Kuujjuaq artist celebrates the ingenuity of Inuit women in new exhibit

Through Piqutiapiit, Niap pays tribute to the work of Inuit women of the past

Piqutiapiit, an exhibit by Inuk artist Niap at Montreal’s McCordd Museum, celebrates the creativity and ingenuity of Inuit women through simple tools like ulus, needles, scrapers and thimbles. (Image courtesy of the McCord Museum)

By Meral Jamal

A new exhibit by Nunavik artist Niap, whose real name is Nancy Saunders, is on display at the McCord Museum in Montreal.

Piqutiapiit — meaning “precious belongings” in Inuktitut — presents clothing and objects by Inuit women, celebrating their creativity and ingenuity through simple tools like ulus, needles, scrapers and thimbles. It opened March 25.

The exhibit is part of the museum’s artist-in-residence program, which invites artists to interact and engage with the museum’s collection, encouraging them to reflect on, connect with and communicate their own interpretations. 

Portrait of an unidentified Inuk girl, about 1936 or 1937. Gift of Anne and Nicholas Downes. (Photo courtesy of the McCord Museum)

Niap, a Montreal-based artist who also spends time in her hometown of Kuujjuaq, said one item that deeply informed her project is the amauti. 

“I came across this beautiful coat made for a young girl, the textures in it, the materials they used for it and the colours — I was in awe,” she said. “I was struck by how enormously talented Inuit are and that’s where I started building my own idea.” 

With the amauti as inspiration, Niap beaded her own tapestry for Piqutiapiit. Influenced by the beaded decorations on the front of Inuit women’s clothing, called savviqutik, it took her six months to complete.

Niap said creating the tapestry taught her a lot about the hard work and patience Inuit women show.

“[The tapestry] celebrates their complete talent and the love they took to make these beautiful garments that today we see as artifacts,” she said. “Through the process, I learned the work it took to make such garments and understood finally how intense it is.”

According to Niap, the exhibit also challenges negative perspectives — many of them racist and colonial — that have been geared towards Inuit and other Indigenous Peoples. 

“I hear, ‘Oh no, [Indigenous people] … they don’t show up to their nine-to-five jobs. But then you see this beautiful handcrafted clothing and this hunter waking up at 4 a.m. in the morning to go check his nets so they won’t freeze in cold weather in the middle of the night,” she said. 

From left: Suzanne Sauvage, president and chief executive officer of the McCord Museum, Niap and Jonathan Lainey. (Photo courtesy of the McCord Museum)

“You have to question: what’s the definition of hardworking? How is it different from culture to culture?”

For Niap, seeing the artifacts showed her that Indigenous people including Inuit simply have a difference in priority. 

“I hope [visitors] come away with respect for the craft, the respect for the amount of work and care that was always put into our clothing and the ingenuity of Inuit women,” she said. 

Jonathan Lainey, curator, Indigenous cultures at McCord, said Niap’s exhibit challenges historical narratives around Indigenous cultures and history as well. One of them is the idea that Indigenous people were less cultured.

“People were taught that Indigenous traditions were not sophisticated and not developed enough. But it was not true — it was the way to justify colonization,” he said. “Showing these beautiful objects and how they were made with really simple tools — I think it’s part of the counter-discourse to say that no, that’s not true.” 

According to Lainey, Niap’s work also challenges the idea that many Indigenous traditions like beadwork, sewing and making things by hand are in the past.

“Niap’s reinterpretation of these objects by making a contemporary beautiful piece is showing that it’s not over — these traditions are living, they are active and they are still contributing today,” he said. 

For Niap, the exhibit ultimately hopes to celebrate Indigineity both of the past and the present. 

“There’s no need to separate traditional life and modern life,” she said. “There’s a place for both in the world — where culture and tradition marry so well with modern lifestyles. I just hope that we find a balance between it all.”

Piqutiapiit remains open until Aug. 21 at the McCord Museum. Museum access is free for Indigenous visitors.

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(7) Comments:

  1. Posted by The Stoned Ape on

    Articles like this are always interesting until they devolve (predictably) into their patterned complaints about colonialism.

    This is a simplistic narrative structure that journalists especially love because by writing about it they can center themselves next to the ‘hero’ in the cosmic struggle.

    Anytime you read something like “colonialism tells us” or “people are taught” reflect on whether that is actually true. Or is this framing simply an effective rhetorical tool used to construct the artifice around a narrative type?

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  2. Posted by Sounded good at first, but then. on

    It’s starts off with beauty, but ends into the same old. I’m not going to feel any surprise in this time of our evolution that Inuit had absolute beauty and geniuses in the traditions and culture. It’s good that someone continuously brings it out, for economic and artistic reasons, that’s ok, but I’m not surprised or enlightened, I already knew that all my life. That modern ways spoke of, what are they really? Does it have the same perception of damage that many would say colonial ways brought about to Inuit? So why in this article would you embrace culture and traditions with this colonial modern way? That’s what is written, isn’t it? This has no merit, it’s just the same old, same old. My advice to the Artist is to drop off the confusion about culture , traditions, colonial ways, modernizing, marriage of them. Just drop it and see the real beauty. Please marry your real traditions, embrace Inuit and the south, don’t forget your French as well.

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  3. Posted by Anon on

    And in these hazy crazy days of rolling lock downs needle work is so stress relieving. Mother who is nearing 90 years of age has been since her retirement sewing and knitting her days away, Never without something that she is happily working on.

    • Posted by Remember then on

      I can remember a time, barely remember! When the elder was so valuable, and the sewing of all the wonderful ladies , even seen a few males with the needle too. That’s before the elder abuse we see today. The taking of their money by family for booze and drugs. If you do see the stress release in our elder, maybe it’s that they have a chance to reminisce, rather than their beautiful past experiences continuing to live. Their past and their future are stolen by the new generation.

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  4. Posted by traditional on

    I like to read the stories of traditonal clothing being made, we still make what we have learned from our mothers and grandmothers. our mothers and grandmothers were taught from thier mothers and grandmothers even before the white man came with thier steel needles and knives. our ancestors used every part of the animal even the bones for needles and ulus, and the skin was used for clothing or a tent. like they (whiteman) knew more than the inuit, our ancestors, the inuit survived the winters and summers because the women learned how to use each animal for clothing and for heating, different seasons of the year. the families knew where to go hunt different times of the year for their clothing and for heat for the winter. the inuit also had food cashes of meat or fish that stored for when needed during hard times in the winter.

    • Posted by Traditions become memories on

      Have you ever considered that even the whiteman once used needles like you described before steel needles were made? It just in time and place, and one area of the world developed before another area. And look at yourself today, using steel needles , and reminiscing about the memories of traditions. It’s called evolution, development, progress, educated. I grew up using a Coleman lantern for light, and no running water or flush toilets in the white world long ago, but look at life today?

      • Posted by traditional on

        Yes we have evolved but their was no (whiteman) around anywhere when our ancestors were living, they learnt how to use everything, the whiteman brought in what we using already but in bones, the inuit learnt to navigate the land, hunt the food with all thier skills that were giving to them…and some of them (whiteman) died because of ignorance of the way inuit lived back then, they called them savage people even though they survived the all this time without the whiteman in thier world back then.

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