Body language Traditional Inuit tattooing a sacred practice that tells a personal story

When Mumilaaq Qaqqaq, the former Member of Parliament for Nunavut, won her seat in the 2019 federal election, she made waves: here was a young (then just 25) Inuk woman poised to be a voice of change, and she was the only candidate to have visible tattoos on her face.

Read this article for free:

or

Already have an account? Log in here »

To continue reading, please subscribe with this special offer:

All-Access Digital Subscription

$1.50 for 150 days*

  • Enjoy unlimited reading on winnipegfreepress.com
  • Read the E-Edition, our digital replica newspaper
  • Access News Break, our award-winning app
  • Play interactive puzzles
Continue

*Pay $1.50 for the first 22 weeks of your subscription. After 22 weeks, price increases to the regular rate of $19.00 per month. GST will be added to each payment. Subscription can be cancelled after the first 22 weeks.

When Mumilaaq Qaqqaq, the former Member of Parliament for Nunavut, won her seat in the 2019 federal election, she made waves: here was a young (then just 25) Inuk woman poised to be a voice of change, and she was the only candidate to have visible tattoos on her face.

“What I look like already is very different from what you’re used to seeing in politics,” she told Fashion Magazine at the time.

Kakiniit — traditional Inuit tattoos — are an important part of identity and expression, particularly among Inuit women. They are also a sacred practice that was nearly erased by colonization. The Catholic Church saw them as evil and missionaries banned the practice, depriving generations of this rite of passage and community.

DAVID LIPNOWSKI / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS
Piirainen (left) and Zoe Ohokannoak have co curated Kakiniit Hivonighijotaa, an exhibit focused on the art of Inuit tattooing at the WAG.

Within the last decade, however, there’s been a resurgence in Inuit women reclaiming kakiniit. On Instagram, you can find photos of young Inuit women from across Inuit Nunangat proudly wearing markings that were once forbidden.

Kakiniit Hivonighijotaa: Inuit Embodied Practices and Meanings, a new exhibition at Winnipeg Art Gallery-Qaumajuq, explores both the history and revitalization of traditional Inuit tattooing, as well as its connection to shamanism. It’s also the curatorial debut for Zoe Ohokannoak, a student of the Inuit Futures in Arts Leadership: The Pilimmaksarniq/Pijariuqsarniq Project, which offers emerging artists and other post-secondary students the opportunity to have hands-on experiences in institutions. Jocelyn Piirainen, associate curator of Inuit art at WAG-Qaumajuq, offered Ohokannoak mentorship throughout this project. Both curators are from Iqaluktutiak (Cambridge Bay), Nunavut.

DAVID LIPNOWSKI / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS
Jocelyn Piirainen, associate curator of Inuit art (left) and Zoe Ohokannoak, Inuit Futures student worked together to find pieces for the exhibition,

Ohokannoak has long been interested in kakiniit.

“Seeing that resurgence and how impactful it has been to individuals, and seeing young people actually getting tattoos has really been inspiring to me,” Ohokannoak says. “As I was able to be recruited to Inuit Futures, it’s been an incredible experience to be able to research further into what has been so inspiring in my culture, and being able to reflect that into an exhibition with these incredible pieces by incredible Inuit artists.”

The exhibition pulls from the WAG-Qaumajuq’s massive permanent collection of Inuit art, as well as the Government of Nunavut Collection, which is on long-term loan, and includes bone and stone carvings, prints, and other media — such as Maudie Rachel Okittuq’s Sea Goddess (1977), which is an embroidered doll wearing kakiniit.

photos by DAVID LIPNOWSKI / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS
Co-curators Jocelyn Piirainen, left, and Zoe Ohokannoak pulled pieces from the gallery’s collection of Inuit art for Kakiniit Hivonighijotaa.

“Finding all these pieces to work with was a lot of fun,” Piirainen says.

Commonalities in the markings emerge through the artworks — such as the V emblazoned on the forehead — but no two tattoos are the same: each marking is intensely personal to the wearer and so, too, to the artwork. Some reflect the region they are from; others have been passed through generations. Together, these markings compose personal and family histories, made legible on the body.

To that end, subtitle of the exhibition — Inuit Embodied Practices and Meanings — is important: it’s not just about focusing what’s on the surface, Ohokannoak explains. “It’s the process of surfacing the meaning. With each stitch, there’s meaning in that. Being able to build that into a whole artwork on the face, on the arms, on the body — it’s an extremely emotional experience for an individual, for their family. And having that translation is just an absolutely beautiful thing.”

DAVID LIPNOWSKI / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS
Jocelyn Piirainen (right) and Zoe Ohokannoak with Maudie Rachel Okittuq’s Sea Goddess, an embroidered doll wearing kakiniit, traditional Inuit tattoos.

For Ohokannoak, it was also a personal thing. The exhibition also includes some cherished family photos.

“There is one of my ataata’s or my grandpa’s stepmom, and she had the V on her forehead,” Ohokannoak says. “It’s a little bit hard to see because it’s very old. I was extremely excited to know that my ataata had that image, and talking with him about different things about her culture — it was very soothing to figure out his journey. Another one is of my granny, on my father’s side, my great-grandmother. In her pictures she looks so happy and gleaming, so I’m happy to include those in the exhibition.”

Kakiniit Hivonighijotaa: Inuit Embodied Practices and Meanings opens Saturday and is on view until July.

jen.zoratti@winnipegfreepress.com

Twitter: @Jen Zoratti

Jen Zoratti

Jen Zoratti
Columnist

Jen Zoratti is a Winnipeg Free Press columnist and co-host of the paper's local culture podcast, Bury the Lede.

Report Error Submit a Tip