Famous Paintings

‘Their work is still here even though they’re not’: Inuit artist celebrates family legacy

'Their work is still here even though they're not': Inuit artist celebrates family legacy
Written by Noah Roy

When Ottawa-based multidisciplinary artist Gayle Uyagaqi Kabloona was awarded a creative research residency with the Art Gallery of Guelph, she was eager to look through the gallery’s collection for inspiration.

In the archives, she found something very close to home.

“They have a huge collection of art from really big names… and they also have work by my great-grandmother Jessie Oonark and my grandmother Victoria Mamnguqsualuk.”

Oonark was a major Inuit artist known for innovative and colorful work. Mamnguqsualuk, who died in 2016 and whose works have appeared in nearly 100 exhibitions in Canada and internationally, shared Kabloona’s love of art with her from the start.

Kabloona normally works in prints and ceramics, but was inspired to take on a tapestry project after seeing one of her grandmother’s wall hangings in the Art Gallery of Guelph’s collection. (Submitted by Gayle Uyagaqi Kabloona)

Kabloona has fond memories of many childhood visits to Baker Lake, Nunavut, where the two of them would spend time together.

“She was at home a lot, working on her artwork,” Kabloona said. “She would make me a parka if I asked her to.

“She only spoke Inuktitut and I only spoke English, so we didn’t have very in-depth conversations. But I did spend a lot of time with her.”

Kabloona remembers how her grandmother’s art was “everywhere in her home” — even piled up on top of the freezer — and how eager she was to share it.

But Kabloona had no idea she would find her family’s work at the Art Gallery of Guelph, and was delighted to rediscover the prints, sketchbooks and wall hangings she believes may have been donated to the gallery by a collector.

“It was incredible,” she said. “It was amazing. A lot of the pieces, I hadn’t seen before.

Jessie Oonark’s “Woman” from 1970. Stonecut on paper. Oonark was a major Inuit artist, known for innovative and colorful work. (courtesy Ernest Mayer/Winnipeg Art Gallery)

“There was a really big piece — maybe six feet by six feet — that was completely embroidered with a woman who was half-caribou. That was stunning.”

In her art practice, Kabloona was already working on pieces that explored her family’s creative legacy, so finding this unexpected collection was a moving experience.

“Seeing that their work is still here even though they’re not, and now I get to see what they were doing and create new pieces, is really important to their legacy,” she said.

As part of Kabloona’s residency, she is creating a new work for the upcoming exhibition “Qautamaat,” which will open at the gallery on April 7, 2022.

“Quatamaat,” curated by Taqralik Partridge, will feature contemporary Inuit art alongside older pieces from the gallery’s collection.

Taqralik Partridge is curating the upcoming exhibit ‘Quatamaat’ at the Art Gallery of Guelph. (Submitted by Taqralik Partridge)

“Inuit are famous for being artists,” said Partridge, who is Inuk herself, having grown up in Kuujjuaq, Que. “Inuit art in Canada is well-known, historically — and there’s a whole lot behind that story.

“But I think part of it is the fact that Inuit culture, our culture, encourages everyone to have a creative practice and to make things.”

As well as being a curator, Partridge is a poet, performer and author whose work focuses on life in the North and on Inuit experiences in southern urban centres.

Partridge says it’s been “really special” to reunite Kabloona with her family’s artwork and see how that has inspired her.

“It was an exciting opportunity to bring Gayle into the collection to look at her relatives’ work and then to create work in response to their work,” she said.

‘I wanted to challenge myself’

Kabloona normally works in print and ceramics, but after seeing this collection of her family’s artwork, she chose to take on a tapestry project for the upcoming exhibit.

“I wanted to challenge myself,” Kabloona said. “I wanted to work in something a bit more traditional. I wanted to test out something that my grandmother did a lot. It’s an amazing opportunity to have the time and space to focus on just one big piece.”

Multidisciplinary artist Gayle Uyagaqi Kabloona doing a creative residency at the Art Gallery of Guelph. The gallery’s archive has pieces by her grandmother and great-grandmother, which Kabloona saw for the first time during her residency. (Katherine Takpannie)

In Kabloona’s tapestry, she is reimagining the story of the Fox Wife, about a fox who marries a human man.

“As an adult, thinking back on all of these stories that shaped my childhood, I realized that almost all of them have some sense of violence against women,” said Kabloona. “And I wanted to make art that reflects my thoughts and views on gender equality and womens’ importance in life instead of these violent acts.”

Kabloona’s fox wife will stand on her own — because she has decided to leave her marriage — rather than being driven away, and her husband respects her decision to go.

Partridge says Kabloona’s decision to tell a new version of the story is particularly exciting as part of a cross-generational exhibit.

“It’s a really special approach that she’s taking,” said Partridge. “Inuit stories and Inuit culture is not static, and younger people are taking Inuit storytelling, Inuit narratives, Inuit art in all kinds of amazing directions.”

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Noah Roy

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