This has been a Thanksgiving weekend like no other. I’ve spent the last few days in St. John’s, Newfoundland at the 2016 Inuit Studies conference. Indeed, this has been a conference like no other. It brought together individuals from across the Circumpolar North involved in various aspects of research with and for Inuit communities and regions, including researchers, community stakeholders, Elders, artists and politicians—it is important to note that these categories were not mutually exclusive. For example, many community members were also researchers, and many of the artists here created work that was highly political and meant to spark discussions.
Happening simultaneously alongside the conference sessions is a three-day festival called Katingavik. In Inuktitut, “katingavik” means “a place for ceremonies.” This all-Inuit arts festival showcased all forms of Inuit creative expression, emphasizing the important learning that can arise from exchanging art, culture, and knowledge. This emphasis on mutual exchanges was a goal that ran parallel to the overall goals of this entire conference weekend.
Another unique event within this already-atypical conference experience was iNuit blanche, the world’s first all-circumpolar, all-night festival of art, music, dance, performance, installation, food and film. On Saturday night, downtown St. John’s was transformed by this multi-site festival that featured around 30 exhibitions and performances by Inuit artists and collaborators from across the Circumpolar North at various museums, galleries, and cafés.
A common thread that wove through each artist’s distinct exhibition was the integration of tradition into contemporary art pieces—a thread that sought to communicate what it means for Inuit to be Inuit today.
I realized quickly that anything I wrote about my experience at iNuit blanche could never adequately describe what it felt like to bear witness to, and experience, these works of art and creative processes. I feel so privileged to have had this incredible opportunity for me to meet and interact with Inuit artists. I am also deeply humbled when I think about how even more incredible it must have been for Inuit artists from across different regions, working with highly diverse media, to be able to interact with each other. iNuit blanche highlighted the commonalities and connections between different pieces of art, as well as in the messaging the artists were trying to promote through their art.
The opening reception took place at the Christina Parker Gallery, where we saw work by Inuit artists Diana Dabinett. Her series, “On the Edge” sought to capture the resiliency of seemingly fragile plants amidst the harsh environments of Iceland, Death Valley, as well as Fogo Island and Burnt Cape in Newfoundland. I was captivated by these stunning paintings of shorelines and trees. Dabinett paints in such a way that you truly feel like you are seeing through the trees, moving through the forest toward the edge of the shore.
I then made my way over to visit three Inuit seamstresses from Pond Inlet (Sarah Akoomali, Regale Ootova, and Sheila Katsak) work their magic with sealskin at the “Mittimatalik Arnait Miqksuqtuit Collective” at a small sealskin clothing boutique. I got to this exhibit just as the women were starting to work with the tough, stiff sealskin to make it more pliable and easier to manipulate for sewing anything from hairpins to coats, to kamiks.
Following the sewing demonstration, I strolled along the harbour front towards the St. Michael’s complex area, where several different Inuit artists shared the spotlight. Upstairs at the St. Michael’s Printshop, Sandra Baikie, Echo Hence, Julie Nagam, Jason Shiwak, and Jessica Winters (all artists from Nunavut and Nunatsiavut) helped participants make their own prints at “Transfers: Inuit Printmaking.”
Downstairs, Barry Pottle and Justin Igloliorte brought their culinary and photographic talents together to share “country food” with us. Barry’s photos of wild food being prepared at various stages decorated the walls, and you could admire these photos while snacking on Justin and Nicole’s delicious wild food creations.
I met up with Oliver and Dan over some spruce tea-infused Manhattans, and together we sauntered over to visit our friend Derrick Pottle, carver extraordinaire from Rigolet, at the “Concrete Gardens: Stone Carving Collective.” At this exhibition, Derrick, alongside Koomuatuk Curley and Billy Gauthier, captivated passers-by as he captured life in stone.
Oliver, Dan, and I then walked over to the Rocket Room, a stunning space above the Rocket Cafe in the heart of downtown. Here, we perused through “Arctic Impressions,” an exhibit organized by Dr. Shelley Ball of Biosphere Environmental Education that consisted of photographs taken by students from the July 2014 Student on Ice Exhibition. Most of these photographs were taken by students under the age of 18.
At the other end of the room, Inupiat tattoo artist Marjorie Tahbone demonstrated traditional Inuit tattooing at her station “Neon Kakiniq,” using bright neon, glow-in-the-dark body paints to honour the beauty and significance of Inuit tattoos. Traditional Inuit tattooing has a controversial history and is currently experiencing a revival after being forbidden by Christian missionaries more than a century ago. Artists like Marjorie show how, in the spirit of Inuit, traditional tattooing is being adapted to fit into a changing environment, and is a strong political and cultural response to historical and ongoing oppressive forces:
Traditionally, Inuit women inked their skin to represent something of significance in their lives, from marriage to children or spiritual beliefs. The sacred practice was forbidden by Christian missionaries a century ago. Now a movement is happening in indigenous culture from Alaska to Nunavut that’s bringing back the practice of traditional tattoos.
Art is inherently political, can be contentious, and is meant to spark meaningful discussion. Art encourages us to ask questions: it teaches us that there is always more than one question that could be asked, and that each question can elicit a multitude of possible answers. Most importantly, art shows us that there is no correct, or incorrect way to answer these questions. We must understand and respect that a piece of art is that particular artist’s truth. Likewise, the way you perceive a piece of art is your truth. These multiple truths and understandings of art can be held simultaneously, as with all other aspects of life.
Art helps us to understand each other, while at the same time helping us to more thoroughly understand ourselves. Essentially, the ways in which we create and perceive art can teach us valuable lessons about the ways in which we create and perceive our relationships. Along these lines, Alain de Botton, in his book Art as Therapy, says art “brings to light our desire to communicate to others the subtleties of who we are and what we believe in a way that words might never fully capture.” It also allows us to expand the boundaries of who we are by helping us be more open to the possibilities that can arise when we invite the unknown into our lives.
How we engage with art can therefore tell us a lot about how we engage with other issues in life: how we ask questions, how receptive we are to new ideas, and how receptive we are to ideas that may offend us. If a piece of art offends us, do we blame the artist? Or do we blame ourselves?
Art essentially provides us with channels for stimulating conversations that might otherwise be difficult to have.
It was easy to get swept up in the beauty, wonder, and magic of iNuit blanche. But these exhibitions did so much more than just showcase beautiful Inuit art and the extraordinary talent of Inuit artists. The seamless integration of tradition into contemporary life showed how Inuit across the North are using art creating opportunities that encourage us to question whether or not we are content with our current political and cultural climates. Further, beyond giving participants the freedom to ask questions and think about different ways of understanding the world, the iNuit blanche artists also sent a powerful message: through their art, they demonstrated the importance of taking action and raising our voices (or our paintbrushes) when we are simply not satisfied with the way things are.
Those who tell you “Do not put too much politics in your art” are not being honest. If you look very carefully you will see that they are the same people who are quite happy with the situation as it is.
Chinua Achebe, “Conversations with James Baldwin”
Juanita Taylor, May 3, 2016. “‘This is so powerful:’ Kikikmeot women revive traditional Inuit tattoos.” CBC News North. Retrieved from: http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/north/inuit-women-traditional-tattoos-kugluktuk-1.3563446
Ashleigh Gaul, September 20, 2014. “Between the Lines.” Uphere Magazine. Retrieved from: http://uphere.ca/articles/between-lines
Maria Popova, “James Baldwin and Chinua Achebe’s Forgotten Conversation About Beauty, Morality, and the Political Power of Art.” Brain Pickings. Retrieved from: https://www.brainpickings.org/2016/09/21/james-baldwin-chinua-achebe-art/
Maria Popova, “Art as Therapy: Alain de Botton on the 7 Psychological Functions of Art.” Brain Pickings. Retrieved from: https://www.brainpickings.org/2013/10/25/art-as-therapy-alain-de-botton-john-armstrong/
For more on the history and revival of Inuit tattooing, check out Inuit filmmaker Althea Arnaquq-Baril’s 2010 documentary where she speaks to Elders about the meanings of the tattoos, how they were applied, as well as the massive and sudden changes that caused them to die out: Tunniit: Retracing the Lines of Inuit Tattoos.