Inuit artists among the stars at National Gallery exhibition
“She is so grateful to have her work here, for everyone to see”
OTTAWA — The National Gallery of Canada’s Great Hall was abuzz with media, gallery staff and artists Oct. 31 with the launch of its Canadian Biennial 2012, an exhibition of some of the most striking art made in Canada and acquired by the gallery within the past two years.
Hurricane Sandy spat rain and threw leaves outside the hall’s towering glass walls while inside, more than a dozen reporters representing local, national and art community media, set up cameras and recording equipment in anticipation of the press conference.
An assembly of casually-dressed hipsters with scruffy chins and interesting haircuts gathered in the back row of chairs — contemporary artists such as Max Dean and Michael Snow, whose works are included in this year’s Biennial.
A few feet away, an elderly Inuk woman in a wheelchair wearing a flowered dress and sealskin kamiks sat with two Inuit men sipping tea and eating sweets at a small round table, seemingly out-of-place and oblivious to the nearby bustle and excitement.
But in fact, the excitement was partly due to their presence.
Moments before the press conference got under way, Pangnirtung artist Elisapee Ishulutaq was wheeled to the front row of chairs by a grandson she raised, Andrew Ishulutaq, 25.
Next to them, in a pair of baggy gray cargo pants and a burgundy shirt, sat renowned Cape Dorset printmaker and graphic artist Qavavau Manumie, the only other Inuk included in this year’s Biennial roster of 45 emerging and veteran artists.
Shortly after gallery director Marc Mayer welcomed media and guests with “Good Morning, Bonjour and Ullaakut,” he recognized Ishulutaq, a prolific 88-year-old artist, as not only the eldest artist in this year’s Biennial but one of the most accomplished contemporary artists in Canada today. The crowd erupted with applause.
Of the more than 300 made-in-Canada paintings, prints, photographs, videos, sculptures and installations the gallery has acquired over the past two years, only about one third were included in the exhibition, which makes the honour all the more sweet for Ishulutaq and Manumie.
Lalonde said unlike southern artists who often work in isolation, elder Inuit artists have always passed on skills and knowledge to emerging artists in an entrenched system of mentorship and collective advantage. And she added that older artists don’t always stick to traditional themes.
“They have the confidence to continue to experiment,” she said.
This year’s Biennial, entitled “Builders,” refers, in part, to how the featured artists are contributing to Canada’s wellspring of contemporary art through their contribution of works and mentorship.
With these recent acquisitions, the National Gallery now owns nine works by Ishulutaq and seven by Manumie.
After a live discussion by gallery curators, media were invited to enter the exhibit and interview artists.
As Ishulutaq was wheeled through the gallery by Andrew Ishulutaq and Manumie, Christine Lalonde, the gallery’s associate curator of indigenous art, offered commentary on some of the pieces they were seeing and Andrew obliged with translation.
Lalonde, a specialist in Inuit art, wore a flowered shirt which Ishulutaq gave her in 1997 during Lalonde’s first ever trip to Pangnirtung.
When Ishulutaq entered the space where her enormous 9.3-metre-by-1.3-metre piece entitled “Nunagah” (My Home Place) was hanging, her eyes grew wide and then disappeared into a sea of wrinkles above a broad smile.
One by one, reporters approached her with cameras, microphones and congratulations which Ishulutaq accepted with grace and good humour.
“She is so grateful to have her work here, for everyone to see,” said Andrew, interpreting his grandmother’s words.
Ishulutaq was born at Kangirterjuak camp in Cumberland Sound and moved to Pangnirtung in the 1970s.
For 40 years, she has contributed drawings to the Uqqurmiut tapestry studio and print workshop and 94 of those images have been included in the annual Pangnirtung collection of prints. According to the gallery, Ishulutaq is the last living artist who was part of the first print collection in 1973.
Her images are by turns traditional and contemporary, ranging from scenes on the land in Nunavut to urban landscapes in downtown Vancouver.
Her Biennial piece, “Nunagah,” was larger than what she usually produces and depicts scenes from her past, fishing and camping on the land.
“She did this work because this is how Inuit used to live back then,” said Andrew, interpreting. “She wants them to see this after she passes away. It’s very important for her to tell people how Inuit lived was very different from today.”
Manumie, 54, was born in Brandon, Manitoba, where his mother was being treated for tuberculosis. They moved to Cape Dorset when he was about five years old and he says it was difficult learning to speak Inuktitut.
Manumie has been drawing, carving stone for printmaking and making prints for about 30 years. He says images often appear in his head from a dream or from animals and landscapes he sees around Cape Dorset and sometimes he has to sketch the image quickly before it fades from his mind.
The Biennial features two of his recent works: “Untitled (2011),” an abstract image of an eye which “watches over everyone in the world,” and “Untitled (Landscape) 2011,” a drawing of coloured pencils on black paper which depicts ice, tundra and open water.
Manumie has two prints in this year’s Cape Dorset annual collection and the Madrona Gallery in Victoria, B.C., will feature an exhibit of his contemporary ink-and-coloured-pencil works from Nov. 16 to Nov. 28.