Heather Igloliorte was overcome with joy when she first glimpsed the caribou-hide beaded purse made by her grandmother's hands, installed as part of INUA, the inaugural exhibition at Qaumajuq, Winnipeg Art Gallery's (WAG) reimagined Inuit art centre.
“I burst into tears when I first saw it,” says Igloliorte. “It's beautiful. Her name was Suzannah, but she went by Susie.”
Inuit moving forward together
Inuktitut for “it is bright, it is lit,” Qaumajuq (pronounced kow-may-yourq) is a stunning 40,000-square-foot space that lights up downtown Winnipeg and is dedicated to Indigenous art, culture and traditions.
Susie's purse came back to her granddaughter via Twitter; a tweet from a stranger who said his grandmother (Grace Arnold) had been given the purse by Igloliorte's grandmother half a century ago when they were in hospital together.
As one of four Inuit curators of INUA, Igloliorte was able to give Susie's purse—a gorgeous example of traditional beadwork—the spotlight it deserves. It's also a nod to INUA's intergenerational theme. “That's what's coming through all the work, a respect for where we're coming from and thinking about where we're going as a people and our relationship to our ancestors and descendants,” says the curator. The theme is encapsulated in the exhibit's name, INUA, which means “life force” in Inuktitut and is also an acronym for Inuit Nunangat Ungammuaktut Atautikkut (“Inuit moving forward together”).
Challenging preconceptions of Inuit art
Igloliorte, an associate professor and research chair at Concordia University, and her co-curators (Krista Ulujuk Zawadski, Asinnajaq and Kablusiak) began their preparations for INUA more than two years ago. The result is approximately 100 artworks from 91 Inuit artists from across Inuit Nunangat and other circumpolar regions, including Alaska and Greenland and the urban south. Works from emerging artists, such as Nunatsiavummiut painter Bronson Jacque and Nunavut fashion designer Martha Kyak, sit alongside those of more established artists.
While INUA contains more traditional stone carvings in the exhibition, the sheer scale and wide mix of media—everything from textiles to sound, video, and drone photography—expands how Inuit art is represented.
“The artwork highlights innovation, but innovation within a long continuity of Indigenous practices,” says Igloliorte. “Inuit have always been artists. It's not something that started in the 1950s. Inuit art has always been. And so, the artists are working out of that long tradition of being creative and resourceful and making something of what's available to them. It was important to us, as curators, to show Inuit art as art made by Inuit and not a particular kind of medium or material.”
Inuit art is also critical to tell the story of the Inuit, says Stephen Borys, WAG director and CEO in Winnipeg. “Their land, their relocations, their resettlements, residential schools, the loss of mineral, natural mineral resources, issues of sovereignty, climate change, all of those stories are told through art,” he says. “This is one way that Qaumajuq can broaden and deepen our understanding of the North. When Inuit art is accessed in this innovative way, as an exercise of reconciliation really, it goes beyond the sector that we know as arts and culture.”
Qaumajuq, the Inuit art Centre at the Winnipeg Art Gallery. Photo by Lindsay Reid
RBC's support for Qaumajuq began in 2016 with a $500,000 donation from the RBC Emerging Artists Project. In support of its commitment to reconciliation, emerging artists and education, RBC also sponsored WAGxRBC, a bi-weekly series to connect visitors with the artists and curators through virtual meet-ups, panel discussions, storytelling, art-making workshops, and more.
Ultimately, Qaumajuq is the result of a 10-year dialogue of how the gallery has presented Inuit art to date. The conversations began in earnest alongside important national events including the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (TRC) Calls to Action. The WAG's chosen journey was further guided by its new Indigenous Advisory Circle, co-chaired by Igloliorte and Métis scholar Julie Nagam, and its relationship with partners like RBC.
How Qaumajuq has changed the WAG
“On our side, it was really a shift in the decolonization of the WAG,” says Borys. “With the largest Inuit art collection in the world, 200 exhibitions, and the publishing of 60 books, you might think we are the voice, or the arbitrators or the ones leading. But in fact, the majority of what we've done prior was through a non-Indigenous lens. In other words, it's been largely presented and published through a white voice from a colonial institution on Treaty 1 Territory.”
As such, Borys invites everyone to take ownership of the WAG “especially the tens of thousands of Indigenous people who have walked by, driven by, biked by our doors and never felt comfortable, never felt welcome, never felt any sense of seeing themselves here or any ownership.”
“Working with RBC helped me to better understand that when you're building an Inuit art centre, what does that really mean for the community? Who are the stakeholders? And I guess for me, what I'd love to share is that Qaumajuq has actually changed the WAG,” he says. “It's changed how we see ourselves as a museum today, it has changed how we think about what a museum should be in a community. And I believe it's become a beacon of hope and a template for change that other museums and galleries can look at and say, 'You know what, it's possible to engage in a meaningful way with reconciliation and it's possible to change. It is possible to make a difference in the community.'”
This article was adapted from “A Chosen Journey”—an annual report that celebrates Indigenous successes and affirms RBC's commitment to the Indigenous community. Read the 2021 report here.