No ordinary blanket
“The Quilt of Belonging” shown in Iqaluit
Butterfly wings and porcupine quills, 200-year-old linen and bark cloth from Uganda, sequins and seal skin: these are some of the more unusual ingredients that went into a massive quilt that visited Iqaluit last week.
Called “The Quilt of Belonging,” the 120-foot tapestry was big enough to stretch around three walls inside the Iqaluit Parish Hall while it was on display from Feb. 10-14. The quilt includes patches from 192 countries and 71 aboriginal communities, including six panels representing Canada’s Inuit.
Volunteers plan to haul the big quilt across the country, beginning with a trip across the Arctic.
“It represents a vision of how we can be as a global community,” said John Towndrow, one of four volunteers currently travelling with the quilt. “We’re all equal, no matter where we’re from.”
Aboriginal and Inuit patches run along the edges of the quilt, forming “the foundation” for the rest, Towndrow said. Unfortunately the low walls of the Parish Hall meant these patches hung at foot-level — but when the quilt’s hung as it’s intended, the six Inuit patches should meet the viewer’s eyes.
Representing the Qikiqtani region, Monica Ell sewed the figure of a woman in an amauti, with seal skin tufts for mitts and kamiks.
Nancy Kangiryuaq and Victoria Kayuryuk from Baker Lake worked together to create the Kivalliq’s patch, which shows an Inuk practicing the one-foot high kick.
And the Inniutit Women’s Group from the Kitikmeot created a patch that depicts past tools of survival, including an igloo, kayak and qulliq, as well as what’s needed for the future: a graduate’s cap and diploma.
Vicki Okpik, who grew up in Quaqtaq, made Nunavik’s patch. It shows a family standing around an inuksuk and a fluttering owl.
The quilt’s journey began with a fitting introduction to air travel in the North: While en route to Goose Bay, parts of the quilt, which is taken apart into sections during travel, became lost in transit. It didn’t matter, Towndrow said — the quilt is so big, Labradorians who saw it on display in Nain, Labrador, were impressed by the scale of even a partial display.
The quilt also paid visits to Puvirnituq and Kuujjuaq in Nunavik before arriving in Iqaluit on Feb 10. Next stop is Rankin Inlet, where the quilt will be displayed from Feb. 18-20, followed by stops in Inuvik, Yellowknife and Whitehorse.
Two years of planning went into the Arctic tour alone. Inuit organizations like Inuit Tapiirit Kanatami and airline companies all contributed. As for the total cost of creating the art project, Towndrow says he couldn’t say.
“I don’t know if I can answer that question. This work here comes from the hands of hundreds of people,” he said.
Artist Esther Bryan from Williamstown, Ontario first dreamed up the idea of the big quilt. She unveiled the tapestry to the public on April 1 at the Canadian Museum of Civilization in Ottawa. Her band of volunteers hope to keep the quilt moving around the country for the next few years, with no final destination in sight — they’re still looking for a permanent home.
The design includes a subtle maple leaf at the top, which could easily be missed if it isn’t pointed out. “That’s how we are as Canadians. We’re not fiercely nationalistic,” Towndrow said.
His wife, Susan, is also travelling with the quilt. She says every culture has a tradition of sewing, giving the project universal appeal. She also says there’s something about the different textures on the quilt’s surface, from fur to intricate embroidery, that pulls its viewers close.
“You want to touch it. It just demands you do it,” she says, before cautiously adding: “although you’re not allowed to touch it.”
As for the message — well, it’s as if the quilt speaks to her.
“It’s like a language, in a way. It’s like a language of fabric.”