Inuit Art and Culture in Dialogue

Tim Pitsiulak, Qalupalik Maqgoo, 2012. Coloured pencil on black wove paper,

Tim Pitsiulak, Qalupalik Maqgoo, 2012. Coloured pencil on black wove paper, 146 x 50 cm. Purchased 2014. National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa. © Dorset Fine Arts Photo: NGC

Being a writer rather than an artist, I may be biased, but I believe that at the heart of all art is the desire to tell stories. As the Mobilizing Inuit Cultural Heritage (MICH) project comes to the end of its eighth year, its support and funding has enabled many positive stories to be told. The 21st century has seen a lot of social change within a short period, and Inuit communities have not been immune to that change. In Canada a particular focus on Indigenous representation has begun in many sectors, including arts and cultural programming. The MICH project was formed out of a desire to spark relationships with Indigenous people, and make space for Inuit to take on leadership roles in the arts and communications sector. In part, it emerged from a growing sense of the importance of foundational cultural knowledge, and in response to the question as to how the world of non-Inuit peoples could fully understand Inuit culture while excluding Inuit voices from the conversation.

The MICH project was approved as a Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) partnership grant that focuses on the contribution of Inuit visual culture, art and performance to Inuit language preservation, social well-being and cultural identity.  With its partners – such as Nunavut Arctic College, Qaggiavuut and the National Gallery of Canada – MICH supported projects that would amplify Inuit voices and perspectives. These included research, creation and curatorial activities related to sculpture, gaming, storytelling, music, craftwork, prints, performance, digital works, archival work, database compilation and audiovisual knowledge preservation. Its activities and collaborations have spanned conferences, lectures, digital installations, arts and music festivals, as well as events such as the Great Northern Arts Festival in Inuvik and Arctic Art in Iceland.

Pre-dating the MICH project was Breaking the Boundaries of Inuit Art: new contexts for cultural influence (2008–11), a SSHRC grant, which in 2011 created links with Alianait!, Iqaluit’s annual summer music festival, to attract more musicians from around the world. The event has grown into a highly successful international music festival and announced its first Inuit executive director last year. When MICH was launched in 2012, its principal investigator Anna Hudson and co-investigators, curator Heather Igloliorte and NGC curator Christine Lalonde, began with small projects that were developed with Inuit artists, including Nelson Tagoona, Laakkuluk Williamson Bathory and Taqralik Partridge, who focused on projects related to the performing arts and curatorial ventures.

Chesley Flowers, The George River Herd, 1995–96. Wood and antler sculpture

Chesley Flowers, The George River Herd, 1995–96. Wood and antler. 121.92 x 121.92 cm. The Rooms Provincial Art Gallery, Memorial University Collection. Photo: Ned Pratt Photography.

Exhibition projects included SakKijâjuk, curated by Igloliorte, which highlighted the art of the Nunatsiavut region and became the first exhibition of Nunatsiavut Inuit art to tour nationally. In 2014, MICH provided funding to enable Inuit artists to travel and participate in the Great Northern Arts festival, and support for the Northern Performers Contribution through the NWT Arts Council. MICH funding also facilitated projects between up-and-coming Inuit artists and curators and more seasoned Inuit artists, such as the landmark exhibition Tunirrusiangit: Kenojuak Ashevak and Tim Pitsiulak that at the Art Gallery of Ontario in 2018. Curator, writer and filmmaker Jocelyn Piirainen collaborated with other Inuit artists, curators and scholars, such as Koomuatuk (Kuzy) Curley, Taqralik Partridge, Georgiana Uhlyarik and Laakkuluk Williamson Bathory, to curate the work of world-renowned artists Ashevak and Pitsiulak. Pitsiulak’s first major retrospective was also the first time Inuit art was displayed in the Sam and Ayala Zacks Pavilion, the AGO’s largest exhibition space. Piirainen has since joined the curatorial team at the Winnipeg Art Gallery as Assistant Curator of Inuit Art.

Seamstresses from the 2015 Mittimatalik Arnait Miqsuqtuit Collective/MICH project: Koopa Kippomee; Regilee Ootoova; Sarahme Akoomalik; Paomee Komangapik; Ruth Sangoya

Seamstresses from the 2015 Mittimatalik Arnait Miqsuqtuit Collective/MICH project (clockwise from top left): Koopa Kippomee working on a raw skin with an ulu; Regilee Ootoova handling sealskin; detail of Sarahme Akoomalik's hands sewing; Paomee Komangapik measuring and cutting a pattern; and detail of Ruth Sangoya's hands sewing. Photos: Nancy Wachowich / Mittimatalik Arnait Miqsuqtuit Collective

MICH’s early projects were exploratory, creating opportunities for non-Inuit to learn new perspectives from Inuit. They facilitated Inuit access to important historical art and relics to connect to the past in a real and visceral way. Projects included collaborations with many groups, including the Mittimatalik Arnait Miqsuqtuit Collective (MAMC) and the Aboriginal Curatorial Collective. Seeing Inuit highlighted as respected artists in art exhibitions and media is impactful across generations – from young people learning about their own identity to Elders who have lived through the active suppression of our culture.    

Year upon year, projects and partnerships grew larger and with greater access by increasing numbers of Inuit artists and collaborators. The 2016 iNuit Blanche in St. John’s, Newfoundland and Labrador, was the first all-night, Inuit multi-media and multidisciplinary arts festival in the world. It took place during the Inuit Studies Conference, hosted by Memorial University, and has become an annual event alongside the conference – with the exception of last year, due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The proposal and creation of the monumental sculpture Ahqahizu by Koomuatuk (Kuzy) Curley and Ruben Komangapik k – unveiled at York University in 2016 – was a first, major Inuit-led public art project. 

Koomuatuk (Kuzy) Curley and Ruben Komangapik, Ahqahizu, 2016 sculpture

Koomuatuk (Kuzy) Curley and Ruben Komangapik, Ahqahizu, 2016. York University, Toronto. © Koomuatuk Curley and Ruben Komangapik Photo: Cozz Zammitti / Courtesy of MICH Project

At the core of the MICH project is the idea of bringing together the worlds of northern and southern Canada. There are still major communications and digital challenges to accommodate in relation to Internet and digital media access in northern and remote communities. Many of the projects funded by MICH, however, have enabled Inuit artists and cultural workers to be involved in spearheading solutions that will bridge that gap, both between Inuit in the North and their urban counterparts, and between Inuit and non-Inuit who want to engage with art and traditional culture as it relates to Inuit and Inuvialuit.

Inuit creative expression has for many years been commodified and controlled by the whims of southern art consumers. The projects that have been supported by MICH have been chosen to switch gears and give agency to Inuit, so that artists and individuals can create relevant work that is accessible and meaningful to them as artists and to enrich the artists’ communities with deeper cultural connection.     


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