Inuit art, TB treat­ment and Stephen Lewis’s first tour of the AGH

En­dur­ing art: Stephen Lewis sees AGH’s Carv­ing Home show

The Hamilton Spectator - - FRONT PAGE - JEFF MA­HONEY

Stephen Lewis was asked to lunch and a per­sonal tour of an Art Gallery of Hamil­ton show Fri­day not to make a meal of his words about Canada’s re­sponse, 1950s-1960s, to tu­ber­cu­lo­sis among the Inuit but to mea­sure them against a dif­fer­ent pic­ture.

Those words? “Cul­tural geno­cide” and a res­i­den­tial schools com­par­i­son were among his de­scrip­tions of that his­tory, in­clud­ing vir­tu­ally en­forced evac­u­a­tion, in re­cent speeches.

So he was in­vited, by AGH president and CEO Shel­ley Fal­coner, not for re­but­tal but for the sake of con­ver­sa­tion, un­der­stand­ing. What higher goal can an art gallery as­pire to?

Lewis — co-di­rec­tor, AIDS-Free World — gamely ac­cepted the comeon-over and, in his first-ever visit to the AGH, got walked through “Carv­ing Home: The Che­doke Col­lec­tion of Inuit Art,” on at the gallery since the sum­mer.

The ex­hibit ex­plores and cel­e­brates the con­tri­bu­tions made and beau­ti­ful carv­ings done by Inuit TB pa­tients at the Moun­tain Sana­to­rium (later Che­doke Hospi­tal).

Nancy Anil­nil­iak, a for­mer pa­tient (1958 — she was five) and McMaster Univer­sity’s Emily Cowall, an an­thro­pol­o­gist spe­cial­iz­ing in the Inuit and tu­ber­cu­lo­sis, were his guides.

Some 1,200 Inuit from Canada’s eastern Arc­tic were sent here be­tween 1953 and 1963.

Some stayed a short time. Some longer. Some died here.

The works they cre­ated were a sen­sa­tion at the time, and their ap­peal con­tin­ues, strong as ever.

On the other hand, Lewis vis­ited two Inuit com­mu­ni­ties ear­lier this year and heard peo­ple talk about what has been de­scribed as the break­ing of a chain that those years of evac­u­a­tion and con­va­les­cence rep­re­sented.

A chain of lan­guage, tra­di­tional skill trans­mis­sion; a chain of con­tact and con­ti­nu­ity with fam­ily and com­mu­nity life, snapped. In some cases, fam­ily mem­bers were never re­u­nited.

“They (the elders) spoke with such a depth of emo­tion, as they talked about loss of fam­ily and lan­guage,” Lewis told the gath­er­ing at the gallery. “They wept as they spoke, this out­pour­ing of elo­quent grief.” (Sadly, TB is still an acute prob­lem in the Far North.)

On the other hand, there was a med­i­cal emer­gency, thou­sands of Inuit suf­fer­ing with TB with no help any­where near. Many of the evac­u­ated were suc­cess­fully treated. There were even sto­ries of hap­pi­ness, like Nancy Anil­nil­iak’s.

Ef­forts were made, im­per­fect as they were, to do the best in a bad sit­u­a­tion.

As Emily Cowall noted in her re­marks be­fore the tour, the idea of build­ing a hospi­tal in the Far North was con­sid­ered: “It would’ve taken 10 to 20 years.” Hamil­ton al­ready had a cen­tre of ex­cel­lence for crit­i­cal care.

“There were ra­dio head­phones at ev­ery bed. Peo­ple (pa­tients) could go on the ra­dio waves. They brought in an arts and craft pro­gram.” The re­sults? The amaz­ing sculp­ture and art fea­tured in the ex­hibit.

Anil­nil­iak, who now lives in Pang­nir­tung on Baf­fin Is­land, has been back to Hamil­ton many times since her year at the San.

Ed­u­cated in Churchill, Man., she re­cently re­tired from a long ca­reer with Parks Canada in Nu­navut. This past sum­mer, help­ing with the ex­hibit, she was re­u­nited with one of her nurses.

“The nurses were very good to me,” she said. She was hap­pily re­u­nited with her fam­ily.

TB suf­fer­ers from around the globe were sent to the sana­to­rium, which com­bined ex­pert staff and fa­cil­i­ties with an ideal set­ting for con­va­les­cence, given the un­ob­structed wind, sun ex­po­sure and salu­bri­ous air that pre­vailed at that el­e­va­tion — the es­carp­ment brow.

The sad­ness of sep­a­ra­tion and dis­con­ti­nu­ity were com­mon to all, said Cowall, no mat­ter where from, a syn­chro­nism of the treat­ment of iso­la­tion of com­mu­ni­ca­ble dis­ease.

In his re­marks af­ter tour­ing the ex­hibit, Lewis praised the beauty and qual­ity of the works and ex­pressed grat­i­tude for the op­por­tu­nity to look and learn about the sto­ries be­hind the experience.

This, Fal­coner sug­gested to me at the end, was the gallery in the full bloom of its re­spon­si­bil­ity as a spur for di­a­logue, his­tor­i­cal con­text, cul­ture and char­ac­ter in the city.

I think she’s right. The ex­hibit it­self is fas­ci­nat­ing and in­for­ma­tive. And this is the last week­end it’s up, so go see it.


Above: For­mer San pa­tient Nancy Anil­nil­iak dis­cusses the Inuit art with Stephen Lewis.

Right: Lewis, Anil­nil­iak, left, and McMaster Univer­sity’s Emily Cowall tour the Inuit ex­hi­bi­tion.

Left and above: A bear carv­ing by Jo­bie Snowball and Hunter with Avataq by Pi­ta­jusi Uriju Qau­ri­tiju are on dis­play at the AGH.

This Carv­ing by Mos­esee, “Mother and Child,” is part of the Inuit ex­hi­bi­tion.

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