iNuit blanche is the world's first (and punniest) Inuit art festival of its kind

You've heard of Nuit Blanche — St. John's has iNuit blanche. As its name suggests, this outdoor, contemporary art party puts the spotlight on Inuit talent.

Like the name suggests, this outdoor art party puts the spotlight on Inuit talent

Polar Pikachu? Reimagining Nanuq: The Polar Bear Postcard Exchange is one of the interactive art projects you can take part in at iNuit blanche in St. John's this Saturday. (

Nuit Blanche? That's so last weekend.

This Saturday night, St. John's is all about another festival. Once the sun sets, some two dozen projects will spring to life downtown — spanning installation, music, dance, performance and even some arts of the culinary variety.

At one stop, you can explore surreal VR worlds inspired by Cape Dorset artist Pudlo Pudlat. At another, artist Heather Campbell will live-paint a mural with the help of anyone who feels like throwing some paint on her canvas.

It's called iNuit blanche, and as its name should suggest, it's an outdoor, nighttime art party — one that puts the spotlight on Inuit talent.

I think in St. John's, people aren't necessarily aware of the Inuit culture that we have in the province.- Heather Igloliorte, iNuit blanche co-curator

"It's the first time ever that there's been something of this scale," says Heather Igloliorte, a member of the festival's three-person curatorial team.

An avataq is an inflated sealskin, used as a float in traditional Inuit hunting practices. It's also the name of this project by Couzyn Van Heuvelen. The artist is creating an installation of silvery, seal-shaped balloons for iNuit blanche. (Courtesy of iNuit blanche)

Though based in Montreal, where she's an assistant professor of Aboriginal art history at Concordia University, Igloliorte was raised in the Nunastsiavut Territory of Labrador, and she thinks the Newfoundlanders roaming St. John's Saturday night will be in for a surprise — one beyond, say, the pings of delight they might get from spotting seal-shaped balloons bobbing in a downtown window.

"I think in St. John's, people aren't necessarily aware of the Inuit culture that we have in the province," Igloliorte tells CBC Arts.

"I think there's a lot of stereotypes and misconceptions about Inuit people. This is an opportunity for people to interact and meet artists."

It's a thoroughly unusual opportunity, too — one afforded by the 2016 Inuit Studies conference, an international symposium that's happening this week at Memorial University. Between October 7-10, it'll host more than 200 sessions, bringing together researchers and elders, artists and politicians.

But the biannual event, which is now in its 20th edition, has never been cause for a late-night art happening, says Igloliorte. This year's conference, however, boasts not just iNuit blanche, but a three-day festival called Katingavik as well (Tanya Tagaq is the closing headliner Monday night).

At the last edition of the Inuit Studies conference, which Igloliorte attended in Quebec City, science and politics were the focus — and that's where she and her arts-and-culture colleagues first got to brainstorming.

A collaboration with Toronto dancer Ceinwen Gobert, Slay All Day is a video by Alaskan artist Tanya Lukin Linklater. Inspired by the film Nanook of the North and traditional moves from Inuit athletics, it'll be screened live at iNuit blanche. (Courtesy of iNuit blanche)

"We were eager to balance things out," she says with a laugh. After the opening reception, they were already laying down plans ("over wine," she notes).

"Wouldn't it be great if there was something really dynamic happening at an otherwise academic conference?" she recalls.

And come on. iNuit blanche? It's just too perfect a title.

"Inuit are very punny," she jokes.

For the programming, Igliorte and co-curators Britt Gallpen and Mark David Turner made sure to mine the talent that'd be coming to St. John's for the conference, looking for ways they could pair up artists who hail from far-flung communities.

Their focus was on creating unique mash-ups. That's why you'll find, say, artist Barry Pottle working with chef Justin Igloliorte. Their project is called Community Freezer: an exhibition of Pottle's large-scale photographs alongside a tasting menu of Labrador cuisine like smoked char.

Can you picture your precious pug or terrier as a sled dog? Mark Igloliorte will be doing pet portraits at iNuit blanche and he's built a dog sled for the occasion. (Courtesy of iNuit blanche)

"It's really about creating juxtapositions," says Igloliorte. And the collaborations on the iNuit blanche program are, for many artists, a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Most of the participants live in Labrador, but even so, a trip to St. John's is rare — never mind a trip for a contemporary-art festival.

"I anticipate, and sincerely hope, many festival attendees will be caught off guard by the variety of projects on view," says Britt Gallpen, one of iNuit blanche's curators, and the editor at Inuit Art Quarterly.

"I think there has been a persistent inclination to cast Inuit art as static and unchanging and somehow removed from the realm of contemporary artistic practice, when in fact the work I encounter daily is dynamic, challenging, political and aesthetically nuanced."

The Rooms Provincial Art Gallery is open 'til 10 p.m. for iNuit blanche. Their artist in residence is Labrador-raised photographer Jennie Williams, who documents the life and Inuit cultural traditions of Nunatsiavut. She will do a Q&A on the night of the festival. (Courtesy of iNuit blanche)

Igloliorte talks about some of the projects she can't wait to see realized on Saturday, and she buzzes about the bingo game they're launching on festival night. (They've designed a tote bag printed with a bingo card of iNuit blanche projects to game-ify the night; at every station, visitors can pick up a special artist button to "dab" the squares on their game card.)

There has been a persistent inclination to cast Inuit art as static ... when in fact the work I encounter daily is dynamic, challenging, political and aesthetically nuanced.- Britt Galpen, iNuit blanche co-curator

First on her must-see list? Iqaluit-born artist Couzyn Van Heuvelen has made tinfoil balloons of sealskin floats — Avataq — that will hang in The Leyton Gallery's window. "It's such an amazing project and it references cultural history but it's so forward-looking and satirical," says Igloliorte.

Community Freezer, one of the collaborative projects at iNuit blanche, pairs photographer Barry Pottle with chef Justin Igloliorte. (Courtesy of iNuit blanche)

Another artist — her brother Mark Igloliorte, actually — will be live-painting pet portraits in front of a komatik, or dogsled, that he built for the occasion.

"Normally it'd be huskies, but he's inviting people to bring their chihuahuas and labradoodles and whatever," she laughs. "Bring your dog down and have a conversation about the importance of sled dogs to Inuit culture while also highlighting how important dogs are to many Canadian families."

Real-life conversation, by the way, is the centrepiece of many of the projects.

"We don't often get the chance to interact with each other," Igloliorte says. "I hope [visitors] learn something about Inuit culture and they get to experiment and expand their knowledge and get excited about all the cool things that are happening right now all across the north."

A still from Lucky Upinnaqursitik, a new short film by Isabella Weetaluktuk. The piece combines traditional animation, painting, personal photographs and archival footage. (Courtesy of iNuit blanche)

iNuit blanche. Saturday, Oct. 8. Various locations, St. John's.