'Look how far we've come': Inuit artist collective to represent Canada at Venice Biennale

In 2019, Zacharias Kunuk and Norman Cohn, as part of the artist collective Isuma, will represent Canada at one of the most prestigious art exhibitions in the world, the Venice Biennale.

Zacharias Kunuk plans to build a sod house at the entrance to the Canadian Pavilion

Filmakers Zacharias Kunuk and Norman Cohn, as part of the artist collective Isuma, will represent Canada at La Biennale di Venezia in 2019. (Matt Barnes)

Zacharias Kunuk got his first camera in 1981, two years before the Nunavut community he lived in agreed to allow television in.

Elders in Igloolik didn't see the need to get television to the community because, Kunuk says, there was nothing for them — there was no programming in Inuktitut.

So in 1975 and again in 1979, he said the community voted no to TV, but people who left the community and came back continued to talk about it.

Kunuk remembers the Arctic Games being the first thing he saw when a lone CBC channel reached the community in 1983.

"Saturday afternoons, you watched whole afternoons of people playing golf and ... I wanted to understand this game. We'd watch football and I wanted to understand that game, that was going through my head, but the idea of putting our culture in the screen — I wanted to do that."

And In 1985, with the help of a $15,000 Canada Council grant, he did.

Kunuk directed and Norman Cohn was the cameraman for the Inuktitut-language video From Inuk Point of View.

Since then, with Cohn and others, Kunuk has continued to make movies.

In 2001, Isuma's first feature-length drama, Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner, won the Caméra d'or at the Cannes Film Festival. Other films he's made have screened at the Sundance and Toronto Film Festivals.

Isuma was Canada's first Inuit feature film production company. It produces work by Inuit for Inuit and all audiences.

Natar Ungalaaq in a scene from the 2001 movie Atanarjuat:The Fast Runner. (The Canadian Press)

In 2019, he will, along with Cohn as part of the artist collective Isuma, represent Canada at one of the most prestigious art exhibitions in the world, the Venice Biennale.

"Look how far we've come, now we're going to Venice in 2019, I am so happy for this. Not to be the first, but somebody to do it from our people," he said.

While Cape Dorset artist Kananginak Pootoogook was featured in the 2017 Biennale, his work was part of the Biennale curator's exhibit. Next year will be the first time Inuit artists will be showcased in the Canadian Pavilion, according to a press release from the National Gallery of Canada.

Marc Mayer, the gallery's director, said Isuma was chosen to represent Canada because of its history "challenging stereotypes about ways of life in the North and breaking boundaries in video art."

For Kunuk, it's not so much about breaking boundaries as telling stories that explore traditional ways of life in a way that ring true to Inuit because they are made by Inuit.

"We try to make everything authentic so a hundred years from now when people see our films they'll know how to do it."

The right medium 

Kunuk says that in his lifetime, Inuit have gone from "the stone age to digital technology."

"This technology works for us because in the culture we come from we never had paper and pencil to write our history, it's all kept in the head, so when the camera came, it was the perfect record [for] our history. That's what we've been trying to do."

But while the technology may have been intuitive for him, he says the art world was not.

"When I went down south to receptions and I am the only Inuk in the room, where qallunaat [non-Inuit] are drinking wine and talking to each other and the sound it makes, it reminded me of when we're walrus hunting and we're getting to the walrus and how much noise they make, you can't make anything out."

He says that world is changing. Sometimes he'll see other Inuit artists at these loud gatherings, but he still finds the granting process particularly foreign.

Zacharias Kunuk, left, and Norman Cohn on the set of The Journals of Knud Rasmussen in this 2006 promotional handout photo. (Handout photo/Canadian Press)

Kunuk has been making films for 30 years and he says he wants to use the space at the Canadian Pavilion to welcome visitors to an Inuit way of life.

He intends to construct a qammaq [sod house] at the entrance to the gallery, with women and elders from Nunavut tending to tea and bannock made over qulliq [traditional oil lamps].  

As sod houses were traditionally wallpapered, this reconstruction will have photos taken by both him and Norman Cohn.

In the gallery itself, video clips will play, but Kunuk is not sure what just yet, he says the space is relatively small and he still has a year to plan.

"We'll be just who we are, we don't make sounds, they'll just see us and be curious of us, that's my plan, not make so much noise, people just come."

With files from Canadian Press