When architect Gustavo da Roza’s new Winnipeg Art Gallery (WAG) building opened in 1971, people described it as a wedge, its ulu–sharp apex pointing to Portage Avenue like an arrow to the city’s future. This spring, that future has arrived, and it turns out, the WAG wasn’t a wedge at all: It’s a cone. And Qaumajuq, the new Inuit art gallery that’s been built on what used to be considered the back of the WAG, is an extra big scoop of ice cream. White to the WAG’s grey, Qaumajuq’s bright scalloped facade seems to hover above the streetscape, and as you cross Memorial Boulevard, the ice cream becomes an iceberg: massive, solid, but seemingly made of light. The new gallery is a bright spot in the middle of the pandemic, but more than that, it’s the most significant cultural opening Canada has seen this century – and even long before.
The 40,000–square–foot light–filled museum attached to the Winnipeg Art Gallery is a bright spot in the art world – and beyond.
It’s not just that Qaumajuq (the “j” sounds like an English “y,” and there’s a breath after the final “q”) is the first major Canadian cultural institution to be given an Indigenous name by Indigenous people; or that it was built to house the world’s largest public collection of Inuit art; or that the collection is co–managed by an Inuit curator; or that the whole project has been overseen by an Indigenous advisory circle made up of members from Manitoba First Nations and the four regions of Inuit Nunangat (Inuvialuit, Nunatsiavut, Nunavik, Nunavut) as well as Alaska and Greenland. Any one of those factors would have made Qaumajuq unique. But together, they signal nothing less than the arrival of Inuit art onto the world stage as some of the most significant, moving, meaningful, subversive, sophisticated, and straight–ahead gorgeous contemporary art on the planet. In 2021, what could so easily have been (and briefly was) called the Inuit Art Centre is putting to final and spectacular rest the colonial notion that art by Indigenous people is a branch of anthropology.
INUA, Qaumajuq’s inaugural exhibit, is a trumpet blast announcing the arrival of Inuit art on the world stage of contemporary art.
“We have millennia of history of artistic practice,” says Heather Igloliorte, a Montreal–based Inuk scholar who is co–chair of the WAG Indigenous Advisory Circle and one of the four guest curators of the inaugural exhibition, INUA (which means both “spirit” in Inuktitut, and is an acronym for Inuit Nunangat Ungammuaktut Atautikkut, or “Inuit Moving Forward Together”). “You really only need to look at the work to realize that this is true.”
Until now, it has been a challenge to view the work: There have been exhibits, in Vancouver, Toronto and at the WAG itself, which has long had the world’s largest public collection, with over 12,000 pieces. But without the space to create a context, Inuit art has continued to be seen as a collection of largely figurative sculpture, often referred to as carvings, with artists like the late painter Annie Pootoogook or filmmaker Zacharias Kunuk seen as delightful outliers.
With 40,000 square feet at their disposal at Qaumajuq, curators can start to fix this, and INUA is a pretty fantastic first step. An exhibition of the work of 90 artists in multiple media, from video to textile to canvas to a 1997 teapot made of silver and wood by Happy Valley–Goose Bay artist Michael Massie that is just waiting to become iconic, INUA is a trumpet blast announcing the arrival of Inuit art on the world stage of contemporary art. “It’s going to be groundbreaking,” says Glenn Gear, a filmmaker with ancestral ties to Nunatsiavut who is putting together a work made of murals, video and sound inside what is known in the North as a “sea can,” a six–metre–long shipping container. He has just come out of his 14–day quarantine after flying in from Montreal and is working in a Qaumajuq studio space set aside for his installation. As we talk on video chat, people are hauling and rolling equipment around, pulling everything together for the late–March virtual opening. “The breadth and depth of work really speaks to the diversity and the resiliency of Inuit culture across the Inuit Nunangat.”
INUA will be up for 12 months, and Igloliorte is thinking that instead of an opening no one can physically come to, there will be a big closing at the end of this year or the beginning of next to celebrate both the exhibit and the gallery that created it. But possibly the single most significant physical feature of Qaumajuq is a permanent installation called the Visible Vault: a three–storey glass structure in the middle of the lobby that enables Qaumajuq to display thousands of pieces from the WAG’s massive archive that have, until now, been kept in storage for lack of space.
The most significant physical feature is a three–storey glass structure called the Visible Vault, displaying 75 percent of Qaumajuq’s Inuit sculpture collection.
“For them to be living in our space, to be viewable to not only us as Inuit but to the broader public means a great deal,” Gear says. “It’s a great metaphor for the ways in which many of us play upon tradition and push those traditions into the future.” With see–through floors and video screens with information, the Visible Vault is a literal unearthing of generations of work, giving visitors a sense of the mass and scale of Inuit artistic traditions. Before the vault, the WAG was able to display about one percent of its Inuit sculpture collection; now, we’ll be able to see 75 percent.
The vault was the architect’s idea, and that’s one of the reasons Michael Maltzan, a white New York–born Angeleno, was chosen for the job. After visiting other Inuit art collections, Maltzan says the way pieces were often displayed, with pinpoint lights that made them look like they were being plucked from the darkness, didn’t feel like what he calls an “art context.” “This is incredible and powerful and poignant contemporary art,” he says over the phone from L.A. “I wanted to make sure it was being seen in that way.”
After visiting Nunavut with WAG director and CEO Stephen Borys in 2013, Maltzan, whose work includes MoMA QNS, the Queens outpost of the Museum of Modern Art, wanted to recreate something he noticed about Iqaluit, Pangnirtung and Cape Dorset (since renamed Kinngait). “One of the things that struck me in the North was how often the work was being made right outside an artist’s doorstep, but in the context of this vast, vivid landscape.” So, behind an exterior wall of white granite, he created a large, well–lit, open space centred on these small–scale works in stone and ivory.
As obvious as it may seem that art should be seen as art, part of what convinced the jury that Maltzan was the right pick were his questions relating to the tendency of settler curators and directors to look at Inuit art through colonial pince–nez, and label pieces “artifacts” rather than contemporary art. “His question to us was, ‘Can we move beyond looking at [Inuit art] outside of the larger body of contemporary art in Canada?’” says Borys. “And the answer was, ‘We have to.’”
The group of language keepers met over Zoom and decided on the name Qaumajuq, the Inuktitut word meaning “It is bright, it is lit.”
The significance of Qaumajuq cannot be overstated. The reason the Louvre is the Louvre is that it was able to acquire and display a critical mass of European art, all in one place. Just by walking through it and paying attention, you get a handle on it, a sense of how single pieces fit into the whole, how influences come in waves, going backward and forward, how individual artists both stand out from and fit into the culture of which they’re a part.
Up to this point, the WAG’s Inuit collection has been mostly acquired and curated by settlers (though its current assistant curator of Inuit art, Jocelyn Piirainen, is Inuit). But with Qaumajuq, this is changing, and with this change will come others, including an increased institutional awareness across the country that collections should be curated by people who share a cultural heritage with the art. And soon, Canada will start to see the scrim between sculpture and carving, textile art and beadwork, art and artifact, descend and eventually fall. Not only will non–Inuit Canadians finally begin to understand, but Inuit will also be able to see the breadth and inter–relationships of the work in a way no one’s been able to before.
Which brings us back to the name. After a few cell signal issues from her home in Rankin Inlet (Kangiqtiniq), Theresie Tungilik and I make contact to talk about it. An arts advisor and the daughter of two artists, Tungilik was part of the group of language keepers that met over Zoom and decided on the name Qaumajuq, the Inuktitut word meaning “It is bright, it is lit.” The group also included Anishinaabemowin (Ojibwe), Nêhiyawêwin (Cree), Dakota and Michif (Métis) speakers, and they gave all the spaces, from the individual galleries to the main staircase, names that mean something to the people who have lived on this continent the longest.
As allusive as it is descriptive of the architecture, the name is also a milestone, and an Inukshuk in the often discouragingly slow process of reconciliation. “It’s a common word that is mostly related to a place being bright, having light in it,” Tungilik says in the weeks after the winter solstice, when we speak. “We are overcoming the dark days. We talk a lot about it becoming more qaumajuq.”
INUA Artists to Know
Glenn Gear (b. 1970)
A filmmaker living in Montreal, whose family comes from Nunatsiavut in Labrador, Gear uses drawing, collage, video, music and other acoustic effects to create arresting, often narrative, pieces.
Elisapee Inukpuk (1938–2018)
Inukpuk, who was born near Inukjuak in Nunavik, made dolls from stone, bone, fur, wood and other materials, one of the oldest forms of Inuit art, dating back at least 1,000 years.
Elisapee Ishulutaq (1925–2018)
An Order of Canada recipient, Ishulutaq was born in the Cumberland Sound area of the Northwest Territories (now Nunavut), but lived much of her life in Pangnirtung, Nunavut, where she was one of the first printmakers at what is now called the Uqqurmiut Centre for Arts & Crafts.
Mattiusi Iyaituk (b. 1950)
Iyaituk’s sculptural work ranges from traditional soapstone shapes to abstractions. Born near Akulivik in Nunavik, he cites British sculptor Henry Moore and the late Arviat artist Lucy Tasseor Tutsweetok as influences.
Zacharias Kunuk (b. 1957)
Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner (2001), Kunuk’s first feature film, has become part of the 21st–century cinematic canon. He is the co–founder of Isuma, Canada’s first independent Inuit–run production company.
Pudlo Pudlat (1916–1992)
From Kimmirut on Hudson Strait, Pudlat spent his later life in the artistic hub of Cape Dorset (since renamed Kinngait). His 4,000 drawings and 200 prints range from pencil drawings to elaborately coloured juxtapositions of traditional and modern life.
Allison Akootchook Warden (b. 1972)
Akootchook Warden, from Alaska, tends to look at the connections between ancient, contemporary and future Inuit culture. Her piece in INUA is a work of traditional garments festooned in neon titled Ancestor from the Future.