Sobey Art Award 2021: Laakkuluk Williamson Bathory

Laakkuluk Williamson Bathory, Nannuppugut!, 2021. Polar bear skin, wooden frame, elasticated rope and projected video.

Laakkuluk Williamson BathoryNannuppugut!, 2021. Polar bear skin, wooden frame, elasticated rope and projected video. Collection of the artist. © Laakkuluk Williamson Bathory Photo: NGC

It is dark and warm with the low flickering light of a fire behind me. The room smells like cedar and I recall a crisp autumn breeze drifting through the windows. A kettle is set to boil on a camp stove. As it begins to steam and whistle, the sounds of children laughing and of boots crunching on snow fill the space. Laakkuluk Williamson Bathory’s Timiga nunalu, sikulu (My body, the land and the ice) plays on a projection screen.

In the video performance, the land is on the edge of spring as new growth begins to take hold. A single hand slides over a lichen-covered stone and a muskox robe drags across the ground, signals of an intermingled human/ animal/otherworldly presence. The frame widens, showing the back of the artist’s nude figure reclining on the robe laid across the sea ice. The pleasure of looking at the land and her body (and her body as land) is enhanced by Celina Kalluk’s sweeping vocals and Chris Coleman’s string instrumentation. As our sight lingers, Laakkuluk turns suddenly toward the camera, revealing her face painted in uaajeerneq: black with streaks made by scraping the paint away with the finger, a red inverted triangle on her forehead, foam balls distending her cheeks. She gnashes her teeth and stares out fiercely, jolting us, the viewers, to confront our own gaze.

Laakkuluk Williamson Bathory, Timiga nunalu, sikulu (My body, the land and the ice), 2016. Video,

Laakkuluk Williamson Bathory, Timiga nunalu, sikulu (My body, the land and the ice), 2016. Video, 6 min 28 s. Commissioned for #callresponse, grunt gallery, 2016. Shot and edited by Jamie Griffiths. Music by Chris Coleman and sung by Celina Kalluk. © Laakkuluk Williamson Bathory

The video concludes to thunderous applause. What follows is an electrifying performance in which Laakkuluk – aided by Tanya Tagaq’s live vocals and mighty presence – transforms through uaajeerneq, the mask dance practised in Kalaallit Nunaat (Greenland) by Inuit since time immemorial.


Uaajeerneq is at the centre of Laakkuluk’s creative praxis. Here I think of how Leanne Betasamosake Simpson defines “theory” in her 2014 article in the journal Decolonization: Indigeneity, Education & Society: " ‘Theory’ is generated and regenerated continually through embodied practice and within each family, community and generation of people. ‘Theory’ isn’t just an intellectual pursuit – it is woven within kinetics, spiritual presence and emotion, it is contextual and relational. It is intimate and personal, with individuals themselves holding the responsibilities for finding and generating meaning within their own lives." Uaajeerneq is theory in this sense. It is also trans-customary in that it is simultaneously pre-colonial and contemporary. Laakkuluk is a second-generation uaajeerneq performer. As a youth in Saskatoon she apprenticed with Maariu Olsen and her mother Karla Jessen Williamson, two recreators of the form. Uaajeerneq had gone underground in response to its suppression by Christian missionaries who saw the practice as demonic. It re-emerged in the 1970s within the context of the Greenlandic movement for self-determination, self-governance and decolonization.

The elements of uaajeerneq, its mask and its movements, are equal parts frightening, hilarious and sexual, inducing fear, deep belly laughter and embarrassment in its intended intergenerational audience. The performance, which is highly entertaining, is also used to equip Inuit with the ability to make decisions in extreme or challenging situations. Uaajeerneq is a cultural tool for the exploration of human nature and a powerful affirmation of Kalaallit identity and sovereignty.

Silaup Putunga is described as “the Inuktut name for a split or tear in reality, which makes travel outside of normal time and space possible”. Created in collaboration with Jamie Griffiths, the work was commissioned for the exhibition Tunirrusiangit: Kenojuak Ashevak and Tim Pitsiulak and pays homage to the artists, who Laakkuluk describes as “passage openers for future generations to rely upon.” The double-sided video projection is a “living print” that connects “printmaking with the fundamental Inuit concepts nuna – the land, and sila – the life forces of the land (knowledge of the land, water, ice and environment) ” [AGO]. The work also represents a veil or portal between worlds. Laakkuluk is both herself – seen chopping ice, hunting and travelling through the landscape – and outside of herself as she performs uaajeerneq.

Laakkuluk Williamson-Bathory, Kiviuq Returns | Qaggiavuut!, 2019. Collaborative multi-media performance and visual work

Laakkuluk Williamson Bathory, Kiviuq Returns | Qaggiavuut!, 2019. Collaborative multi-media performance and visual work. Performance view at Tarragon Theatre with the artist directing. © Laakkuluk Williamson Bathory Photo: Courtesy of the artist and Chickweed Arts/Jamie Griffiths

As a co-curator of Tunirrusiangit, Laakkuluk helped to organize a communal meal of seal meat in the Art Gallery of Ontario’s Walker Court. Harvested in Kinngait, the home of Kenojuak Ashevak and Tim Pitsiulak, the seal was carved by many hands and fed to hundreds. Of this event Laakkuluk has said: “For Inuit, to share seal meat is to honour family and community. As Inuit curators, we wanted to honour Kenojuak and Timootee’s spirits and brilliance by doing what happens on kitchen floors, igloo floors, rocky shorelines and sea ice now and since time immemorial – by eating seal meat. For us, this is a symbol of unity and peace.” Taking the seal meat into their bodies, those non-Inuit in attendance were welcomed into a space profoundly transformed by Inuit custom and presence. It was a visceral – oily, bloody and happily delicious – enactment of Inuit sovereignty. A through-line of Laakkuluk’s genre-defying practice across visual art, performance, curation, and as the first Artistic Director of Qaggiavuut! (2018– 20), Nunavut’s first performing arts centre, is to enable Inuit to see themselves. She pursues this goal through collaboration with others, stating that because of the legacy of colonization, “we, as Indigenous people, don’t own our stories unless we tell them ourselves. Tell your stories [Broken Boxes podcast 2016].”

Ikumagialiit (those that need fire) is a performance art band with Laakkuluk, Cris Derksen, Jamie Griffiths and Christine Tootoo. Self-described as egalitarian, bringing “together four strong women from different disciplines, across generations,” Ikumagialiit premiered in 2019 during Àbadakone, the second presentation in the National Gallery of Canada’s recurring series of exhibitions of global Indigenous contemporary art. In the performance, the Inuit philosophy of giving people “control of their own decisions by showing them an entire spectrum of expression” underlays a narrative of confronting fear under pressure. Using the metaphor of the bowhead whale to learn “how to breathe in the depths” and “exploring Inuit practices of meditation and spiritual skill-building,” the story is told through uaajeerneq, throat singing, vocals, electric cello and hand-drawn light projections. Each performer improvises her contribution to the living, breathing whole of the work. Ikumagialiit creates space for each woman (across a spectrum of womanhood) to work from their respective artistic and cultural cores or, as Christine describes in the CBC’s In the Making: Laakkuluk Williamson Bathory, “to create something for myself, with [other] people.”

Laakkuluk Williamson-Bathory, Mask making with a fly visitor, 2017. Still from Timiga, Nunalu Sikulu (My body, the land and the ice).

Laakkuluk Williamson-Bathory, Mask making with a fly visitor, 2017. Still from Timiga, Nunalu Sikulu (My body, the land and the ice). © Laakkuluk Williamson-Bathory Photo:  Courtesy of the artist and Chickweed Arts/Jamie Griffiths

Laakkuluk describes this collaborative process as “repatriating our own practices.” “I think collaboration is one of the highest ideals that I can achieve as an artist, because it not only emphasizes the end result, but the process. It’s all about relationships,” she states [in conversation with Jonathan Ore of CBC Radio One], “I find that to be a true feminist expression, and also a true non-capitalist, equality-creating way of making art.”


The room is electrically charged by the crackling fire and by Laakkuluk and Tanya’s vocal and bodily interactions. They claim their own and one another’s sexuality, and Laakkuluk gyrates wildly between the legs of someone in the audience. Tears of laughter stream down our cheeks. A young boy seated behind me is frightened by Laakkuluk’s appearance and draws into himself, pulling his cap over his eyes. She sees this and goes straight for him, confronting him with his own emotions. To be brought through these extremes within the comfort and warmth of this longhouse and within the artists’ intimate connection to each other, is transformative, entwining land, family, community and cultural knowledge across generations in a process of self-realization for both the artists and the viewers. [Laakkuluk Williamson Bathory and Tanya Tagaq, performance, Native Education College, Vancouver, 28 October 2016]


The 2021 Sobey Art Award Exhibition, organized by the National Gallery of Canada and the Sobey Art Foundation, is on view at the National Gallery of Canada until 20 February 2022. The 2021 Sobey Art Award winner will be announced on November 6, 2021. This article first appeared in Sobey Art Award 2021, published by the National Gallery of Canada, 2021. Share this article and subscribe to our newsletters to stay up-to-date on the latest articles, Gallery exhibitions, news and events, and to learn more about art in Canada.​ 

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