Iqaluit youth mask sex taboos at arts-based workshop
“It gives them a safe environment to deal with their fears”
Sex can be a tough thing to talk about, especially among a group of teenagers who may not know each other well.
That was the case for 14-year-old Taylor Kusugak, who recently moved to Iqaluit from Rankin Inlet, when she took part in a sexual health workshop at Inuksuk High School Oct. 19 and Oct. 20.
The Grade 10 student participated in Timiga, Ikumajuq or My body, The Light Within, a workshop that uses Inuit art and storytelling to help ease the discussion around sexuality, diversity and relationships.
“People were pretty shy at first,” Kusugak said.
The project is a collaboration between the Qaujigiartiit Health Research Institute and Qaggiavuut Society for the Performing Arts.
Qaujigiartiit’s executive and scientific director Gwen Healey’s own research has looked at Inuit perspectives on sexual health and how that’s communicated within Nunavut families, especially between parents and their teenage children.
“The research found that youth responded better when they were expressing themselves through arts and stories,” Healey said.
Healey helped to pilot Timiga, Ikumajuq in 2012 at Inuksuk. The project went well, she said, but it took a few more years to secure stable funding—the Canadian Institute of Health Research has now provided a three-year grant for the project to visit communities across Nunavut.
At Inuksuk last week, the workshop brought in Qaggiavuut member and Iqaluit artist Laakkuluk Williamson Bathory, who led the session using Greenlandic mask dance (uaajeerneq) as the method of storytelling.
Uaajeerneq is a traditional performance art delivered in humour, but it’s rooted in themes of fear and sexuality, Williamson Bathory said—making it a perfect fit for the workshop.
The black base paint is a symbol of humility and modesty, she explained, while the patches of red represent the vulva. Bulges in the cheeks, created by keeping apple slices in the mouth, symbolize the testes.
“It’s a very sexually frank performance,” Williamson Bathory said. “It gives [the youth] a safe environment to deal with their fears.”
So what’s on the mind of many teenagers in Nunavut these days?
Kusugak said a lot of teens her age want to know more about sexually transmitted infections (STIs).
“I think having safe sex and making sure your sexual partner doesn’t have any diseases,” she said.
“My group’s question was: Why do we have sex, and is it important in a relationship? We decided that it’s our choice, but we have to be careful.”
Kusugak said students created their own masks and performance pieces. One delivered his performance as a snowy owl; another wrote a poem about getting dumped.
“And we were all laughing while Laakkuluk was just walking and crawling around, scaring us,” Kusugak said.
At the end of the week, Kusugak said one message stuck with her: choose your partner carefully and get to know people before you decide to be intimate with them.
“I feel more confident in talking about those things with other people now, especially people I don’t know,” she said.
“I would recommend [the workshop] to anyone who has the chance to take it.”
Timiga, Ikumajuq heads to Qikiqtarjuaq next week, and to Arviat early in 2017.