Over eight hundred people crowded into the third floor reception area of The Rooms Provincial Art Gallery on October 7th, 2016 for the opening of SakKijâjuk: Art and Craft from Nunatsiavut. As the opening event of the 2016 international Inuit Studies Conference and the first exclusive exhibition of Labrador Inuit art ever held at The Rooms, it is perhaps understandable that the turnout for this special event broke the gallery’s all-time attendance record, but exciting nonetheless. SakKijâjuk, as the first-ever nationally touring exhibition to take a comprehensive look at the history of art and craft in Nunatsiavut, is a groundbreaking exhibition featuring over one hundred works created by forty-seven artists over the last sixty years (eighty-seven of these works will go on tour). Largely hailing from the Labrador coast, many of these artists were in attendance at this momentous event, which brought numerous members of the Nunatsiavut political, professional, academic and arts communities together with Inuit and others from around the circumpolar world to celebrate the exciting depth and breadth of artistic production generated in Nunatsiavut.
The purpose of this exhibition, curated by Dr. Heather Igloliorte, an Inuk art historian from Happy Valley-Goose Bay, is to bring to light the long overlooked history of Labrador Inuit art. In 1949 modern Inuit art exploded onto the international art scene, catapulted by the success of a famously sold-out show at the Canadian Handicrafts Guild in Montreal. Yet the same year, under the “Terms of Union” the former Dominion of Newfoundland joined Canada yet omitted any mention of federal jurisdiction over the new province’s Aboriginal peoples. The decision had an unintended effect on Labrador Inuit artists, making them ineligible for any of the federally funded Inuit arts initiatives that developed during the following decades. Carving studios, print shops, and the cooperative movement soon took form throughout what are now Nunavut and Nunavik, but there was no similar activity in Labrador. As time passed, Canadian Inuit art grew into a rich and varied practice, a respected field of study and a multimillion-dollar industry. Meanwhile Labrador Inuit artists remained nearly invisible. A handful of artists did find critical and commercial success on their own, yet understanding and recognition of Labrador Inuit art as a whole remained unseen.
SakKijâjuk means “to be visible” in the Labrador dialect of Inuktitut. In SakKijâjuk, the exhibition shines a light on the work of four generations of artists: Elders, Trailblazers, Fire Keepers and the Next Generation. It reveals the vital yet long-hidden art history of Nunatsiavut, highlighting the enduring resilience of these artists. In effect, this exhibition finally introduces Nunatsiavummiut artists and craftspeople to the world.
The creation of this exhibition has been made possible by the generous support of the International Grenfell Association, with funding and support also provided by the Nunatsiavut Government, Canadian Heritage, the Tasiujatsoak Trust, The Rooms Provincial Art Gallery Division, and contributions from both York University in Toronto and Concordia University in Montreal through various research grants. The exhibition is the product of four years of ethical, collaborative research and development undertaken with Inuit artists all along the Labrador coast, emerging from the simple question: what can we do together to raise awareness of Labrador Inuit art across Canada? The exhibition is the ultimate outcome of this collective, Inuit-led project, but there are many other positive outcomes emerging from this process as well. One exciting forthcoming development will be the publication in early 2017 of the 200-page, full colour exhibition catalogue featuring all of the artists and their works. The catalogue is written by Igloliorte and includes contributions by Jenna Joyce Broomfield (a Nunatsiavummiut throat singer and law student from North West River), Aimee Chaulk (Inuk editor of Them Days Magazine), Christine Lalonde (Associate Curator of Indigenous Art at the National Gallery of Canada), and Barry Pottle (Inuit photographer from Rigolet now residing in Ottawa). In addition, many of the artists have already been profiled in short oral history interviews highlighting their talents and knowledge, and a short documentary film featuring the creation of the exhibition is in development by Igloliorte and her collaborator, filmmaker Matthew Brulotte. In the coming months the exhibition tour schedule will be finalized and the exhibition website will launch, providing more Canadians with an opportunity to learn about the exciting history of Inuit art and craft from the Labrador coast.
Submitted by Dr. Heather Igloliorte