Inuit Art Quarterly
“When I looked at a model kayait at the University of British Columbia’s Museum of Anthropology (MOA) covered in harpoons, I saw a vessel for hunting,” Mark Igloliorte tells me as we stand in his exhibition at the Bonavista Biennale. “Recreational kayaking is therefore an appropriation of sorts, and the way to take that back is to assert the function of the kayak’s pre-colonial use for seal hunting.”
This Biennale’s theme was FLOE, a term for ice floating on the water’s surface. The curators poetically emphasized what exists below the surface, supporting what is visible— and much of Igloliorte’s work uncovers invisible histories. Iglolior te’s exhibition brought together work made at the MOA in Vancouver, BC, and during a residency at the Ramp Gallery in New Zealand. Much of his exhibited work responds to a disagreement over a draft animal ethics policy at Emily Carr University of Art + Design in Vancouver, where Igloliorte is an Assistant Professor. Inspired by fellow faculty member Julie Andreyev’s The Compassion Manifesto— a text that “invites the abandonment of destructive, outmoded, unecological beliefs generated by anthropocentrism”—the proposal aimed to set up a committee to evaluate all research proposals related to animals at the university.
To Igloliorte, the principles of the policy fundamentally dismissed an Indigenous perspective. Its language framed Indigenous traditions of working with animal-based materials as something of the past. And on an official level, the artist would need to formally defend his use of animal-based materials— key to his explorations of Indigenous heritage. With the support of the Aboriginal Advisory Committee, Iglolior te spoke out against the policy, which was eventually vetoed by the University Senate Committee.
One can trace the impact of this episode in Igloliorte’s recent work, which focusses on both the decolonization of the kayak and the Inuit right to combine contemporary forms with the traditional material of the sealskin. Igloliorte links the same understanding that places the kayak as a leisure activity to the larger policies of those who decry the seal hunt. His work here links to an ongoing conversation that includes Bonavista’s sealing history—a history that radiates across international borders. The annual hunt continuously draws criticism from animal rights groups, despite repeated statements from knowledgeable sources (such as Fisheries and Oceans Canada) that the hunt is a humane and fundamental aspect of this province’s culture.
“From the Inuit perspective there is nothing wrong with seal hunting,” Igloliorte told me. “That is why I, maybe in a didactic way, am trying to steer the conversation. I am asserting these terms and asking where we go from there. When we talk about Indigenization and taking ownership of one’s Indigeneity, well, how can that manifest? What are the steps?”
One step, these works suggest, is reasserting Indigenous history. With the large work on canvas, Kayak Is Inuktitut For Seal
Hunting Boat (2019), Igloliorte clearly states the boat’s Indigenous lineage, effaced during colonization. His connection to these histories exists in learning form through process. For example, his large canvas works present drawings done from observation of items from the MOA’s collection. The act is what Igloliorte describes as “taking time, spending time” with an object to show respect through careful attention. Similarly, working with his body is a method of acquiring knowledge physically. In Eskimo
Roll (2017), Igloliorte filmed himself learning a kayaking manoeuvre to flip oneself upright.¹ As Igloliorte once stated: “Capsizing myself… and then completing a full rotation with my body and paddle, I did so in an Inuit design with an Inuit technique. Sitting in the kayak back on top of the water, I completed something that my ancestors completed. The traditional has that power of connecting time in a way that does not take into account linear thinking.”²
Like the metaphor of the ice floe that organizes the Biennale, Igloliorte demonstrates that surfaces—whether the body, the land, the water or the canvas—are political sites. From his 2019 Rendering series, three paintings portray the conceptual and physical distance that he and many others feel from Nunatsiavut. Inuktitut words are laid over topographical images that combine surface information with stripped views of the land: Kavisilik Uvinik (salmon skin), Pulâttik Angiggak (visiting home) and Kasilik SekKuk (hurt knee). With these phrases, which also serve as the paintings’ titles, he questions the distance felt when returning home, recalls the memory of a knee strain while in the Labrador wilderness and alludes to Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami president Natan Obed’s analogy comparing Nunatsiavut’s lack of access to subsurface resources with having the skin of the salmon, but not its meat.
Nearby, a sealskin travel pillow shows that another surface—a seal’s pelt—can carry political value when it changes form. By creating a functional object that is meant to travel, Iglolior te asserts that the material can, and should, transcend international borders, despite policies to the contrary.
External criticisms of the seal hunt, and the way of life it supports, skim the surface. They lay ideas of how things should be upon the way things are, and don’t take the time to ask whether the criticisms are well-placed. Igloliorte asks for responsibility in language and respect in one’s approach. He examines how Indigenous identity is valued by the language that defines it. He shows that words reflect not only the intent of the author but also the values of the reader.
“Recreational kayaking is an appropriation of sorts, and the way to take that back is to assert the function of the kayak’s pre-colonial use for seal hunting.”