Three up-and-coming Nunavut designers representing Inuit culture in innovative new ways
'Wearing things that represent and show off [our] culture — it's all part of our resilience as Inuit'
Ashevak. Pootoogook. Ashoona. These household names have come to define what most people picture when they think of Inuit art. Bold block prints and whimsical watercolours; elegant carvings of bone, soapstone or granite; all representing the stories, landscapes and people of their time. And while these disciplines remain active and evolving today, there is also a new wave of Inuit artists who are doing something different. Instead of the iconic prints and carvings most often associated with Inuit art, these artists are creating trendy, modern jewelry and clothing — wearables that are as fitting on the tundra as they are on the runway.
What remains the same is their intent and inspiration, as each artist keeps up with the tradition of capturing their culture and life with art. With Nunavut Day having just passed this Sunday, we're showcasing three up-and-coming Nunavut designers who aren't just contributing to the territory's art scene — they're discovering new ways to represent Inuit culture.
Founded in 2014 by Nooks Lindell, Paula Ikuutaq Rumbolt and Emma Kreuger, Hinanni Design is still based and run out of Arviat (population: 2700) in the Kivalliq region of Nunavut. Now owned by Lindell and Rumbolt, the company aims to provide "a way to wear your culture on your sleeve, so to speak."
It's clear from their designs that Lindell and Rumbolt are inspired by Inuit culture and traditions. Uluit (crescent-shaped Inuit knives) and tuniit (Inuit tattoos) garnish leggings, skirts and scarves, bringing these timeless symbols of Inuit innovation to a new medium. And it appears their efforts have been successful: when asked about their most popular products, Lindell and Rumbolt said they can't keep the INUK t-shirts in stock, and that the Black Uluit leggings and the Ukkuhikhaq leggings were both runaway hits soon after their respective releases.
In addition to creating Instagram-worthy clothing, Hinaani takes a community-based approach to business. Lindell and Rumbolt engage other artists in their ventures, and have lent their skills to support groups like Embrace Life Council, an organization tackling mental health issues in the territory. Paying it forward is a big part of Hinaani's business — and it's aligned with their overall philosophy as a Nunavut-based, Inuit-owned company. "Times have changed drastically for Inuit in a short amount of time," they explain, "and we want to do our part to ensure that our culture continues to endure through all the changes and adaptations to come."
Inuk Barbie Designs
Barbara Akoak started beading in 2012, a few years before enrolling in Nunavut Arctic College's Jewellery and Metalwork Program. After graduating in 2015, Akoak joined Aayuraa Studio — a studio founded by recent Order of Canada recipient and fellow artist Mathew Nuqingaq — and has been creating beautiful pieces from copper, silver, bone, antler, claw, and horn for her line Inuk Barbie ever since.
Originally from Cambridge Bay (population: 1800), Akoak has Alaskan and Greenlandic roots — heritages and histories that manifest in her creations. Of all her designs, Akoak says her Koonoo earrings — pendants with tunniit or kakiniit etched on the surface — have been her most popular items. But why the name Koonoo? "They are named after my friend Becky Han, who is a musician," Akoak explains. "I gave my lines of tunniit or kakiniit earrings each a name; I didn't want to number them. Being numbered has connotations of having no value — [like] the government-issued Eskimo numbers the previous generations before me endured."
Akoak continues this vein of careful, deliberate thought in all her creations, which she sees this as a part of her cultural history as well. "Nunavut fashion, to me, shows state of mind," she says. "Our language, body language, the ceremony of life shows through our hand-made work and fashion."
Inspired by these traditions and generational links, Akoak cites her daughter as her biggest motivator: "It's important to let the younger generation know they don't need to have shame in our motifs, practices and tools. We were shamed and would shame each other for being 'too Inuk' or 'not Inuk enough.' We should have pride in our ancestral identity...I love being Inuk and I express that through my work."
"Just the ability to show my culture is all I need to design."
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Adina Tarralik Duffy started making jewelry on her sister's porch with a borrowed dremel and caribou antler pieces she found around town. It was 2008, and she didn't expect what was then a hobby to turn into anything — she just "wanted to make stuff." Since then, she has formed Ugly Fish (a reference to her grandmother's nickname), an ever-growing design company that she runs out of Coral Harbour (population: 900). She now has a dedicated Facebook page, business strategy, and clothing line — but she continues to be inspired by the landscape and culture that surrounds her.
Some of her most distinct pieces are whale vertebrae earrings and pendants. Duffy collects the vertebrae — often still attached to flesh and tissue — and painstakingly cleans the discs, then waits patiently for the bone to bleach before creating the pieces. The precious, natural material is finite, and this is what she thinks makes her items so special — and of course, limited.
It's a new era for Nunavut fashion.- Adina Tarralik Duffy, Ugly Fish
Describing her work, she says, "I like to keep things fresh and fun. I don't like things that are too predictable or repeating stuff that's already been done. I like bold, statement pieces, but I also like subtlety." On the bold side of the spectrum are her best-selling syllabic leggings, the design of which was "birthed from this idea of keeping [Inuktut] visible through fashion."
"I kept having these visions of a bold syllabic print and I couldn't get it out of my head. I had to do it. I was driven to do it," she says. Duffy, who is also a writer and storyteller (check out a recent anthology that includes one of her personal essays), is an advocate for entrepreneurship, which she sees as an important and growing industry in Nunavut. Recently, she was invited by Etsy to speak at a Toronto event, where she detailed her experience with the site and gave feedback on how the giant marketplace could help small businesses in remote or rural parts of the country — a well-timed conversation, considering the ongoing increase in Nunavut-based designers.
"It's a new era for Nunavut fashion," she says. "People are enthusiastic about wearing things that represent and show off their culture."
"It's all part of our resilience as Inuit."