Nunatsiavut: Our Beautiful Land at La Guilde, Montreal
When I lived in Toronto and went to school at OCAD I had free access to the Art Gallery of Ontario. I would go there on my breaks and walk around the contemporary galleries. Through familiarity I began to feel a strong relationship with certain works. Like old friends. I have a similar feeling about my books. I don’t know if animism is the right term, but definitely familiar, and definitely “lively” (I swear I am not making a Jane Bennet reference!). Walking into La Guilde to see Nunatsiavut: Our Beautiful Land – which features over forty works by twenty-five artists from the Inuit region of Nunatsiavut in Labrador – I had a similar experience of familiarity. Having worked as a research assistant for Dr. Heather Igloliorte in the early stages of SakKijâjuk: Art and Craft from Nunatsiavut, and seeing it tour through Winnipeg, it is nourishing to feel a sense of relationship with the works and artists developing over time. Names like Heather Campbell, Peggy Anderson, Vanessa Flowers, Polly and Samantha Jacque, and Nellie Winters are all starting to resonate as old friends.
Admittedly, La Guilde is not my favourite space as it is a commercial branch of the historic Arts and Crafts Guild, which has a long and mixed relationship with Indigenous peoples. However, it is not wholly unfitting that an exhibition of contemporary Inuit art is here. In a way it feels apt that the exhibition and our viewing of it convenes in a site that so readily displays its economics and references to stakeholders past and present. In order to get to the exhibition you have to pass through the front room of the gallery, with its half burnt out neon sign and mismatched selection of work. If you aren’t familiar with the space, it takes a minute to register what is happening and where one thing starts and the other stops. But once you move past that, in the main exhibition space, lit by large sets of windows and attended to with more careful curation, the work has space to breathe.
I was particularly drawn to the clothing and material-rich objects: mitts, capes, pillows, Kamiks, and sculptures made of seal skin, duffel, furs or hides contrast with light-weight delicacy of the Akulik and Silpak. I first gravitated to a stunning pair of high duffel Kamiks made by Shirley Moorhouse. The sparse, brightly coloured embroidery stitched into the deep black of the duffel gave me the feeling of breathlessness I only get when entering Northern landscapes. I was also particularly smitten with Flowers in a Vase, a seal skin sculpture by Inez Shiwak. Formally simple, the rich materiality of the work gives rise to a welcomed sensorial disjuncture. Several large photographs and paintings frame the more sculptural work in the centre, including Ancient Ice by Samantha Jacque. The photo, depicting an ice-cap with a swatch of blue and set against a pastel sky, is beautiful in a way that makes me wonder how Jacque managed to magically avoid the stylistic traps that befall so many photos of nature. Nan Arctic Char by Jennie Williams is a closely cropped black and white image of a toddler comfortably munching a piece of char. Towards the end of the exhibition, Caribou Lost in Shadow by Eldred Allen is a stark photo of a lone caribou, which, like Jacque’s reference to ancient ice in the beginning of the exhibition, remind those living in cities how the land and its inhabitants speak to and warn us.
As a reflection on their beautiful land, Nunatsiavut: Our Beautiful Land is a stunning survey of the material and representational richness Inuit of Nunatsiavut have to offer, while also importantly reflecting on the land as a source of life and inspiration. What stands out is how wholly the exhibition offers up the beauty and complexity of Nunatsiavut in a way that feels so profoundly invitational.
Sarah Nesbitt is an independent writer and curator based in Tio’tia:ke (Montréal).