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Cultural heritage project engages Indigenous voices

Cultural heritage project engages Indigenous voices

A highly collaborative project seeks to recover, document and disseminate Inuit traditional knowledge and creativity; engage Inuit leaders; and enrich Inuit culture for generations.

Anna Hudson

Anna Hudson

York University fosters collaborative and socially engaging research aimed at providing a lasting legacy of benefits to cultures and societies. These characteristics are embodied in the work of Professor Anna Hudson, at York’s School of the Arts, Media, Performance & Design. Her research project, Mobilizing Inuit Cultural Heritage (MICH), funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC), is a unique collaboration aimed at recovering, preserving, documenting, facilitating and disseminating Inuit knowledge, culture and creativity.

“This is a multi-year, multimedia, multi-platform collaborative research/creation project dedicated to re-engaging Indigenous Canadian voices in visual art and performance,” says Hudson. “Mobilizing Inuit Cultural Heritage celebrates the contribution of Inuit visual arts and performance to Inuit language preservation, social well-being and cultural identity.”

Storytelling, foundational to Inuit culture, is the unifying theme of this project, which runs from 2012 to 2018. Storytelling is a rich and multi-layered means to share knowledge among generations in a way that reinforces cultural values and worldviews. For the Inuit, these stories provide a vital path to self-understanding; they establish a connection to the past that helps to interpret the present.

Hudson has, in many ways, focused her career on unearthing Inuit stories through art. Formerly associate curator of Canadian Art at the Art Gallery of Ontario, among her curatorial credits is Inuit Art in Motion and inVisibility: Indigenous in the City, an exhibition developed from the work of York Professor Susan Dion, a First Nations (Lenape-Potawatomi) researcher and teacher-educator at York.

Through MICH, Hudson is seeking to share the work of Inuit artists with the larger public, when all too often these narrative-filled works reside in private collections or museums in the South. “I am interested in creating opportunities where there is greater interaction and more knowledge and awareness of Inuit art as a vital presentation of Inuit culture, and a very important economic driver for the Northern territories and communities,” she says.

Project recovers and preserves Inuit knowledge and creativity

In championing Inuit traditional knowledge and creativity, MICH is a remarkable collaborative venture. It unites eight academic researchers, including Dion and Professor Angela Norwood, chair of York’s Department of Design, with nine partner organizations, artists, community members and graduate students. The partner organizations are Qaggiavuut!, the Nunavut software start-up Pinnguaq, the National Gallery of Canada, the West Baffin Eskimo Cooperative in Cape Dorset, Nunavut Arctic College and the McMichael Canadian Art Collection.

Heather Igloliorte

Heather Igloliorte. Image courtesy of Concordia University

Since 2015, through Concordia University’s Professor Heather Igloliorte, MICH has been an active partner in launching SakKijâjuk, the first Inuit fine art and craft exhibition from Nunatsiavut. The show, currently touring, was part of Newfoundland and Labrador’s first indigenous arts symposium, To Light the Fire.

Igloliorte’s research interests center on Inuit and other Native North American visual and material culture, circumpolar art studies, performance and media art, the global exhibition of Indigenous arts and culture, and issues of colonization, sovereignty, resistance and resilience.

She is currently working with the Nunatsiavut Territory to bring the arts and culture of the Nunatsiavummiut to light through several ongoing and multiplatform collaborative community-based projects. One of these is projects, SakKijâjuk, is being coordinated through the SSHRC Partnership Grant, MICH, led by Hudson.

Nunatsiavut is a region in Labrador that straddles the tree line. The Inuit have inhabited this land for over 5,000 years. From locally sourced materials, including soapstone, salt water seagrass, woods, fur, hide, wool and beads, Nunatsiavut’s artists have produced a wide array of works reflecting the many different ways to recount their history.

Creating art connects young artist with her grandmother

Artist Vanessa Flowers. Photo: Research Assistant Camille Usher.

One SakKijâjuk artist, Vanessa Flowers, creates beaded slippers and sealskin boots. For her, making these traditional crafts represents an important connection with her grandmother and fellow artist, Andrea Flowers.

 “I feel like it’s not so much doing the craft but more coming over to nan’s and spending time with her,” the young artists says.

“I hear stories about her past and just, while we’re talking, make a pair of slippers. I’m very grateful to have the opportunity to spend time with her.”

References to life on the land intermingle with rich personal narrative

Another SakKijâjuk participant − artist, illustrator and Inuit art consultant Heather Campbell − works with a range of media, including Inuit tattoos, photography and printmaking, to tell her story. Her evocative work contains visual references to life on the land, as well as a rich, personal narrative that speaks to issues of identity.

“I like stepping back from my piece after it’s completed, and seeing it as a visual representation of my generation.”
− Artist Heather Campbell

Heather Campbell, Can you see me now? (2014). Image courtesy of the artist

Heather Campbell, Can you see me now? (2014). Image courtesy of the artist

Campbell believes that traditional Inuit art involves a process of revealing what was already there. She warns that “to try to define our art as Inuit only if it follows the conventions of traditional Inuit art isn’t realistic.” Campbell pushes for new and innovative ways to connect with the past through art.

She describes her approach to art: “I try to allow my subconscious mind to draw what it sees. […] I like stepping back from my piece after it’s completed, trying to make sense of the associations, and seeing it as a visual representation of my generation.”

Heather Campbell, Sky, Land, Sea (2015). Image courtesy: Heather Campbell

Heather Campbell, Sky, Land, Sea (2015). Image courtesy of the artist

MICH is funded by Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) Partnership Grant.

For more information on the project, visit MICH website. To learn more about the artists visit the SakKijâjuk website and the To Light the Fire Symposium website. Information on Anna Hudson’s work is available online.

By Megan Mueller, manager, research communications, Office of the Vice-President Research & Innovation, York University,