Sobey Art Award 2023: Kablusiak
Kablusiak’s multimedia art practice reconsiders colonial stereotypes of Inuit as constructed by 19th-century traders, ethnographers, missionaries and government officials and by mid-20th-century arts administrators, curators and dealers. Well known in Canadian contemporary artworld circles for their exquisitely crafted and perfectly hilarious soapstone carvings of moon cups (2017), butt plugs (2018) and condoms (2019), Kablusiak creates work that makes us laugh – at ourselves and at our earnest reverence of false, colonially constructed ideas. Their art gently subverts and disarms essentialized notions of Inuit culture, revealing to us how racialized stereotypes are quietly habituated and perpetuated. At the same time, their work conveys the banal, albeit traumatic, reality of contemporary Inuit lived experiences, engaging with topics such as Inuit displacement and diasporic experience, mental health, gender identity and sexuality.
While Kablusiak’s soapstone carvings are disarming and memorable, their more recent work is much more complex, self-reflexive and often darkly funny, carefully negotiating various art-world systems, practices and conventions to expose their “whiteness” or Eurocentric biases. As such, the artist’s work could be considered as a form of institutional critique that extends from a mode of practice that emerged in the 1960s to expose the inequities of art-world systems. Appropriately, given the recent “calls to action” of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and given the movement by many, if not all, Canadian cultural institutions to decolonize, Kablusiak’s work provides a very necessary and important perspective. Admittedly, this is a difficult and risky undertaking for any racialized artist. Kablusiak treads carefully – that is, artfully – fully cognizant of this challenging terrain.
The exhibition ublaak tikiyuak (Artspeak, Vancouver, 2020) consisted of an installation that drew its inspiration from a digital drawing by the artist titled ublaak tikiyuak [Hidden Pictures] (2020). The drawing imitates a children’s puzzlebook game, in which the viewer is invited to find certain objects hidden in a commonplace setting. It depicts a domestic scene that conveys how Inuit culture and identity are embedded in the contemporary everyday. For ublaak tikiyuak, Kablusiak took objects referred to in Hidden Pictures – a (soapstone) Listerine bottle, (vinyl wall drawing) beer cans, an (acrylic) ghost – and inserted them into the exhibition space, inviting the viewer to discern them. The show evoked ideas of domesticity and displacement, a kind of unhomeliness, “simultaneously revealing a suburban malaise and a longing for home,” as noted by Denesuline writer Kaitlyn Purcell. The everydayness of the drawing and installation challenged the settler-constructed exoticism of Inuit life.
Another recent installation, mitaaqtuaqtunga [no translation provided] (The Bows, Calgary, 2022), consists of a video, a vinyl wall drawing of the Northern Lights in an Arctic landscape, and a stack of giveaway risograph prints depicting the same landscape. As with many conceptual works, the title is also very much a part of the work. It translates as, “I’m just joking,” in the Sallirmiut dialect of Inuvialuktun, but is intentionally not translated. In the video, the artist’s mother appears to narrate a story purportedly passed down through the generations – a teaching about Inuit connections to the land, the northern lights and the consequences of greed. This story is conveyed by way of the English subtitles. The twist or punchline to this work, however, is that if you understood Sallirmiut you would understand that the artist’s mother is in reality talking about something else – everyday life, family, work and childhood memories of living on the land. She is not narrating a story of the Northern Lights. This would only be evident to an Inuk viewer. Accordingly, with this work, Kablusiak is undertaking a critique of the white gaze and the attendant misrepresentation of Inuit culture.
The disquieting installation Suviittuq! ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ • Can’t be helped/Too bad! ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ (YYZ Artists’ Outlet, Toronto, 2021) is more direct. The work consists of an arrangement of found objects: a dark-skinned doll with the obligatory cropped haircut of residential schools and wearing a tiny atikluk (parka cover) sewn by the artist. The doll is seated on a wooden chair in front of a table set with a plate and cup from Grollier Hall, a notorious residential school located in Inuvik (which many of Kablusiak’s family members attended). Positioned across from this disturbing diorama is a large, green-screen image of the cemetery in Tuktoyaktuk, displayed as a backdrop for visitors’ selfie photographs. It is a poignant and powerful statement to settler insensitivity and ignorance.
The work confronts viewers with the spectacle of Indigenous trauma following the 2021 discovery of unmarked graves on the grounds of former residential schools, firstly in Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation, and soon after at numerous sites across Canada. Indigenous communities have long raised concerns about unmarked and therefore unacknowledged gravesites at residential schools and have felt ignored by settler governments and administrators who have dismissed or denied their concerns. Now, with tangible evidence at hand, the media and political response to these so-called discoveries appears as “trauma-porn” – the sensationalization of Indigenous pain as necessary to convince settler populations of colonial harms. The title of the work alludes to the ongoing gaslighting and dismissal of Indigenous suffering. As Alysa Procida notes in her nomination letter for Kablusiak, “this devastating work forced audiences to viscerally confront their relationship to the ongoing realities of colonialism in Canada … interrogating colonial narratives while asserting Indigenous sovereignty and presence.” Suviittuq! ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ • Can’t be helped/Too bad! ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ is a harrowing work using humour to convey anger and pain.
Kablusiak’s work is remarkable for its courage, levity and disarming honesty. At a point in time when the concept of decolonization is often at odds with forms of neo-colonialism, and when racialized artists are increasingly challenging cultural institutions, Kablusiak’s art is a quest for agency and authenticity, providing an important perspective and insight into contemporary, lived, urban Inuit life.
The 2023 Sobey Art Award Exhibition is on view at the National Gallery of Canada from October 13, 2023 until March 3, 2024, with the winner being announced in November 2023. The Sobey Art Award is funded by the Sobey Art Foundation (SAF) and organized and presented by the National Gallery of Canada (NGC). 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.