Laakkuluk Williamson Bathory on winning the Sobey Art Award: 'This is a big deal for us as Inuit'
Thoughts on her win plus the harrowing origins of her latest piece, 'We killed a polar bear!'
Laakkuluk Williamson Bathory is still thinking about Saturday night. The Kalaaleq (Greenlandic Inuk) artist claimed the Sobey Art Award this weekend at a special gala at the National Gallery of Canada. The event, she says, doubled as something of a "pandemic reunion," as family and friends — many of whom travelled to Ottawa to be there — were with her when her name was called. "It's been remarkable," she tells CBC Arts, "all of us getting to spend so much time together being raucous." And she'll soon be returning home to Iqaluit with $100,000.
For emerging visual artists, there are few prizes in the world as valuable as the Sobey. Since its creation in 2002, an age limit excluded competitors over 40 — but that rule was discarded this year, prompting an unprecedented number of nominations, as more than 200 names were recommended for the longlist. Williamson Bathory, who was chosen by a jury of Canadian and international curators, has just turned 42. The four artists who joined her on the 2021 shortlist are Lorna Bauer (41), Rémi Belliveau (32), Gabi Dao (30) and Rajni Perera (36). These finalists received $25,000 each, and an exhibition of original works by the shortlisted artists is appearing at the National Gallery through Feb. 20.
A multidisciplinary artist, Williamson Bathory is perhaps best known for her work in uaajeernneq, a Greenlandic form of performance art. For the Sobey exhibition that's happening now at the National Gallery, Williamson Bathory has created an installation with her longtime collaborator Jamie Griffiths. The work features video of the artist dancing — footage that is projected on a screen made of bear skin. It's called Nannupugut! (We killed a polar bear!) — a title that nails the project's origin. The artist shared that story with CBC Arts while reflecting on her momentous win.
CBC Arts: So, I have to get your thoughts on this. The Sobey's done away with its age limit. Is it meaningful to you that you're technically the oldest winner in Sobey history?
Laakkuluk Williamson Bathory: Well, you know, I come from a long line of matriarchs, and this is the beginning of a new line! (laughs)
But, you know, to be serious, I really believe in breaking down genre and categories in the creation of art, and age is definitely one of those categories that's been upheld. So I'm very grateful that the Sobey is expanding their reach and understanding that artists — especially Indigenous artists — are always in a space of emerging. Everybody is always emerging out of colonial institutions over and over and over again. So, being born in 1979 and being the oldest Sobey recipient is a point of pride for me. (laughs)
On a personal level — for you, for your career — what is winning the award going to mean for you?
It means that my hard work in creating a career is paying off. I'm able to support my family, which makes me very proud. And it means that I have the freedom to continue to be creative and to continue to make this space that is so vital for our community.
When they called your name Saturday night, what was running through your head? What were you feeling?
Oh, I was just in the throes of laughter as soon as I heard my name. It was overwhelming and joyous. It means so much to my family and to my community of artists, of Inuit. This is a big deal for us as Inuit, because there are so few of us in the world. And artists, Inuit artists, we really work very hard to make room for ourselves, for our community, in a very colonized environment.
The way I describe our work is that colonization has worked extremely hard and has been so successful in diminishing our lives and reducing what is culturally available to us on all fronts. And yet we still exist. And we exist because of our relationship with the land, with the ability to hunt. And we also exist because we are artists, we create art. It's our stories and our skills and our relationship with land that allows us to continue to be Inuit today.
That's something that I imagine is very reflected in the piece that you have at the National Gallery right now.
Can you tell me about it? I'd love to hear the story of how you made that work of art.
Yeah, it was a dark night when the midnight sun had stopped shining. August. And two of our children and my husband and I were sleeping at our cabin when we heard a loud noise, of something very large outside of our window. Sure enough, it was a polar bear.
And it was this timeless moment, you know, when things slow down and moments last forever. My husband climbed down from our loft to get the rifle and the bear watched him. Then he handed the rifle up to me. The bear had stood up at this point and was 40 centimetres away from my face. The two of us looked at each other eye to eye and that moment lasted forever.
And then, there wasn't any choice. For the safety of our family and for all the cabins in our area, we had no choice: I had to shoot the bear.
So, we killed it and skinned it and butchered it and shared the meat with as many people as possible. All the meat got shared in the Inuit hunting community.
There's two different types of polar bear kills. There's the hunting one when you're actively chasing a bear. And then there's what happened to me, what happened to our family, which is shooting the bear outside of our bedroom window. And those types of kills are — they're not encouraged, basically because of the Western perception of how humans are not to have an impact on the environment.
But the big difference is that from the Inuit perspective, we are a part of the environment. And from my family's perspective, the bear came to us as a gift. She chose us. And I'm the first one in my entire family — who are all made up of hunters — to have killed a polar bear. So it was a momentous occasion for us.
When I declared it as a defence kill, the skin got taken away from me [by the local Wildlife Office]. And through an unfortunate chain of events, the skin was not cared for and was just allowed to rot. And about five months later, the [Wildlife Office] gave it back to me. And it was absolutely an oozing, stinky, awful mess of skin. My daughter and friends and I worked very hard to cut the rotten parts off and cleaned and washed and scraped and stretched the skin until it became as beautiful as possible.
When you were doing all that work, did you know you were making art — that you were making what would become the piece at the National Gallery?
At that stage, I just felt like this little bear — she was a juvenile, she was only three years old and had just left her mother — I felt like I really needed to honour her spirit for coming to choose us. I didn't realize that it would turn into this in the end, but I just wanted to honour her spirit by washing and cleaning her skin.
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But then I realized, you know — after it was all stretched and it had turned into this sort of amoebic shape with lots of holes and discolouration and rotted bits that had been taken off — it had to become an art piece. It has its own poignant beauty.
To bring it south, to bring it to the National Gallery, what is it that you want people to understand when they see it?
So what I've done is I've created a video with my lovely collaborator Jamie Griffiths of me drum dancing to honour the spirit of the bear. And I'm wearing an outfit that I sewed that is reminiscent of our regalia, Greenlandic regalia, but I changed it so that it was all in the rich colours of the fat of the bear when we butchered it. So I want people to feel like they're inside the bear, and they're seeing the bear's spirit and soul being honoured. You can see that happen on one side of the skin. And then when you walk around the skin in the gallery, on the hair side, all you see are these dancing lights coming through the hairs of the bear. I keep calling them spirit worms, spirit worms making their way through the bear.
What is next for you? What are you working on at the moment?
Oh yeah! I've got a busy year coming up. I'm working on a virtual film based on a series of stories that I've been writing about, about this Inuit utopian republic that is socialist and feminist — of course.
And I'm also working on a commission with the FTA [Festival TransAmériques] in Montreal. [We're] going to create what I'm kind of describing right now as sculptural theatre. We're going to create an iceberg that is the recipient of a projection. That is in the development process right now. It's a busy year!
This conversation has been edited and condensed.