Getting Under Our Skin Art Gallery of Guelph
MAY 10–SEPTEMBER 5, 2018 GUELPH, CANADA
Getting Under Our Skin— curated by Andrew Hunter and described as “an important look at the crucial importance of the seal hunt in Inuit culture”—offers just that. The concept is simple: listen to those who understand the realities of living in one of the most food insecure environments and from those whose ancestors have survived some of the harshest and most extreme conditions imaginable. Featuring works by a wide range of contemporary and historical Inuit artists, including selected works from the
Art Gallery of Guelph’s permanent collection by Jessie Oonark, OC, RCA (1906–1985), Pitseolak Ashoona, CM, RCA (c. 1904–1983), Nick Sikkuark (1943–2013), Peter Pitseolak (1902–1973) and more, the show takes an intergenerational and multimedia perspective of Inuit relationships to sealing as told by those who know it and live by it—not, as it is often portrayed, by individuals and organizations lacking first-hand knowledge.
The exhibition opens with vibrant photographic scenes by Katherine Takpannie, whose setting would be recognizable to most Canadian visitors. Yet the familiar location of Parliament Hill, best known as a site of national ceremony, is instead occupied by Inuit youth protesting the unfair, uninformed and longstanding sanctions that have been imposed on the seal trade. In these images, Nunavut Sivuniksavut students wear traditional clothing—the amauti ’s (woman’s parka) classic form visible—with modern twists. One photograph depicts participants in a pro-sealing rally, performing the traditional Western Arctic song “Scraping Skins,” while clad in jackets made of sealskin. This slippage between the traditional and contemporary evokes a very real sense that this is a critically important, ongoing issue, affecting those currently residing in the North, while serving to frame the remaining work beyond.
Adding to the conversation, a vividly composed excerpt from Iqaluit-based writer Aviaq Johnston’s novel Those Who Run in the Sky (2017) brings the intense and intimate connection between hunter and seal into the gallery. “Pitu grabbed a handful of snow from the ice and stuck it in his mouth to melt. . . . He opened the seal’s mouth and transferred the melted snow water by spitting it out in a stream into the mouth of the seal,” writes Johnston. “He did this to thank the seal for its choice to be caught, giving it water so that its spirit would not be thirsty in its next life.” The quote is as delicate and complex as the relationship between the frozen tundra, the floe edge, the Arctic Ocean and the animals and people who call it home.
Takpannie’s contemporary images of protests and Johnston’s poetic meditation mix with the colourful, lovingly drawn pattern Cutout pieces for an amautiq, hood and socks
(schematic clothing patterns) (1978) by Jessie Oonark to demonstrate the enduring and intergenerational impact of sealing in Inuit culture. However, it is in award-winning Inuk filmmaker Alethea Arnaquq-Baril’s documentary Angry Inuk (2016) where this voice is strongest. Featuring first-hand accounts and interviews with those most affected by the banning of seal products, the film illuminates the central role that seal has played for generations of Inuit who continue to thrive in harsher conditions than most southerners have or will ever encounter. In Jamasie Teevee’s (1910–1985) Seal Composition (n.d.), a wall is formed by rows upon rows of chubby seals, of which I am sure many hunters have dreamed while waiting for the animal to appear. Around the corner of the gallery’s hallway, Pitseolak Ashoona’s Birds Fighting Over Seal (1975) depicts the many other Arctic inhabitants, aside from humans, who rely on the seal to prosper, while Arnaquq-Baril’s looping documentary plays beyond, functioning as not only the inspiration for the show but the heart of it.
In combining works of historical artists selected by four Inuit youth participants—Takpannie, Parr Etidloie, Avianna Ulliaq Alaingaq Mackenzie and Albie Sheldon— with contemporary critique, the show engages viewers in the ongoing dialogue surrounding contemporary sealing, as well as with its immediate relationship to Indigenous rights and the real concerns of food security. What is clear throughout is that the seal has been and remains a central part of Inuit economic, political and cultural sovereignty. And, moving forward, it will continue to shape and enrich it.
As much as the exhibition asks us to listen—from the predominance of interviews conducted in Inuktut in Arnaquq-Baril’s documentary to the lucid trailer for Animism (2014) by award-winning musician Tanya Tagaq, CM in which the singer consumes and transforms into a seal while her deep, haunting notes fill the landscape— the didactics are conspicuous in their lack of Inuktut translations. Although the show is mounted in a southern institution and therefore may not receive high numbers of native Inuktut speakers, the voice and language of Inuit has a crucial place in confronting the public. In an exhibition emphasizing the importance of this exchange, should the show not privilege the same discourse it asks from visitors? And has this ambitious collaborative project done all that it set out to do?
The lack of inclusion of works created directly from seal is notable in an exhibition where the primary goal is engaging and educating southern audiences to a de-exoticized northern way of life. And although numerous sculptures and works on paper are offered as a stand in for the physical animal, its skin and body are markedly absent. Although the audience is invited to become part of the conversation, interacting with Inuit points of view and voices, the discussion will need to be fostered and continued beyond the gallery’s walls to sustain its intended impact. Ultimately, Getting Under Our Skin left me feeling hopeful for a meaningful change in perspective and the much-needed inclusion of Inuit voices. That is, if we can remember and are willing to listen.
Katherine Takpannie (b. 1989 Ottawa)—Pro Sealing Rally, featuring Inuit throat singers Leanna Wilson and Tooma Dianna Laisa, Parliament Hill, Ottawa, March 2018 2018Digital photograph Dimensions variable