Inuit artists prominent in prestigious international exhibition
“History can still teach us lessons”
OTTAWA — Micheline Laflamme is standing outside the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa on a hot, sunny July morning and, above the hum of traffic noise on Sussex Drive and St. Patrick Street, you can hear the unmistakable sound of ice cracking and water dripping.
She stares up at the gallery’s Great Hall, the 40-metre-high, glassed-in pyramid whose angled peaks give the gallery its signature profile in the downtown Ottawa skyline. But the hall has been replaced by a massive “iceberg,” constructed by Greenland artist Inuk Silis Høegh.
Iluliaq, which means “iceberg” in Greenlandic Inuktitut, is the name Høegh gave to the huge installation which features a composite of iceberg photographs, taken by his father, renowned photographer Ivars Silis, reprinted as a collage on huge PVC-coated panels which completely obscure the hall.
“I’ve seen it from afar but this is the first time I’ve seen it up close,” says Laflamme. “For me, it brings a little bit of the North here. I’ve never seen the real thing but it evokes the vastness of those landscapes of the North. Even though it’s in the middle of the city, it brings you somewhere else.”
The iceberg, which is made up of 56 panels connected together to cover a surface area of roughly 4,645 square metres, was commissioned by the gallery after the exhibition’s co-curator, Christine Lalonde, saw a similar work by Høegh at the United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP15) in Copenhagen in 2009.
The timing couldn’t have been better because the glass in the Great Hall is being replaced this summer so instead of visitors seeing an array of scaffolding, they can instead enjoy a marvellous piece of art.
But like the polar ice cap, Iluliaq is disappearing. As the glass panels are replaced, parts of the iceberg will be removed so that in the coming weeks, the iceberg will slowly “melt” away.
Iluliaq is part of the Gallery’s latest exhibition Sakahán: International Indigenous Art, which runs until the beginning of September. Sakahán, which means “to light (a fire)” in the language of the Algonquin peoples, brings together more than 150 recent works by more than 80 indigenous artists from 16 countries.
Nunavut artists figure prominently in the exhibition including Tim Pitsiulak, William Noah, Jamasee Padluq Pitseolak, Jutai Toonoo, Shuvinai Ashoona, Itee Pootoogook, Annie Pootoogook and Arnait Video Productions.
The first thing you see, in fact, when you walk the long hallway toward the Great Hall is another enormous work, this one by Shuvenai Ashoona and collaborator John Noestheden, a Dutch Canadian from Saskatchewan.
Earth and Sky, a 50-metre long polyester banner which hangs overhead in the Gallery’s colonnade, contains earth-bound shapes—berries, duck eggs, plants, hills and rocks—which eventually make way for planets, comets and other celestial bodies.
In a sense, the work captures one of the exhibition’s major themes: the continuum between physical and spiritual, past and present.
Lalonde says contemporary indigenous artists often don’t acknowledge the barriers between those concepts.
“There is a continuum. Contemporary times don’t start at a specific point. History doesn’t end a certain point. We are affected by the past, history can still teach us lessons. There’s no rejection of anything. Contemporary indigenous artists embrace it all instead.”
And by embracing it, aboriginal artists are not only offering alternate versions of history, they are at the forefront of the art world by broaching subjects that are both personal and political such as racism, discrimination, cultural genocide, loss of language, shame and physical abuse.
“It’s that motivation that gives power to their message,” she says.
“History used to be told from a limited perspective but aboriginal artists have been telling multiple narratives to counter that. So now we have multiple narratives.”
Some works are painful such Cant Chant, a multimedia piece by Australia’s Vernon Ah Kee which deals with the Cronulla race riots in 2005 and features huge phrases on the wall such as “We grew here/You flew here,” and “Your duty is to accept me/My duty is to tolerate you.”
Others, such as paintings and installations by Cree artist Kent Monkman, mock the traditional “Cowboys and Indians” theme by featuring a high-heeled, cross-dressing hero named Miss Chief Eagle Testicle.
Lalonde, whose expertise is in Inuit art, says she was thrilled to see so many Inuit artists included alongside their counterparts in Mexico, Japan, Australia, Hawaii, Norway and beyond.
Padluq Pitseolak’s 2011 serpentine sculpture Handcuffs is a wonderful example of traditional Inuit carving style but with a modern message. It features two open hands chained together, a key present but out of reach—hands that are free, yet not.
Annie Pootoogook has two pieces in the exhibition which have proven popular with Inuit visitors and others alike. One is a drawing she made in 2005 called Cape Dorset Freezer which she made after the new co-op opened.
In it, Inuit in traditional and modern dress stroll past a frozen food freezer with shopping carts surveying pizzas, pogos, chicken wings and concentrated orange juice.
Lalonde says southerners still find it quaint and amusing that Inuit have the same kinds of prepared foods that they do.
And while Pootoogook used the work to challenge her ability to capture detail and draw reflections on glass, the piece now speaks to modern debates around food security in the North and access to affordable healthy food.
“That’s what makes the piece by Annie an example of engaged contemporary art,” Lalonde says. “Here we are, eight years later, and it still has meaning and now, even more intense meaning.”