Get­ting Un­der Our Skin Art Gallery of Guelph


Inuit Art Quarterly - - CONTENTS - by Emily Jol­liffe

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

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