Stitching the Surface
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: https://www.youtube.com/ 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