Labrador’s Inuit artists find visibility in Halifax

In this 150th year of Confederation, it’s useful to remember that Canada is a work in progress. Our last province joined us a mere 68 years ago, and we added new a territory (admittedly by subtraction from another) only 18 years ago. A young polity in an ancient land, we still have a lot of growing to do.
When Newfoundland joined Confederation, the original inhabitants of the largest part of the new province, Labrador, became part of their fifth colonial system: their land being considered, in turn, the property of France, Great Britain, Lower Canada, the Dominion of Newfoundland, and finally, of the Canadian province of Newfoundland and Labrador.
Throughout, the Labrador Inuit have remained. Despite hardship and immense cultural challenges, they’ve retained their sense of the own culture, rooted in their own land. That sense is on view in the exhibition SakKijâjuk: Art and Craft from Nunatsiavut, continuing  at the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia through September 10.
“SakKijâjuk” is a Labrador Inuktitut word meaning “to be visible.” It’s an apt title for this remarkable exhibition. Featuring 87 works by 47 artists, the show, was curated by Heather Igloliorte and circulated by the Rooms Provincial Art Gallery.
SakKijâjuk: Art and Craft from Nunatsiavut is the first multi-disciplinary exhibition of Labrador art and craft shown outside of Labrador. It is also the first multi-genre exhibition of Labrador Inuit art where the work is described as “Inuit.”
Until relatively recently, the art world didn’t consider Labrador Inuit art and craft “authentic.” The artists and artisans were not allowed to use the igloo trademark that is recognized the world over as denoting “official” Inuit art. Not surprisingly, this was because of bureaucratic wrangling: when Newfoundland joined Confederation in 1949, the provincial and federal governments could not agree on which level of government was to be responsible for the Indigenous peoples in the new province. While this dispute played out, Canadian Inuit art became a world recognized phenomenon, but artists and artisans in Labrador weren’t part of this “brand.”
The work in SakKijâjuk: Art and Craft from Nunatsiavut represents the visual culture of the most southern dwelling Inuit peoples in the world, who have long had interactions with European culture, from the Vikings to Moravian missionaries to American airmen. As a result, the visual culture is more hybrid than that of other Inuit peoples, and uses a wider variety of materials, including wood and grasses not found above the tree line. Igloliorte’s research describes how the artists were not only unrecognized and unsupported, they often were accused of being inauthentic—of faking their own culture.
The exhibition is divided into four sections: Elders, Trailblazers, Fire Keepers and The Next Generation. In the first, we discover a selection of the works of the people who embodied the traditions brought forward by the other three generations represented in show. The next generation is represented by artists in their 50s and 60s, and it is in this generation that we see carving, printmaking and other more familiar forms of Inuit art appear. The artists that were the students of this generation are grouped under the heading Ikualattisijet/Fire Keepers and this section features artists that have been able to live and work within the context of the larger market for Inuit art. The concluding section, made up primarily of emerging artists, many of whom have attended art schools in the south and currently live outside of Labrador, shows the way that traditional forms have been adapted by succeeding generations to address their creative concerns.
AGNS has one of the few permanent installations of First Nations and Inuit art in a Canadian art gallery, and a growing collection of works reflecting Mi’kmaq culture. For those of us living in Mi’kma’ki, SakKijâjuk: Art and Craft from Nunatsiavut is an essential exhibition. In fact, you should savour it. I recommend repeat visits to this incredible exhibition, both for the rich aesthetic rewards of individual pieces, and for how the show as a whole makes visible the rich cultural traditions of Nunatsiavut.

This story was originally published in Halifax Magazine.

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