Swimming Bear by Timootee Pitsiulak
The Art Gallery of Ontario is presenting its first ever Inuit curated exhibition in the gallery’s largest space from June 16 – August 12. The show is called Tunirrusiangit, meaning ‘the gifts they gave us’ in Inuktitut, and showcases the works of Inuit artists Kenojuak Ashevak and her nephew Timootee Pitsiulak, both of whom made a huge impacts on mainstream and Indigenous art in Canada.
From 1952-55, Ashevak learned how to draw while she was hospitalized for tuberculosis in Quebec City. Soon after returning to her home in Cape Dorset, she got almost immediate recognition for her talents, being known for her bold and vibrant style featuring birds and arctic animals. Her most famous print is The Enchanted Owl, which was featured on a postage stamp in the 1970’s. She passed away in 2013.
Pitsiulak was known for portraying elements of modern and traditional Inuk culture focusing on landscapes, wildlife, people and Inuit mythology. He was also a gifted jewelry maker, sculptor, lithographer and photographer who loved to hunt. Sadly, he passed away in 2016 while being treated for pneumonia at the age of 49.
The AGO worked with six Inuit artists and curators with the hopes of setting new ground in ways cultural institutions approach Indigenous and Inuit art in Canada. The curators are: Koomuatuk (Kuzy) Curley, Taqralik Partridge, Jocelyn Piirainen, Laakkuluk Williamson Bathory, Georgiana Uhlyarik, Anna Hudson. Before the opening of Tunirrusiangit MUSKRAT Magazine Staff Writer, Erica Commanda spoke with two of the curators, Taqralik Partridge and Jocelyn Piirainen about their work on Tunirrusiangit: Kenojuak Ashevak and Tim Pitsiulak, and the way mainstream institutions and society treat and view Indigenous art.
MM: How have Kenojuak Ashevak and Timotee (Tim) Pitsiulak impacted the way you see Indigenous/Inuit art?
TP: For Natives and non-Natives alike, Kenojuak’s work captures your imagination. I think she’s had an affect on Canada in general. She was the most famous Inuk artist and everybody knows her work. I remember the first time seeing Tim’s work; it was at the National Gallery; it was this man standing over the water with a harpoon – I was like wow! This is so amazing. What was really interesting about his work was [how he depicted] human beings in relation to animals. Humans were encompassed by animals, they weren’t greater than them, it just shows that he really believed people are a part of these animals, people are not their masters.
MM: What was it like working with an Inuit led curatorial team as opposed to a primarily Western institutional led team?
JP: It was very important for the AGO to have Inuit voices for this show. I think it’s both a wonderful opportunity for me personally, and it was a wonderful experience working with the rest of the team. We were all very happy to be on board with this show and honoured to be showcasing the work of two very prominent Inuit artists who have inspired us all. It really shows in the exhibit how much of an impact that they had.
TP: We also worked with the curatorial team there [at the AGO], so there was a lot of good conversation because there were so many people to work with. We also had very limited time because we were involved in it within less than a year. I think it’s a good first step. I can see from this experience that there are many more steps that need to be taken. If institutions like the AGO are open to taking those steps then it can lead to many more interesting collaborations and lead to Indigenous people feeling like they are more invested in those institutions [instead] of that history of tension between Indigenous peoples and these institutions.
MM: Can you expand on your knowledge of these tensions between Indigenous people and cultural institutions such as museums, art galleries ect.?
TP: Historically it’s systemic and reflective in every single thing from the handling, owning, keeping, showing and not showing of Indigenous objects. It’s even reflected in the way the labels are written to the way the pieces are presented. It’s all these different parts that we come up against. Indigenous art has been considered the mascot of Canada- we pull it out every time there’s an Olympics and we have it in the airport in Vancouver. As far as taking it seriously as the real heritage of this land and these people, it’s always been commodified and not seen as art.
MM: Out of the whole exhibit, what was your favourite piece?
JP: All of it really. I really enjoyed looking at and choosing Tim’s work and believe we chose the best of the best. One in particular that I find interesting is Canon Drill – it’s a really intricate and detailed drawing of scenery that has come into the northern communities; he focuses on machines which is very contemporary.
TP: Luminous Char by Kenojuak. It’s a fish that has fire colours and prawns coming out of its body. I just love the colours, it’s a very simple piece, yet also stunning because of the shapes and colours. For Tim, one of my favourite pieces is Hero 4, it’s just of this walrus that is huge and if you look off to the side there’s his go-pro. It’s kind of funny and so Inuk where you have this magnificent piece and then there’s this go-pro breaking in on the mystical beast joke.
MM: What steps did you take to ‘Indigenize’ the exhibit?
TP: First off, the title – it means ‘their gifts’ or ‘what they gave’ in Inuk. We were clear that we wanted it to be that. We were talking about extending the labelling for different art pieces- we were the ones who were writing those. Also for choosing what was in the exhibit, we weren’t going for what’s was the most marketable or the most famous work but specific pieces that we liked as Inuit and thought that people should see and appreciate. The other thing we were hoping to include was seal in the opening evening.
MM: What do you hope people who will take away from the exhibit?
JP: I hope they take away a better understanding of who these two artists were and what their work has represented to the Inuit and their values, and that the artists included that in their art.
TP: I hope they come away with questions and want to learn more about Inuit art or Native people in general. We tried to be a little bit challenging to the viewers. We were trying to get some things in there that challenge the whole system of museums vs Indigenous people. Historically, there’s been a lot of tension in that relationship.
Taqralik Partridge Bio:
Taqralik Partridge is a writer and spoken-word performer originally from Kuujjuaq, Nunavik. An urban Inuk, she speaks to the soundscapes of the north and to city life in the south, weaving real-life stories with rhyme and Inuit throat-singing. She has toured with the Orchestre symphonique de Montréal, produced works under commission for the CBC, and has been featured on CBC Radio 2’s NEXT! Series. Her short story “Igloolik,” published in the December issue of Maisonneuve magazine, won first prize in the 2010 Quebec Writing Competition.
Jocelyn Piirainen Bio:
“Urban Inuk” Jocelyn Piirainen is an “emerging curator with a growing interest in indigenous contemporary art. Her entry into the curatorial world began in with the first ever Indigenous Curatorial Incubator program, where she put together the “UnMENtionables” screening program and helped coordinate the “Memories of the Future” exhibition for the 2015 Asinabka Film and Media Arts Festival.”