Stitch­ing the Sur­face

Inuit Art Quarterly - - FRONT PAGE -

Ev­ery ob­ject has a story.

On the fol­low­ing pages we pro­file five works from across Inuit Nu­nan­gat with two im­por­tant com­mon­al­i­ties: each is made from an­i­mal skin and each car­ries within it a story beg­ging to be told. For these gar­ments, art­works and ob­jects ev­ery stitch is a word, ev­ery seam a sen­tence and ev­ery pat­tern a theme. To learn about their unique his­to­ries we turned to peo­ple with close con­nec­tions to them, re­veal­ing some of the sur­pris­ing, per­sonal and un­told sto­ries that these skin ob­jects hold.

A pair of fire-en­gine red mitts re­veal fa­mil­ial con­nec­tions as well as a unique cu­ra­to­rial project. A de­tailed cap made of loon skin, cari­bou fur and weasel pelts helps con­nect a com­mu­nity to a tra­di­tional dance. A seal­skin wall hang­ing uses in­no­va­tive tech­nol­ogy to tell the story of one fam­ily’s strug­gles. A seal­skin owl that trav­elled the world rep­re­sent­ing Canada has im­por­tant mean­ing for the fam­ily of its cre­ator. A cari­bou skin coat is more than a replica; for many Inuit to­day it is an im­por­tant sym­bol of cul­tural re­silience.

Though each of the fol­low­ing works were made in dif­fer­ent com­mu­ni­ties, at dif­fer­ent times, all re­veal im­por­tant his­to­ries of tra­di­tion, re­silience and (re)dis­cov­ery. And although this list is hardly com­pre­hen­sive, the ob­jects and mak­ers pro­filed on the fol­low­ing pages pro­vide a small glimpse into the rich mar­riage of tex­tile and nar­ra­tive that is deeply wo­ven across Inuit Nu­nan­gat.

1 Replica of an­gakkuq (shaman) Qin­gail­isaq’s coat 1982

Qin­gail­isaq’s wife Ataguar­ju­gusiq made his ex­cep­tional coat to tell the story of his en­counter with a fe­male iji­raq (shapeshift­er). The orig­i­nal was col­lected in the early 1900s for Franz Boas by Cap­tain Ge­orge Comer and is held at the Amer­i­can Mu­seum of Nat­u­ral His­tory. Qin­gail­isaq was an an­gakkuq (shaman), and this coat is said to be nearly iden­ti­cal to the one worn by the iji­raq. The gar­ment was in stor­age for many years, and in the 1980s a group of women from Iglu­lik, NU, made re­pro­duc­tions of it. This one is now in the col­lec­tion of the Gov­ern­ment of Nu­navut. The so­cial his­tory of this piece is thick with con­nec­tions to an­thro­pol­ogy, ethnog­ra­phy, mu­se­ums, Inuit sym­bol­ism, oral his­to­ries and per­sonal lega­cies.

Many Inuit are proud of this par­tic­u­lar be­long­ing, es­pe­cially the fam­ily of the seam­stresses who made this re­pro­duc­tion. It demon­strates how a re­pro­duc­tion can have sig­nif­i­cant mean­ing to a com­mu­nity. Often repli­cas are seen as lesser ob­jects and con­sid­ered unau­then­tic. In this case, how­ever, the re­pro­duc­tion is val­ued for what it rep­re­sents: skilled work­man­ship by Inuit who recre­ated the orig­i­nal gar­ment ex­actly as it was orig­i­nally pro­duced. There are per­sonal con­nec­tions to this gar­ment by way of the group of seam­stresses, led by Jean­nie Ar­naanuk, who made the re­pro­duc­tion in Iglu­lik. Peo­ple re­mem­ber watch­ing and help­ing the women sew the gar­ment and that has more sig­nif­i­cance than a ma­chi­neor non-Inuit made replica.

Tra­di­tion­ally an an­gakkuq would have very unique cloth­ing with amulets, tools or belts. What strikes me are the kakiniit (tat­toos) around the hand­print wrists, which sup­port the oral his­tory be­hind the gar­ment be­cause women have tat­toos and the iji­raq, whom Qin­gail­isaq en­coun­tered, was a woman. To­day, kakiniit con­nect to our cul­tural re­vi­tal­iza­tion through the resur­gence of tat­too­ing, which cre­ates a deeper link to the gar­ment for many Inuit. This piece con­trib­utes to pre­serv­ing our his­tory and main­tain­ing and con­tin­u­ing the oral tra­di­tions and art forms of Inuit. – Krista Zawad­ski

2 Nat­tiq­mut Qa­jusi­jugut (the seal that keeps us go­ing) 2014

I re­ceived a grant from the Gov­ern­ment of Que­bec to do a se­ries of works with QR codes. I made this spe­cific work for the North­ern Lights con­fer­ence and trade show in 2014. The har­poon head is made of bronze, with a ster­ling sil­ver rivet, the shaft is made of an­tique steel with rope and lastly seal­skin with per­ma­nent marker. I ac­quired the seal­skin when I par­tic­i­pated in a hunt with the Mi’kmaq on the Mag­dalen Is­lands.

This work re­ally pushed me out­side of my com­fort zone. I wanted to do some­thing dif­fer­ent from what I usu­ally do, which is mostly carv­ings and met­al­work. I wanted to make some­thing that I had not seen be­fore. At first I thought I would cut out the shape of the QR codes and sew it to the seal­skin, but since the pelt was moult­ing, I tried a dif­fer­ent tech­nique. I pro­jected the im­age of the QR code from a com­puter onto the skin and plucked off the white fur in the shape of the code. I then coloured the bare ar­eas with a per­ma­nent marker so the code would read on a de­vice.

If you scan the code, it takes you to a YouTube video that I recorded. It tells a story of how a seal saved my fam­ily’s life. It is the story of a time when there was a famine and my grand­fa­ther caught a seal. That seal is the rea­son that I am here.

You can watch the whole story here: watch?v=FoBPcHSpzb­c. – Ruben Ko­man­gapik

3 Na­haaraq 1958

The na­haaraq is a hat tra­di­tion­ally worn by Cop­per Inuit dur­ing a drum dance. It is made of the bill of a loon, cari­bou skin and fur and weasel pelts, and it is worn by both men and women. My grand­mother Rene Olik­toak and great-grand­mother He­len Kal­vak both made them in the 1950s and 1960s, but they have been made for much longer than that.

The Cop­per Inuit have two kinds of dances: the first is per­formed with drum­mers danc­ing as they drum, and the sec­ond is per­formed di­rectly af­ter the drum song is fin­ished. It is a freestyle dance called an up­qang­miut and that’s when we use the na­haaraq and spe­cial mitts. If you can make the weasel on the cap twirl around when you are danc­ing, it shows that you are a very skilled dancer.

I have been do­ing quite a bit of re­search on Cop­per Inuit cloth­ing and tools. I’ve even trav­elled to the Bri­tish Mu­seum and looked at and touched the ob­jects that they have, in­clud­ing loon caps. Af­ter I got back, I made a cap us­ing the de­sign of one of the ob­jects in their col­lec­tion.

There are many dif­fer­ent pro­cesses used to make the na­haaraq. Skins need to be de­haired, dyed us­ing red ochre (which peo­ple had to travel very long dis­tances in­land to col­lect) and stitched very care­fully. They take weeks to make, even though we now use some com­mer­cial and non-com­mer­cial ma­te­rial. It must have taken my rel­a­tives a very long time in the past, be­cause they would have been made in an igloo with very lim­ited light­ing. – Emily Kud­lak

4 Ookpik 1965–66

Jean­nie Snow­ball was my grand­mother.

She was a strong woman. At a young age she lost her hus­band to tu­ber­cu­lo­sis. She raised her chil­dren by her­self and hunted to pro­vide for her fam­ily. She had many ex­tra­or­di­nary tal­ents, one be­ing the abil­ity to sew.

She is known for de­sign­ing the Ookpik doll that be­came fa­mous af­ter be­ing shown at the Philadel­phia Trade Fair in 1963. Ookpiks, stuffed seal­skin owls with large, round eyes have trav­elled around the world and were an im­por­tant sym­bol for Canada and es­pe­cially the North.

The Ookpik doll ac­tu­ally has an in­ter­est­ing story. In a mo­ment of star­va­tion my grand­mother hunted an ookpik (owl) to feed her fam­ily. It saved her and her fam­ily. She was very grate­ful for that ookpik and hon­oured the soul of the ookpik in her thoughts. I be­lieve this is why she first de­signed the Ookpik doll.

I was pretty much raised by my grand­mother, and I re­mem­ber her mak­ing Ookpiks as I was grow­ing up through­out the 70s. There are many peo­ple who still make Ookpik dolls. You see them in the stores, gift shops and on sell/swap groups on Face­book. It makes me proud to see some­thing that my grand­mother made still res­onates with peo­ple.

I think my grand­mother’s story, and the story of the Ookpik, has started to be for­got­ten. In Ku­u­jjuaq, Nu­navik, QC, I had a taxi com­pany with an Ookpik doll on the side, rep­re­sent­ing her and our fam­ily, but only a few of the older peo­ple knew what that sym­bol meant.

I think that we, Inuit, are a sur­viv­ing peo­ple, and I think that the Ookpik rep­re­sents that. – Etua Snow­ball

5 My Fa­ther’s Pat­tern 2015

This pair of vi­brant red, fox fur and seal­skin mit­tens was cre­ated by Maria Merku­rat­suk on the oc­ca­sion of the trav­el­ling ex­hi­bi­tion SakKi­jâjuk: Art and Craft from Nu­natsi­avut, which re­cently opened at the Win­nipeg Art Gallery, and of which I am the cu­ra­tor. Be­gun in 2014, the ini­tial plan­ning stage for the ex­hi­bi­tion in­volved ex­ten­sive com­mu­nity con­sul­ta­tion through­out the re­gion, in­clud­ing meet­ing with artists to dis­cuss the chal­lenges they faced and their needs. We be­gan each ses­sion by ask­ing artists, “If you could cre­ate any­thing you wanted—to the best of your abil­i­ties and the height of your imag­i­na­tion— what would it be, and what do you need to cre­ate it?” For Merku­rat­suk, the an­swer was im­me­di­ately clear. The sole project out­lined by the artist de­tails the ma­te­ri­als needed to make the mit­tens: red seal­skin, red leather—enough for two palms—liner, red sinew, glover nee­dles and red fox fur trim.

An ac­com­plished seam­stress, Merku­rat­suk learned to clean seal­skin and to sew from her mother, who her­self was often joined by Merku­rat­suk’s fa­ther in this de­tailed and stren­u­ous work. Over time, he be­gan mak­ing his own mitts and kamiik, work­ing from pat­terns held and used by Merku­rat­suk’s mother. When the artist’s ail­ing mother was no longer able to sew, Merku­rat­suk’s fa­ther col­lected all of her pat­terns for safe­keep­ing.

Merku­rat­suk made these mit­tens for her­self, us­ing a pat­tern made and cher­ished by her par­ents. In their trav­els across the coun­try as part of SakKi­jâjuk, these mit­tens are a poignant and ten­der re­minder of the power of mem­ory, fam­ily and the love and knowl­edge that is shared through things made and worn. And they are, in ef­fect, a fam­ily por­trait—a fa­ther’s pat­tern, a mother’s teach­ing and a daugh­ter’s skill.

– Heather Iglo­liorte


Jean­nie Ar­naanuk (Iglu­lik) Replica of an­gakkuq (shaman) Qin­gail­isaq’s coat 1982 Cari­bou fur, cot­ton, cot­ton thread, sinew and cot­ton rib­bon 109 × 81.5 × 15 cm


Ruben Ko­man­gapik (b. 1976 Iqaluit) — Nat­tiq­mut Qa­jusi­jugut (the seal that keeps us go­ing) 2014 Harp seal skin, in­deli­ble ink, steel, bronze, ster­ling sil­ver, ny­lon cord and waxed ny­lon 114.5 × 180 × 6 cm


He­len Kal­vak (1901–1984 Ulukhak­tok) Loon Dance Cap Na­haaraq) 1958 Bird skin, seal­skin, cari­bou skin, er­mine pelt and sinew 38 × 18 cm


Jean­nie Snow­ball (1906–2002 Ku­u­jjuaq) — Ookpik 1965–66 Seal fur, hide and cot­ton thread 10.5 × 7 × 7 cm


Maria Merku­rat­suk (b. 1958 Nain) — My Fa­ther’s Pat­tern 2015 Red seal­skin, cowhide, fox tail, pile lin­ing, cot­ton, sinew and thread 45.7 × 20.3 × 10.2 cm

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