Inuk art scholar makes leap to National Gallery of Canada
Jocelyn Piirainen, from Cambridge Bay, will help the gallery curate its Indigenous and Inuit art collection
Jocelyn Piirainen is bringing an Inuk voice to the way the National Gallery of Canada acquires and exhibits Inuit and Indigenous artwork.
The arts scholar and former Cambridge Bay resident was appointed in early November to the role of associate curator for the gallery.
Piirainen brings experience from her previous role as associate curator of Inuit art at the Winnipeg Art Gallery’s Qaumajuq museum, which she has held since March 2019. Qaumajuq is a collection of almost 14,000 contemporary Inuit art pieces, making up the largest collection of its kind in the world.
Curators organize and set up exhibits, said Piirainen in an interview from her home in Winnipeg.
“The curator is really there to allow artists to tell their stories,” she said.
“If there’s a specific carving that has a story or legend associated with it, you know, you want to tell the public about it.”
Piirainen joins the national gallery’s recently formed Indigenous Ways and Decolonization department. It has a mandate to amplify the voices of Indigenous artists, curators and scholars.
In an email, Michelle LaVallee, director of the department of Indigenous Ways and Decolonization, recognized Piirainen’s skill as a collaborator in her work with arts and culture professionals and Indigenous communities to highlight Inuit artistic and cultural practices.
“I am excited about her lived and professional experience as an Inuk curator which she brings to the national gallery,” she said.
Piirainen is joining the gallery as some controversial changes are taking place there. The Globe and Mail and other national media reported last month the departure of four curators from the gallery’s Indigenous Ways and Decolonization department. A former senior curator, Greg A. Hill, tweeted he was fired because he disagreed with the “colonial and anti-Indigenous ways” the department was being run, the Globe reported.
Piirainen said the Canadian art world needs more Inuit curators and art professionals. She credits a government-funding initiative, called Inuit Futures, for leading the way in that respect.
Inuit Futures in Arts Leadership: The Pilimmaksarniq/Pijariuqsarniq Project supports Inuit and Inuvialuit by giving them access to the training, mentorship and professional opportunities necessary to find success in the arts industry.
Piirainen was invited to be a mentor in the Inuit Futures program in 2019, where she was paired with mixed-media artist Aghalingiak (Zoe Ohokannoak). Aghalingiak, who identifies as they/them, is in their fifth year of study of fine arts at the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design.
Aghalingiak said in an interview that being a participant in the Inuit Futures program as a research intern and mentee has been both challenging and a confidence boost, accelerating their development as an artist.
In April 2022, they curated their first exhibition at the Winnipeg Art Gallery’s Qaumajuq Museum under the mentorship of Piirainen. The exhibition is called Kakiniit Hivonighijotaa: Inuit Embodied Practices & Meanings.
“I didn’t think that I would ever be curating exhibitions at this point,” Aghalingiak said, reflecting on their recent solo exhibition and their experience with Inuit Futures.
As Piirainen prepares to move to Ottawa in January, she acknowledges that although this appointment provides an opportunity to be part of the national gallery’s efforts to ensure Inuit art and culture are appropriately represented, her hiring is not a solution in and of itself.
“There is also a lot of pressure that comes to that, to be kind of representing all Inuit, but I am aware that I can’t do that either,” she said.