“SakKijâjuk: Art and Craft from Nunatsiavut”

The sheer number of artists (47) and works (85), the historical context of exclusion and misrecognition of Nunatsiavut artists and craftspeople, the formidable work of curator Heather Igloliorte, the intricacies, histories, intergenerational connections and intelligence within the individual works themselves and the installation make it a challenge to write about “SakKijâjuk: Art and Craft from Nunatsiavut” in the space available.

When I try to summarize the many things I want to say about this exhibition, the sense that repeats in my mind is: labour, exertion, work. Although her work exists within a long continuum of artists, curators and community leaders, I will begin with the exhibition’s curator Igloliorte, who, upon realizing the near-complete absence of Nunatsiavut visual culture from exhibitions, collections and art historical texts over a decade ago, began working through the painful, long-term exclusion of her communities artists and craftspeople. Spending time with the makers of Postville, Hopedale, Happy Valley Goose Bay, Nain, Rigolet or Makkovik, Igloliorte and her assistants worked collaboratively to understand what they valued, wanted and needed in order to thrive. The answer was resoundingly clear: greater access to affordable, good-quality materials, and audiences and a place to show their work.

Garmel Rich, Basket with Lid, 1999, grass, 9 x 12 x 12 cm. Collection of Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada. Courtesy Winnipeg Art Gallery.

The result of Igloliorte’s listening is “SakKijâjuk: art and craft from Nunatsiavut,” where the material, conceptual and political labour is tangible. Entering the exhibition, you see a row of exquisitely constructed Kamek (boots), and one pair of infant slippers. There is a range of materials, with several kinds of sealskin, hides and furs, beadwork and embroidery. The precise construction of each pair showcases the labour of the makers, who went to great lengths to find the materials, learn and innovate patterns and teach others. The title of the installation, Our Footprints are Everywhere, further alludes to the political work of proving intergenerational land use that eventually lad to successful land claims and the formation of Nunatsiavut in 2005, the only self-governing Inuit region in Canada. The central piece in the first room of the exhibition is a low-standing plinth, which holds a small herd of carefully carved wooden and bone caribou by Elder artist Chesley Flowers (1924–1998). The use of wood and metal among other materials has had far-reaching implications for Nunatsiavut Inuit. As the most southern Inuit population, they faced racist assumptions about what it meant to be genuinely Inuit, including the use or absence of specific materials, motifs and subjects designated Nunatsiavummiut “inauthentic,” “contaminated” by European culture, not Inuit. Political and post-colonial theorists such as Frantz Fanon, Charles Taylor and more recently Audra Simpson and Glen Coulthard address the structural weight of visibility or recognition, and, conversely, the social, psychological, economic and political ramifications of misrecognition. For Inuit artists, to be recognized is to be given opportunity, access to buyers, collectors, curators and exhibitions. Where the Inuit of Nunatsiavut were denied visibility through the authenticating mark of the Igloo tag, the translation of the title “SakKijâjuk”—“to be visible”—is both a loud and proud pronouncement saying, “we are here,” while also continuing the labour of holding accountable to those who have denied that visibility: “we continue to see you, too.”

The directed use of the word ‘craft’ in the title is another form of labour, a term generally devalued for its utilitarianism and materiality. Within the realm of Indigenous material culture, this designation is doubly or triply burdened with historicization, and in many cases fetishization, viewed through the lens of ethnography, as something to be collected, scrutinized and theorized.

In a broader context, there is a traceable history of Indigenous curators working to shift perceptions of the material and visual cultural work of Indigenous artists. To cite one example, in 2005 the Saskatchewan Arts Board commissioned Sherry Farrell-Racette and Carmen Robertson to curate an exhibition marking the province’s centennial year. Their exhibition, “Clearing a Path: New Ways of Seeing Indigenous Art,” was explicitly aimed at clearing a path for non-Indigenous curators, directors and institutions to recognize traditional Indigenous art as relevant to fine and contemporary art discourse. This was an attempt to dislodge it from the limiting connotations of “craft,” as they noted in the book of the same name that accompanied the exhibition.

“SakKijâjuk,” which had its first iteration as a community exhibition in Happy Valley Goose Bay in 2015, 10 years after “Clearing a Path,” builds on Farrell-Racette’s and Robertson’s work, but rather than distancing the work from craft, “SakKijâjuk” lobbies southern audiences to question their understanding of it. In contrast to southern discourse, Igloliorte asserts the Nunatsiavummiut view of craftwork, which holds greater value than fine or contemporary art because, as she told host Michael Enright on the CBC’s Sunday Edition in April 2017, “they contain all our intergenerational knowledge passed down from Elders to children and grandchildren.”

Chelsey Flowers, The George River Herd, 1995–96, wood and antler, 121.9 x 121.9 cm. The Rooms Provincial Art Gallery, Memorial University Collection. Photo: Ned Pratt Photography. Courtesy Winnipeg Art Gallery.

The beautifully and subtly curated exhibition “SakKijâjuk” is roughly structured around the logic of intergenerational knowledge exchange, in which Igloliorte is directly implicated, with the inclusion of Susannah Igloliorte, her grandmother, who is a renowned seamstress, and Mark Igloliorte, her brother and celebrated contemporary artist.

Moving from Elder artists to current contemporary ones, the careful inclusion of makers spanning four generations proposes not only a stunning example of work showing the wide-ranging influences, transitions and concerns, but also interrupts limiting official narratives about the North. By proposing what essentially amounts to a Nunatsiavut canon, Igloliorte, in collaboration with her community, is saying, “Here we are; these are our makers; these are our knowledge keepers, these are our stars, these are the ones to watch; this is our history, we have done the work for you, all you have to do is look, listen and include it in your thinking, writing, exhibitions, markets, etc.”

Mounted on the heels of another groundbreaking exhibition of Indigenous art, “Insurgence/Resurgence,” curated by Jaimie Isaac and Julie Nagam, and opening the day of the ground breaking ceremony for the Inuit Art Centre also at the Winnipeg Art Gallery, which sits across from the Hudson’s Bay store in downtown Winnipeg, “SakKijâjuk” marks a major historical moment in which we have the privilege of participating, should we have the ability to see and to recognize it.

“SakKijâjuk: Art and Craft from Nunatsiavut” was exhibited at the Winnipeg Art Gallery, Winnipeg, from May 26 to October 14, 2018.

Sarah Nesbitt is an independent writer and curator based in Montreal.

Volume 37, Number 4: Women + Sculpture

This article originally appeared in Border Crossings #148, published December 2018.

Border Crossings looks at contemporary art with interest, passion and thoroughness. Subscribe to Border Crossings today for as little as $24/year.