Baker woman honoured with university degree

Irene Avaalaaqiaq of Baker lae never went to school, but she now has an honorary doctor of laws degree from the University of Guelph.


IQALUIT — One of Nunavut’s best-known artists, Irene Avaalaaqiaq of Baker Lake, was honored last week with a Doctorate of Laws degree from the University of Guelph.

According to Sally Qimminu’naaq, who accompanied Avaalaaqiaq as a translator, the artist was “thrilled” to accept the honorary degree.

“It makes me feel proud that my art is recognized after so many years of being an artist,” Avaalaaqiaq said in her acceptance speech to the university’s convocation ceremony. “When Sally told me, I just ran around the living room, as I could not sit still.”

Avaalaaqiaq, born in 1941 in the Kazan region, moved to Baker Lake in 1958. Raised by her grandparents, she learned to sew caribou garments at an early age.

Her wall-hangings, drawings and prints reflect stories she heard while growing up on the land with her grandparents.

Avaalaaqiaq tried to describe this traditional education to her audience in Guelph.

“If Inuit did not learn well, they would not survive in the harsh climate,” she said. “You are so lucky. You have a beautiful university and the chance to learn many things. How you learned and how I learned are so completely different, so opposite. I never even attended school and you have been at school most of your life. Times have changed so much. At least my education was free, and I did not have to get a student loan!”

Avaalaaqiaq, who is known as a role model and mentor for younger artists in her community, urged university students to stay in touch with their own culture, respect their parents and pursue their personal goals.

“Don’t ever lose that dream,” she said. “Inuit had a dream about having more control over their destiny and now we have Nunavut. You can do anything if you put your mind to it.”

Avaalaaqiaq’s visit to Guelph coincided with the opening of a major exhibit of her work at the university’s Macdonald Stewart Art Centre, called “Where Myth, Dream and Reality Intersect: the Art of Irene Avaalaaqiaq”.

The museum, which has more than 600 pieces of Inuit art, recently commissioned a large wall hanging and six prints from Avaalaaqiaq, works paid for through funds raised by art centre volunteers.

Avaalaaqiaq’s art has already been featured in several national and international exhibitions and are part of numerous public and private collections. Her works are also part of two touring international exhibiits by the Macdonald Stewart Art Centre.

Curator Judy Nasby said that the “symbolic interest” of Avaalaaqiaq’s work is enormous because it portrays the transformation of people into animals and of animals into other animals.

Many of her wall hangings also feature a dark border from which the shadowy shapes of people and animals emerge.

“It’s as if the whole horizon is contained in the wall hanging,” said Nasby.

The exhibit at the art centre continues until February, 2000.

Avaalaaqiaq invited those present at the ceremony held on October 19 to visit this exhibition- and Nunavut.

“If you ever want to come to Baker Lake, let Sally or me know and we will make you feel welcome,” she said.

On the first day of Nunavut legislature’s session in Iqaluit, MLA Glenn McLean mentioned the honour his constituent had received.

“This is a very proud moment for Nunavut,” McLean said.

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