Curators 'raise up' LGBTQ2 artists featured in Qaumajuq's opening exhibit in Winnipeg

A commitment to showcase diversity is at the heart of the Winnipeg Art Gallery's new addition, Qaumajuq, the world's largest public collection of Inuit art — and that includes highlighting a range of works by lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and two-spirit creators from the north.

Among several works, portrait series by Jenny Irene Miller explores gender, sexual identity and acceptance

Gukki Nuka's ceramic vessel with plastic pearls is on display at INUA, the inaugural exhibit at the Winnipeg Art Gallery's Inuit art centre, Quamajuq. The LGBTQ2 artist is from Greenland. (Bryce Hoye/CBC)

A commitment to showcase diversity is at the heart of the Winnipeg Art Gallery's new addition, Qaumajuq, the world's largest public collection of Inuit art — and that includes highlighting a range of works by lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and two-spirit creators from the north.

As important as it was to give voice to Inuk artists generally, representing the diversity within Inuit culture is also a major theme.

"In the history of Inuit art we don't really know necessarily who the queer artists have been in the past because that has never been a focus of attention," said Heather Igloliorte, lead curator of the inaugural exhibit, INUA. 

"It's really important because I am thinking of all the young LGBTQ Inuit living all across the north, and throughout southern Canada and all around the world, and I want them to see this."

Qaumajuq, which opened to the general public on Saturday, means "it is bright, it is lit" in Inuktitut. INUA translates to "spirit" or "life force" in many Arctic dialects. It also stands for Inuit Nunangat Ungammuaktut Atautikkut (Inuit Moving Forward Together).

Alaskan artist Drew Michael's series, right, is one of several by LGBTQ2 artists on display for INUA, the inaugural exhibit at the Winnipeg Art Gallery's Inuit art centre, Quamajuq. (Bryce Hoye/CBC)

Among the thousands of pieces on display in the 40,000-square foot space, guests are now able to view works by a number of LGBTQ2 Inuk artists, including a series by Drew Michael from Anchorage, Alaska. 

Michael has carving and sculptural works on display in the third-floor gallery, including a spiky, blue-haired mask titled What is the INUA of Drew? that Igloliorte says bears some resemblance to the artist.

INUA head curator Heather Igloliorte explains this hairy, blue Drew Michael piece explores the LGBTQ2 artist's sense of identity and spirit. (John Einarson/CBC)

"This piece you can really see he is pulling apart and thinking about what is on the inside and what is on the outside," Igloliorte said. "We really wanted to bring him into the show because he works a lot with the idea of spirit and identity and representation."

Glenn Gear from Nunatsiavut identifies as Indig-queer and has one of the largest pieces on display. It barely fit inside.

WATCH | Pushing the limits of Inuit art:

Artist explores Nunatsiavut myth of how northern lights came to be

1 year ago
Duration 2:21
Glenn Gear has created a large-scale immersive experience for Qaumajuq's opening exhibit, INUA. The pod is painted with a scene from a Nunatsiavut myth about how the northern lights were created.

"We got it in with inches to spare," Igloliorte said.

A ramp extends inside a sea can, or shipping container. Guests are drawn toward the other end, where a circular screen, surrounded by an illustration of an eye that feels like a portal, projects animated video art.

A black-and-white mural that covers the entire inside of the container depicts Nunatsiavut oral history on the origin of the northern lights, contrasted against spaceships and scenes of the future.

LGBTQ2 curators of INUA

The LGBTQ2 representation goes beyond the artists featured for INUA. 

Among the four Inuk co-curators are Asinnajaq from Nunavik, who is a member of the queer community, and Kablusiak, an Inuvialuk artist and curator, who is queer and non-binary.

The all-Inuit team of guest curators of Qaumajuq's INUA are, from left: Kablusiak, Krista Ulujuk Zawadski, Asinnajaq, and head curator Heather Igloliorte. (Supplied by Winnipeg Art Gallery)

Kablusiak says there are voices even within the broader, historically marginalized northern communities that have been further discriminated against for being LGBTQ2. 

"The effects of colonialism and capitalism — of homophobic, anti-trans sentiments — still run deep in many communities, northern or not," they said.

"It's important that we raise up these community members who are unafraid to be themselves, and I also understand that it's a privilege to be able to come out and live openly as queer."

Jesse Tungilik and others helped create this seal skin space suit. Igloliorte beaded a Nunavut patch on one side, and artist Glenn Gear knitted a NASA patch on the other in syllabics. (Jonathan Ventura/CBC)

Kablusiak says INUA provided a unique opportunity to build a narrative through art that explores Inukness and queerness together in a way that cements that relationship into history.

Push for acceptance

The median age among the Inuit is in the mid-20s now, according to Statistics Canada. Asinnajaq says that could be one reason she senses growing acceptance for LGBTQ2 people in the north — and how pushing the conventional limits of Inuit art can help.

"I think it's a moment in time where we're ready for a push for the broader communities and every small town and everywhere to have more space and understanding for diversity and gender expression and peoples' sexual attractions," she said.

While several of the works by LGBTQ2 artists in INUA don't explicitly touch on queer issues, Alaskan photographer Jenny Irene Miller's "Continuous" installation does.

'Needs to be talked about'

It includes five large portraits of LGBTQ2 people from Alaska that are accompanied by text stories from each that explore queer identity. 

The description alongside the photo of subject Atiga Tuigana delves into the difficulties of coming out and why it's nonetheless important when safe to do so:

"Tuigana has been told her eyes show more years. She concludes the reason for that is, despite the advances in equality, the stresses of being Inupiaq, queer and a professional are taxing. It isn't all rainbows and I want people to know that,'" the description reads. "Being out reaffirms that being LGBTQ2 is a normal thing and needs to be talked about."

Asinnajaq says in one way, LGBTQ2 artists are just artists making art, like any other creator. On the other hand, there remains a need to lift up and amplify those voices in a meaningful way.

"It's like a tricky line I guess," she said. " How you are is just normal … but you have to make a big deal about it when you want to make everyone else know that they can be themselves."

Qilak, the main gallery on Qaumajuq's third floor, includes 22 skylights that let in natural light. INUA, the inaugural exhibit, opens to the general public on March 27. (Lindsay Reid)


Bryce Hoye


Bryce Hoye is a multi-platform Manitoba journalist covering news, science, justice, health, 2SLGBTQ issues and other community stories. He has a background in wildlife biology and occasionally works for CBC's Quirks & Quarks and Front Burner. He won a national Radio Television Digital News Association award for a 2017 feature on the history of the fur trade. He is also Prairie rep for outCBC.