Qaumajuq opens space of healing, learning as Indigenous guests get sneak peek at Inuit art centre

The crowds of Indigenous guests were small but engaged as they got a sneak peek at Qaumajuq, the Winnipeg Art Gallery's new centre for Inuit art, on Monday. The exhibit opens to the general public on Saturday.

Inuit, First Nations, Métis invited to see inaugural exhibit INUA ahead of opening to general public

The vault at Qaumajuq houses thousands of works from across the north that will be visible the moment you walk in. (Lindsay Reid)

There's a heat that hits when you walk through the front doors of the Winnipeg Art Gallery's Qaumajuq Inuit art centre, as sunlight reflects off a four-storey glass vault that displays thousands of carvings.

Seeing those cold stone depictions of hunters, wild animals and other scenes from the north, showcased across three floors of the 40,000-square-foot space, brings a sense of warmth to Janet Kanayok.

"For me, it's healing," says Kanayok, originally from Ulukhaktok, N.W.T. "We've been so homesick that it's really nice to be around our art, our ancestors and all the stories that [are] being told." 

Small groups of Inuit, First Nation and Métis visitors were among the first members of the public to view some of the nearly 14,000-piece collection at Qaumajuq on Monday, as Indigenous guests were given a sneak peek.

Qaumajuq, which translates to "It is bright, it is lit" in Inuktitut, opens to the general public Saturday.

Janet Kanayok (right), originally from Ulukhaktok, N.W.T., and her daughter Kimberly (left), took in Qaumajuq's inaugural exhibit INUA Monday ahead of the grand opening on Saturday. (John Einarson/CBC )

Four Inuk curators put together the inaugural exhibit INUA — a term that means "life force" or "spirit" in many Arctic dialects. As an acronym, it also stands for Inuit Nunangat Ungammuaktut Atautikkut — or "Inuit Moving Forward Together."

WAG director and CEO Stephen Borys said he hopes Qaumajuq helps do just that, while standing as a positive example of reconciliation in action.

"This is a model for the new museum: a space that's welcoming, respectful, safe, that responds specifically to the [Truth and Reconciliation Commission's] call to action for museums, that actually is coming to understand, 'What is the exercise of reconciliation, Indigenization, decolonization?'" 

The TRC included four calls to actions for galleries and museums that urged collaboration with Indigenous communities moving forward.

Despite residing on the Prairies, the centre was designed with Inuit in mind as the target audience, while also intending to serve as an educational hub for all.

This 2016 work by artists Mattiusi Iyaituk and Etienne Guay is titled Iqaluullamiluuq (First Mermaid) that can maneuver on the land. It's part of the inaugural exhibit of Qaumajuq, the Winnipeg Art Gallery's Inuit art centre. (John Einarson/CBC)

Jacqueline Lagasse said as a Métis woman, she wanted to learn more about Inuit culture and take advantage of the early viewing opportunity. She was blown away by the soapstone sculptures, but the sheer variety of other creations came as a surprise.

"That's the great thing about when you learn about another culture," she said. "Now I am seeing there is just a huge amount of other art that the artists have done, and it just opens your mind to all the possibilities."

WATCH | Pushing the limits of Inuit art:

Artist explores Nunatsiavut myth of how northern lights came to be

2 years 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.

INUA includes a series of immersive displays and installations that push the limits of what's conventionally thought of as Inuit art.

Installations of an entire cottage and a shipping container juxtapose life across the Arctic then and now, and show a scale in form unlike most of what the public has seen before.

INUA showcases this collection of works that span floor to ceiling in the large third-floor gallery space at Qaumajuq. (Bryce Hoye/CBC)

Elaborately beaded seal-skin clothing is found near ornately-designed dolls. Tabletop sculptures eight decades old are displayed beside floor-to-ceiling scrolls and paintings.

Photographic portraits metres in height are positioned across from a seal skin space suit on the fourth floor.

A seal skin space suit, pictured here, is on display as part of INUA. (Lindsay Reid)

Elder Raymond Mason from Peguis First Nation said despite the art's northern origin, he sees parallels in the imagery of caribou and the land. 

"It really opened my eyes," said Mason. "It's good for the people, good for the community and good for our country." 

Katherine Legrange, executive director of the Treaty 1 Nation Government, said Qaumajuq will help bring different communities together.

For three decades, the Canadian government implemented what's known as the Inuit disc number system, issuing numbers to Inuit in place of their names. Inuvialuk artist Bill Nasogaluak was given the number 'W3-1258,' and his sculpture, on display at the WAG's Qaumajuq, marks that painful history. (John Einarson/CBC)

"This is the first opportunity that we've had to learn about the significant spiritual leaders from the Inuit, our Inuit cousins, and certainly in Treaty 1 we want to welcome and learn," she said.

The lead curator of INUA said with the centre housing Inuit art on Treaty 1 land and the home of the Métis Nation, it was important Indigenous people had the first look inside.

"This is a space for them now and going forward," said Dr. Heather Igloliorte. "They should get to see themselves represented here."

She wants Qaumajuq to be a place where new art can grow and flourish, while also inviting people to look back at history.

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

Indigenous guests get sneak peek at Inuit art centre

2 years ago
Duration 2:34
A brand new wing of the Winnipeg Art Gallery has opened its doors to Indigneous people. Qaumajuk, the new wing at the Winnipeg Art Gallery, is the largest collection of Inuit art in the entire world.


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.

With files from Stephanie Cram