Iqaluit museum curator worries Winnipeg's Inuit art gallery too far from home
It will be the world’s largest collection of contemporary Inuit art
A new branch of the Winnipeg Art Gallery dedicated to Inuit art is set to open to the public this weekend, but a museum curator in Iqaluit worries the Winnipeg location puts the art out of reach for many Inuit.
"I think that having these objects outside of Nunavut for this long is heartbreaking," said Jessica Kotierk, curator for the Nunatta Sunakkutaangit Museum in Iqaluit, the only museum in Nunavut.
Called Qaumajuq, the new gallery based in Winnipeg will house the largest collection of contemporary Inuit art in the world, with about 14,000 art pieces from WAG on display, and additional 7,400 that are on long-term loan from the Government of Nunavut.
The name of the opening exhibit, INUA, translates to "life force" or "spirit" in numerous dialects across the Arctic, according to the gallery's website. It's also an acronym that translates to Inuit Nunangat Ungammuaktut Atautikkut — or "Inuit Moving Forward Together."
Rather than four square sides in a room, the walls are set in an undulating shape. Its floor space is the size of two hockey rinks.
Curators across Inuit Nunangat worked on INUA, which it is set to run for the rest of 2021 and will present works from 91 artists.
There are four co-curators in total: Kablusiak, who is Inuvialuit from the Western Arctic; Krista Ulujuk Zawadski from Nunavut; Asinnajaq from Nunavik in the north of Quebec; and Igloliorte, a Concordia University professor who hails from Nunatsiavut.
But Kotierk says the priority audience for Nunavut Inuit art should be Inuit in Nunavut, and having the art displayed in Winnipeg creates a barrier for that audience.
"I think that the Winnipeg Art Gallery's project really shows that there's interest and support," she said. "There's no reason that can't be here [and] there's no reason that Inuit can't be involved or in control."
Kotierk, who has experience working in museums and with Inuit art nationally and internationally, says she appreciates the appetite Winnipeg has for Inuit art and says any opportunity for Inuit art to be recognized is positive, but she questions who should be doing that work.
"I changed my perspective as to who should be putting out messages and who should be in control of Inuit representation. I'm not comfortable saying that the Winnipeg Art Gallery has [that] role right now," Kotierk said.
"I think it's such a big issue that I don't hear that many people talking about," she said.
"I hope that if there are people who also want to see something great happening here instead, that [this] could be the next step."
Heather Igloliorte, one of the curators for INUA, says she agrees that it's time for Nunavut to have its own art gallery.
"I think that really, Nunavut deserves a place for the all of these works to return to," she said. "Hopefully the press and the good spirits and the the sort of attention that [the gallery] is getting right now ... will lead to the creation of a new institution for Nunavut."
Igloliorte says she has been part of the development of the Inuit branch of the Winnipeg Art Gallery since 2012, when she was part of a consultation group. Years later, the director of the Winnipeg Art Gallery invited her to curate the opening exhibition.
She said yes, but that she also wanted to work with other Inuit curators on it.
"We really hope that by by installing works this way, including works from ... our relatives, that when Inuit enter the exhibition, they will understand that this is an exhibition for them," she said, adding she hopes the art will feel familiar.
"We hope that people really enjoy the exhibition because we put a lot of thought into how we would reflect and respond to Inuit artists living all across both the North and South."
Harry Flaherty, the president of Qikiqtaaluk Corporation, says Nunavut is overdue for a museum and that many Inuit haven't seen any of the art at the Winnipeg gallery.
He says he'd like to see travelling exhibitions from Qaumajuq in the Aqsarniit Hotel in Iqaluit.
"One of the reasons why we have this 500 to 600 per capacity facility here, is to display a lot of these potential events," he said.
Winnipeg Art Gallery's director and CEO, Stephen Borys, said during a virtual tour, that their goal is to increase the profile of Inuit art, not just across Canada, but around the world.
"I'd like to think that Qaumajuq is not the hub. We may be important in the South, but … we want to support the North, we want to support their agendas in terms of cultural and heritage centres," Borys said. "We feel that we could play a useful role."
Borys says there's a plan that with each exhibition they do — depending on size and scale — to travel to Inuit communities across Inuit Nunangat.
- This article was updated from a previous version to amend the number of art pieces on display. There are about 14,000 art pieces from WAG and an additional 7,400 that are on long-term loan from the Government of Nunavut.Mar 26, 2021 7:36 AM CT
Based on interviews by Toby Otak and files from Bryce Hoye.