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Urban Shaman Contemporary Aboriginal Art Gallery
203-290 McDermot Ave, Winnipeg, Manitoba R3B 0T2
In the MAIN Gallery and MFMG
FLOE EDGE: CONTEMPORARY ART AND COLLABORATIONS FROM NUNAVUT
September 8- October 14, 2017
Opening Reception: Friday September 8 at 8pm
Shuvinai Ashoona, Nicole Camphaug, Igah Hainnu, Niore Iqalukjuak, Qavavau Manumie, Sarah McNair-Landry, Raven Chacon, Danny Osborne, PA System (Alexa Hatanaka and Patrick Thompson), Erik Boomer, Eric McNair-Landry, Mona Nester, Mathew Nuqingaq, Nala Peter, Jamasie Pitseolak, Tim Pitsiulak, Ningeokuluk Teevee, Lavinia Van Heuvelen
Curator: Kathleen Nicholls
Artistic Director: Stefan St-Laurent
Every spring, the dark open waters of the Arctic Ocean meet the frozen sea ice along a line called the floe edge. Sometimes also called “the line of life,” the floe edge forms a dynamic ecosystem where Arctic sea and land mammals, shorebirds, and humans congregate around large, flat, floating chunks of sea ice (floes) that move with the tide and melt with the changing temperatures. This “edge” (or sinaa in Inuktitut, the Inuit language) is constantly forming and re-forming, an active site that takes its name and shape not from fixity but from continuous movement.
The floe edge is an apt metaphor for the work of the artists presented in this exhibition, who—like the free-moving ice floes—have remarkably active and thoroughly intersectional practices that integrate personal, cultural, and historical narratives. Each one of them has talents spanning multiple disciplines, yet despite their incredibly varied and productive output, very few work solely as artists. Although all are recognized as artists who regularly show or sell their artworks, art is only one of the ways in which they contribute to and engage in their communities: they work as everything from public servants to entrepreneurs to members of cooperative print shops. They live as artists, activists, mothers, fathers, students, teachers, hunters, and adventurers. These multivalent identities—artist as community member and community member as artist—create cohesive and integrated work, as in Niore Iqalukjuak’s photographic practice documenting his community, local landscapes, Arctic wildlife, friends, and family.
This sort of interdisciplinary art practice is necessarily rooted and reflected in the reality and culture of Nunavut: one of the core Inuit societal values (as identified by and incorporated into the territory’s selfgovernment) is pilimmaksarniq, or the “development of skills through observation, mentoring, practice, and effort.¹” Notably, value is placed on ongoing development, i.e., on process rather than on objects. In a context where “art” has been best translated as sanaugait, an Inuktitut word that literally means “things made by hand,” it is no wonder that artistic practices are focused on the experience of making. In many ways, art in Nunavut has always been defined by living as form: the earliest carvers made shamanic totems and children’s dolls, and the earliest fur, skin, and bead designs were sewn into warm clothing; when print-making and modern stone-sculpting tools were introduced in the 1950s and 1960s, they were and continue to be used primarily to represent carefully observed animals, scenes, and lived stories; contemporary artists in Nunavut are likewise working from within and out of their own lives.
By engaging with the works in this exhibition, we remind ourselves that many of the ways we commonly understand what it means to be an artist—e.g., artist as genius about to be discovered, presenting romantic moments of self expression, or alternatively laying bare the grim realities of our world—are in fact outcomes of something more essential, that being an artist describes behaviours that are part of being human: Mona Netser’s beautiful and detailed dolls, for example, are crafted using the same materials and techniques she uses in her award-winning parka designs, in the winter clothing she sews for family and friends, and in the many classes she teaches in her community. To be an artist is to be creative and curious in response to life: to sew a doll, but also to craft a pair of shoes, or design a set of lingerie; to take a photo; to walk out onto the ice; to sing from your throat; to make glasses to shade your eyes from the sun; to work with metals; to draw the things and the scenes that interest you. These behaviours—the consequence of which we call art—emerge seamlessly as a condition of being alive.
While the larger field of contemporary art has moved away from the silos of sculpture, painting, printmaking, etc. with the intention of embracing exactly these kinds of interdisciplinary practice, in many ways the old categories have been replaced with other boundaries. Art education, for example, is often myopically focused on training professional artists capable of producing museum-quality exhibitions.
Positively, this demand for professionalization seeks to place artists at the centre of the art world, to assure them the same respect as others working in other disciplines, and to ensure fair payment for their labour. Less positively, these efforts unintentionally curtail potential by prematurely determining what “museum-quality” looks like and how a professional artist should be. Subscribing to a fixed identity as an artist is as restricting as any other fixed identity (e.g., as a painter only, or a mother only); the true impulse towards interdisciplinary practice is the embrace of possibility.
There is power in being more than one thing: in working as an artist and as an office worker, or as an office worker and as an artist; in using new media to represent traditional practices (like Mathew Nuqingaq’s silver snow goggles), and in using traditional media to represent new forms and new ideas (like Nicole Camphaug’s sealskin heels or Nala Peter’s sealskin lingerie); in reclaiming and rewriting stories (like Tanya Tagaq’s creation of a soundscape to sing over the 1922 silent film Nanook of the North); in constantly developing and constantly forming. There is power most of all in being alive in your life where those identities and practices intersect; this power is palpable in works like Gauge, a film capturing the creation of large-scale paintings on massive ice walls—temporary works that are quickly erased by friction, tide, and temperature, washed from memory back into the Arctic Ocean—by a group of artists with strong existing connections to the site, the land, and the community.
What the artists in the exhibition have most in common is not that they are all Nunavummiut (from Nunavut)—or that most (but not all) of them are Inuit—but that their work not only represents their lived experience, but in many ways is their lived experience. Their work can be understood and appreciated in dialogue with other art, but it is best understood and appreciated in dialogue with life. Their work is interdisciplinary not because it has shifted in response to contemporary art practice, but because it
always has been.
Still, Nunavut is a unique context: it is one of the most remote and sparsely populated territories in the world, with a total population of just 32,000 spread out over an area the size of Western Europe, yet it is arguably Canada’s most creative region. Nunavut is a place where there are over 4,000 practicing artists (roughly a quarter of all adults!) who regularly sell work not only through galleries and professional art dealers, but directly from their studios, at craft sales, and even table-side at restaurants daily; a place where the arts are considered and promoted as a viable economic sector alongside mining and tourism; and where even the Government of Nunavut’s own official territorial arts and crafts strategy² insists on an art sector that acknowledges and supports many ways of being an artist.
Small wonder then that artists in Nunavut (and the artists in this exhibition in particular) are at the interdisciplinary centre of current contemporary art practice, at the generative site where art and life melt into each other, at the intersectional line that divides and connects the open ocean and the frozen sea—in other words, at the floe edge.
¹ Government of Nunavut, “Inuit Societal Values,” Government of Nunavut website, gov.nu.ca/information/inuit-societal-values
² Government of Nunavut, Department of Economic Development and Transportation, “Sanaugait: A Strategy for Growth in Nunavut's Arts and Crafts Sector,” Government of Nunavut website, gov.nu.ca/sites/default
Urban Shaman: Contemporary Aboriginal Art Gallery acknowledges the support, throughout the year, of our friends, volunteers, community and all our relations, NCI FM, Wawanesa Insurance, the Winnipeg Arts Council, the Manitoba Arts Council, the Canada Council for the Arts, Southwood Plywood Sales Ltd. (Pembina Hwy location) and Axeneo7 and the Nunavut Arts and Craft Association.