This spring the Winnipeg Art Gallery (WAG) announced a global first. It is the proud home of Qaumajuq, the striking new Inuit art centre.
The largest gallery in the world dedicated to Inuit art opened its doors in March with an international media conference. Conducted online by gallery director Stephen Borys, the conference allowed journalists to have a sneak peek of the site. Curators were available for questions, as was American architect Michael Maltzan.
Maltzan, who has also done work for the Vancouver Art Gallery, described his inspiration for the Bethel white granite structure. “I was motivated by the experience of going to the north and seeing the extraordinary artists and landscape where they work,” he explained.
At the core of Qaumajuq is a three-storey-high glass vault lined with shelves of more than 4,500 carvings that can be viewed from the street. The building’s upper portion is clad in white granite, resembling an iceberg. At night, the vault is lit like a beacon, reinforcing the new art centre’s name.
Qaumajuq (pronounced kow-ma-yourk or sometimes heard how-ma-yourk) means “it is bright, it is lit,” in Inuktitut.
“I was fascinated with the quality of light in Winnipeg and just as fascinated with light in the North. The exhibition space insinuates the scale of the North and the quality of light in the new setting is the bridge that links cultures,” said Maltzan.
Inclusion, collaboration and accessibility were guiding forces for the architect. “The Indigenous advisory circle worked with me about how to present a narrative,” he explained.
More than 14,000 works are housed in the gallery, including carvings, prints, drawings, textiles and new media. “In the past, you could only see one per cent of our collection at any one time. Now we have a variety of spaces where you can see so much more,” said Borys.
The names for all of Qaumajuq’s galleries are in Inuktitut and First Nations languages, chosen by the advisory circle. The front lobby and vault space is called Ilavut, meaning “our relatives” in Inuktitut, a reference to the artists and the spiritual essence embodied in their work. The 8,000-sq.-ft. main gallery is called Qilak, which means “sky.”
The inaugural exhibit in Qilak is called INUA. Inua is the word for “life force” in many Arctic dialects. The show features artists from the four regions of Inuit Nunangat, the Inuit homeland in Canada comprising Nunavut, Nunavik in Northern Quebec, Nunatsiavut in Northern Labrador and the Inuvialuit Settlement Region of the Northwest Territories. Heather Igloliorte, a Labrador Inuk and Concordia University art historian, Asinnajaq, an artist from Nunavik, Krista Ulujuk Zawadski, curator of Inuit art for the government of Nunavut, and Kablusiak, an Inuk artist from the West who is now based in Calgary, curated the exhibit.
More than 90 works are on display by artists from across northern Canada, and the circumpolar region, as well as some living in the urban South. Along with pieces from the 1960s and 1970s, there are contemporary creations such as the works of Eldred Allen, a photographer from Labrador who makes digitally altered landscapes from drone photos.
“What’s exciting at Qaumajuq is that Inuit get the opportunity to work in curatorial, management, and education areas. That has been rare in the past. We can show how we see Inuit art. We want Inuit to see that this is an exhibition for them. They’ll see examples of what is familiar to them,” Igloliorte explained.
She notes that even though Inuit artists live all over the world, some face issues when presenting art in the south that was made in the North. “The challenge is to provide an Inuit perspective.”
Although cultural knowledge is passed down from generation to generation, it does not remain stuck in one era or vision. For instance, Inuit traditionally have made and worn sealskin garments such as parkas to insulate them from the cold. A modern spin from one artist, Jesse Tungilik, in the INUA exhibit came in the form of a sealskin spacesuit.
A large part of the Qaumajuq collection is on loan from the government of Nunavut, which just renewed its loan agreement to 2025.
“We want to make sure it is shared through our exhibitions,” notes Borys. “We are not the hub, but a spoke in a bigger wheel for Inuit art of the north.” Eventually, he hopes touring exhibitions can expand the gallery’s reach across Canada and even around the world. In the meantime, the gallery is working to digitize its exhibits to give Inuit in the far north remote access.
Why choose Winnipeg for such a ground breaking new art centre? The WAG began collecting Inuit art long before any other Canadian public galleries. In the 1950s a forward thinking art educator from Austria immigrated to Canada and was asked to helm the WAG. Ferdinand Eckhardt was struck by the Inuit sculptures he saw on sale in the gift shop at the Hudson’s Bay department store and he went on to establish one of the finest collections of Inuit art in the country.
In 2015 the government of Nunavut entrusted the WAG with its Fine Arts Collection of almost 8,000 objects. The loan involves care, storage, exhibition, mentorship and development of public educational programming. Since then, artist and Elder residences and mentorship training, tour exhibitions in northern communities have taken place. In addition, the collection was digitized and a gallery shop was opened in the city to provide increased market access to Inuit artists.
Down the road, it is hoped a cultural heritage centre will be built in Inuit Nunangat. During the press conference, Borys confirmed he would send the Nunavut collection back “…as soon as they want it.”
The North covers more than one third of Canada’s landmass. Yet, very few Canadians have gone there. Lifestyle of the Inuit, cultural values and traditions are little known in the rest of the country. This new gallery may help rectify that. The educational journey is not only for those of us who live here. As the WAG website notes, the gallery’s mandate is larger. “Qaumajuq will bring the North to the South to deepen the world’s understanding of Canada.”
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