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An artist showcases the fine craftsmanship of Inuit women at the McCord Museum

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The first thing that catches your eye in the Piqutiapiit exhibition space at the McCord Museum in Montreal are the faces of Inuit women in the huge photographs that line the wall.

They are even larger than life, striking in black and white and sporting their beautifully beaded amauti, the parka that Inuit women wore and continue to wear.

In the center of the room is a selection of items used to make an amauti – thimbles, needles, combs, versatile feminine knives called ulu, carved from bone and horn and decorated with intricate designs.

“I was just in awe of the ingenuity of the Inuit,” recalls Inuk artist Niap of the first time she saw these objects in the McCord’s collection.

“We lived in such a harsh and unforgiving land, and the Inuit took the time not only to make their own clothes, their own tools, their homes, to move from place to place; they took the time to make things beautiful.

Niap is currently artist-in-residence at the McCord. The artist residency program allows a different artist each year to explore the museum’s collection and create an original work to exhibit. The Piqutiapiit exhibition is the culmination of Niap’s residency until August 21.

The next thing that catches your eye in the space is the artwork she created, also titled Piqutiapiit, which in Inuktitut means “small meaningful objects.” It is also a word used to refer to beading beads.

The piece is a beaded wall hanging inspired by the exhibits in the exhibition. It replicates the patterns and shapes carved into the tools, the patterns seen on the amauti in the pictures on the walls, the intricate beadwork on the child’s amauti which is part of the museum’s collection and which is featured in the exhibition directly opposite Niap’s work.

“I’m pretty proud of it,” she laughs. “It’s the longest I’ve ever taken on a project. The whole process took six months. Plan, find the materials, try some sketches. It took six whole months of my life.

To say the piece is complex is an understatement.

“She thought of every little detail,” said Jonathan Lainey, Curator of Indigenous Cultures at the McCord and Huron-Wendat in Wendake. “When you look at it, of course, it’s fascinating, but to hear her explain every decision she made and why, how it relates to the exhibits, I was amazed.”

She used a lot of found materials, reflecting how Inuit people reuse old objects for different purposes. Moose hide and teeth from her hometown of Kuujjuaq, Finnish buckskin from another residency she completed in that country, a few beads from a necklace she found at the market. The ends of some strings of beads are adorned with pieces of bone that she sawed herself.

She had originally planned to make about five such wall hangings, but since she doesn’t normally bead, she said she seriously underestimated how long it would take to make just one.

“I thought I was so arrogant,” she said. “When I started beading, I was like, ‘How arrogant are you to think you could have done so much?'”

Lainey told her not to worry: she could make one, and they could create an exhibit around it that would contextualize it and provide insight into the work that Inuit women put into their amauti. The result is the exhibition space currently on display.

Only one of the women’s photos is in the McCord’s collection, a wonderfully candid shot of a woman working on a garment while a young girl plays with her hair. The others come from other archives.

Lainey said this may have been because the people who traveled to northern communities to gather documentation and artifacts for the collection were more interested in the land and the hunt than in the activities of women. But for Niap, it is precisely this, the work of women, that is so inspiring.

“I was seeing these artifacts, and the restorers who are there never see them with any manliness or femininity, but for me, these objects that I was looking at, I find them so feminine,” she said. “The needles, the needle case, the ulu, the clothes.”

She said it surprised her that Lainey and other conservators didn’t see femininity in objects the way she did, and she wanted to explore that through the piece she did.

At the back of the exhibition space is a qulliq, a lamp made of seal oil, grease and soapstone. On the wall behind, a video of a qulliq in use, flames sputtering softly.

Gathered around a qulliq, the Inuit women worked their clothes and their beads. “It’s to set the mood,” says Lainey.

“It lets you imagine what it was like for the women in the photos.”

Piqutiapiit is a meditation on the know-how of Inuit women. It is also a gateway to understanding the extent of this skill and contextualizing it in the Inuit way of life.

“I always wanted to be a teacher growing up, and unfortunately I faced a lot of discrimination regarding my culture,” Niap said.

She said that as an artist, her goal is to educate people about her culture, to be a teacher in her own way.

“These things that I’ve learned throughout my career, I share them, and that’s what’s important first. Media is art, and I feel so lucky to do that.

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