How the fierce and compassionate Laakkuluk Williamson Bathory shifted my perspective on Canada
'She is both uncompromising and generous with her art: inviting audiences into new ways of listening'
This week, In the Making visits Laakkuluk Williamson Bathory, an electrifying uaajeerneq performer (Greenlandic mask dancing) at her home in Iqaluit. Stream the full episode now on CBC Gem and below, read an essay by Evalyn Parry, the artistic director of Toronto's Buddies in Bad Times Theatre on how meeting the artist impacted her life and work.
Laakkuluk Williamson-Bathory is the only artist I know who recently shot a polar bear in self-defence. Which reminds me, among all the other things I love about this woman, she is a total badass.
Laakkuluk and I met in 2012, on the land just beyond her home in Iqaluit, Nunavut. We were about to board a ship for a two-week environmental education expedition from Baffin Island to Greenland, where we were both artists-in-residence. It was on this expedition that I first got to know this remarkable artist — who I am now privileged to call a close friend and collaborator — and first saw her in action: performing uaajeerneq [Greenlandic mask dance], telling stories and advocating for Inuit language and culture.
Laakkuluk is a unique and captivating performer and one of the most intelligent, articulate, fierce and compassionate humans I know. She is both uncompromising and generous with her art: drawing connections and inviting audiences into new ways of listening, feeling and understanding. She has a wicked sense of humour and an infectious laugh.
My first encounter with Laakkuluk's uaajeerneq practice is indelibly imprinted on my memory. In her black and red makeup, bulging cheeks, hair spiked out, Laakkuluk's masked clown burst into the cafeteria where all 120 people on the expedition were gathered: a group of 80 young people from around the world and 40 resource people, a combination of environment and climate scientists, arctic adventurers and a several Inuit politicians. She made her way through the crowd, teasing, gyrating, sneering, seducing, whooping, crawling over tables and chairs, leaving a path of chaos in her wake. I watched our expedition leader grow red in the face, not sure what to do with this fearless, fearsome, scandalous clown stirring up the room. It was one of the most theatrical, sexy, transgressive, scary and hilarious things I had ever seen — and totally unlike anything I'd ever witnessed. My jaw was on the floor.
Five years after our first meeting, Laakkuluk and I created a show together: Kiinalik: These Sharp Tools. Since then, we have spent countless hours together onstage and backstage in theatres around Canada and around the world. The seeds of the show were planted on that shared ship journey through Inuit homelands, followed by hours — which stretched into years — of conversation. But really, the show came into being inside each other's homes.
When I originally pitched her the idea of making a show together, Laakkuluk agreed on the condition that the creative team come to Iqaluit to create it. So that's what we did.
Of the many gifts Laakkuluk has given me, the greatest is the gift of shifting my perspective. It began with the shift of seeing Canada from the north, looking south — an inverse of the usual Canadian perspective. Now, over our years of conversations and time spent with Laakkuluk, her family and community, I have begun to understand another worldview: another way of seeing our Canada, our shared and divergent histories, the differences, similarities, and inequities embedded in this country we share and call home.
Over the time we've known each other, Laakkuluk and I have witnessed and supported each other as we've stepped into leadership positions as artistic directors in our respective communities: me, at Buddies in Bad Times Theatre, a queer theatre company in Toronto with a 40 year history and a sizeable downtown venue; she, at Qaggiavuut!, the Inuit Performing Arts Society based in Iqaluit with a ten-year history but no venue. Nunavut is, at this time, the only territory or province in Canada without a dedicated performing arts centre.
We have spoken endlessly about the necessity and importance of space, and what it means for marginalized communities to have a space of their own. We bonded over arts practice as a vital force for cultural sovereignty, for liberation, for decolonizing sexuality. Laakkuluk is dedicated to raising the next generation of young Inuit to be fierce leaders for their community, and believes in the power of the performing arts to nurture strong and resilient communities. This is a woman for whom life is art, art is life and the personal is political. Parenting, language, family, time spent on the land, connecting to community, creating performance, creating space for performance: there's no separation. It is all intimately, necessarily connected.
It's fitting that this episode of In the Making takes viewers right into Laakkuluk's home, just as she has generously taken so many friends, artists and collaborators into her home and her space: hosting us, introducing us intimately to her life and community, gifting us with a new perspective from the place where her life, art and family are rooted.
Stream In the Making now on CBC Gem or see Laakkuluk's episode on CBC-TV tonight, Friday November 8th at 8:30 p.m. (9:30 p.m. NT).