pavilion for the 58th International Art Exhibition – La Biennale di Venezia May 2019. Courtesy of the National Gallery of Canada and Isuma Distribution International. Photo: Francesco Barascutti

In Venice, Canada’s Pavilion has a unique design, challenging, but with so much to offer. Over the years some very interesting conversations between the building and the artwork have taken place. Designed by Italian architect firm BBPR, the pavilion is one of very few examples of modern Italian architecture in Venice. It happens that Canada’s Pavilion was being designed and built in the late 1950s, the same time period as portrayed in Isuma's artwork One Day in the Life of Noah Piugattuk, the work being shown inside its walls this year. This parallel is an exciting way of connecting the work to the space, collapsing my understanding of these far away existences and seeing them come together. With that view, the original intention of the building becomes an important contributor to our process. The brick walls surrounding the building that form its outer walls create a humble envelope. The courtyard windows allow sunbeams to illuminate the interior. These decisions taken by the architects aren’t simply out of necessity or aesthetics, they embody humanist values. They stem from ideas and a search for ways that our own personal interiors can be illuminated and burst forth with light. The importance of thought in Isuma’s work follows similar values. Connecting these dots, we as a curatorial team working together with Isuma, forged paths towards the goal of listening to both the artwork and the space. Tricky, when working with video, which is a time-based medium, as well as a light-based one. Balancing the light of the artwork and the pavilion to allow them both to shine is our task as curators. The result is a quiet but poignant uniting of these values kilometres and worlds apart.

Isuma, Polar bear monitor guards the camp at night, still from One Day in the Life of Noah Piugattuk. © Isuma Distribution International Photo: Levi Uttak

A key way I have experienced the passing on of knowledge is through the observation of actions. Thus the time-based nature of film and video presents an excellent medium to make this knowledge reachable. Each movement and word is pregnant with possibility – the possibility of being carried forward into the next moment. This is the humble offering of the videos to the world. Knowledge is found in watching these actions. Knowledge can also be found in a network of people sharing and communicating experiences.

Zacharias Kunuk and Norman Cohn of the Isuma artist collective on location during the filming of One Day in the Life of Noah Piugattuk, 2019. © Isuma Distribution International Photo: Levi Uttak

Using the internet as a tool, Isuma uses this technology as a vessel for Inuit knowledge and engages with the core value of being accessible. They encourage as many people as possible to have access to their video work. This includes their website which is used to pass on this information, that Inuit find important along with many other people living on our planet. This year, with a grounding in Venice, two methods of communication and storytelling are presented.

Isuma crew on location during filming of One Day in the Life of Noah Piugattuk, 2019. © Isuma Distribution International Photo: Levi Uttak

The film work, One Day in the Life of Noah Piugattuk speaks strongly from inside the walls of the Pavilion in Venice. Telling the story of a historical moment in Inuit and Canadian history, told from, and asserting, an Inuk perspective. The livecasts Silakut Live connect viewers in real time, in Venice and elsewhere, to the bountiful homelands where Piugattuk once lived and where Isuma’s work and inspiration come from. Silakut is a series of live streams that can do anything, from slow, tv-inspired landscapes to informational-sharing, “free school” inspired moments. If all goes well, knowledge holders will be invited to speak on topics important for Inuit and other humans to have access to. The information sharing is an invitation for Inuit to ignite their own thoughts on matters of extreme importance, including the process and results of natural resource extraction. This project is an extension to the Digital Indigenous Democracy platform. 

It is a pleasure to bring these creations and initiatives to the world stage as a strong contributing voice of personal experiences. Over the years, thousands of people have worked with Isuma. Putting in their efforts not for the sake of their own ego but collaborating for a common purpose. Not always easy, but done with heart.


Isuma is on view at the 58th International Art Exhibition  La Biennale di Venezia from May 11 to November 24, 2019. Follow Silakut Live From the Floe Edge on Share this article and subscribe to our newsletters to stay up-to-date on the latest articles, Gallery news, exhibitions and events, and to learn more about art in Canada.

About the Author