My most vivid memory of 2021 took place on March 1, after taking that first step into Qilak, the majestic main exhibition space at Qaumajuq, and looking up.

My most vivid memory of 2021 took place on March 1, after taking that first step into Qilak, the majestic main exhibition space at Qaumajuq, and looking up.

It was a bright and lit moment in a dark and dreary year.

Qilak is quite a sight, and there’s nothing like it in Winnipeg and in fact, few like it anywhere.

The official opening of Qaumajuq, the Winnipeg Art Gallery’s new home for Inuit art and its vast collection of sculptures, prints, tapestries and textiles, was a few weeks away, but the gallery granted some journalists an early look-see at Winnipeg’s latest architectural addition and tourist draw.

It took about one second to realize Qilak, as well as the rest of Qaumajuq’s 185,000 square feet of galleries, meeting rooms and art studios, is far grander than any of the artist renderings of Michael Maltzan’s design that were released prior to construction beginning in 2018.

Qilak means "sky" in Inuktitut, and like the vistas on a sunny day on the Prairies or in the North, the exhibition space seems to stretch to forever. When it is sunny outside, rays enter through giant skylights, making indoor lighting almost unnecessary. When a cloud obscures the sun a few moments later, the room gets a different tone of light, offering a different perspective on the same piece of art.

The Winnipeg Art Gallery opened Qaumajuq in March 2021 with an exhibition bringing together more than 90 Inuit artists working across the Arctic and the urban south. (Ruth Bonneville / Winnipeg Free Press files)

The Winnipeg Art Gallery opened Qaumajuq in March 2021 with an exhibition bringing together more than 90 Inuit artists working across the Arctic and the urban south. (Ruth Bonneville / Winnipeg Free Press files)

Qaumajuq means "it is bright, it is lit" in Inuktitut, but all that natural light is more than a name — it is Qaumajuq’s identity, its brand. Natural light is rarely seen in art galleries; in fact, artificial lighting is finely regulated at famous museums, not just to protect artworks sensitive to light, but to present them in the finest way possible.

Qilak can also be viewed downwards from the top floor, and even the biggest of the multimedia installations — one’s in a shipping container — are dwarfed by the gallery’s vastness, not unlike the endless stretches of tundra across the Arctic.

The final touches on Inua, the inaugural exhibition at Qilak, weren’t complete yet during the visit. The audio portion of some installations wasn’t ready and the signs that identify the works’ titles and the artists’ names weren’t there either.

It was a blessing in disguise. When folks visit an art gallery, journalists included, we spend too much time learning who created the work and what the art is all about and not enough absorbing the piece.

According to artists I’ve met, when they go to exhibitions, they rarely look at the descriptions, instead focusing on the art itself, getting their impressions of it and honing in on its finer details. It’s a resolution all gallery visitors should strive for in the new year.

And there was so much art to look at and absorb. A three-storey tapestry that includes a poem uses Qilak’s vertical space so rarely offered to artists. One large installation shows how Inuit try to preserve their traditional ways, while another focuses on an man’s battle to reclaim his lost Inuit heritage and the right to be called by the name his mother gave him, instead of the one belonging to the family who adopted him and brought him south.

Beyond those attention-getters, though, are small, intricate works that are as fascinating as the paintings and sculptures by Renaissance masters.

Donat Anawak, Woman with Lice on Face was part of INUA, the inaugural exhibition of Qaumajuq, the Inuit art centre. (Ruth Bonneville / Winnipeg Free Press files)

Donat Anawak, Woman with Lice on Face was part of INUA, the inaugural exhibition of Qaumajuq, the Inuit art centre. (Ruth Bonneville / Winnipeg Free Press files)

Fifty years ago, Princess Margaret came to Winnipeg for the official opening of the WAG’s original building. Thousands of Winnipeggers made their way to Memorial Boulevard for the event — some to see the Queen’s sister and some to see Gustavo DaRoza’s innovative, triangular building that became an instant landmark.

If it hadn’t taken place in the middle of a pandemic, Qaumajuq’s opening might well have attracted a new generation of the Royal Family to Winnipeg to cut the ribbon on the new gallery.

But 2021 is a different time, so it was fitting that the VIPs who blessed the building and the art that it stores were Indigenous elders from northern and southern Canada, relatives of artists whose work calls Qaumajuq home and descendants of those who signed treaties with the Crown over a century ago, including Treaty 1, where Winnipeg and the WAG are located today.

While Qaumajuq has been described in publications around the world as an addition to the WAG, it really is a conjoined twin.

While walking between old building and new, the transition is almost seamless. The WAG is a darker building, built with different materials and different intentions, but wander southward and Qaumajuq’s brightness invites you over to check it out once again.

As the years wear on, one will not live without the other. Without the WAG and its decades-long commitment to Inuit art, there would be no Qaumajuq and no gleaming new piece to the city’s architectural puzzle.

Without Qaumajuq, and the WAG would be like every other big-city art gallery in Canada or around the world: seeking an audience while striving for relevance in changing times.

Alan.Small@winnipegfreepress.com

Twitter: @AlanDSmall

Alan Small

Alan Small
Reporter

Alan Small has been a journalist at the Free Press for more than 22 years in a variety of roles, the latest being a reporter in the Arts and Life section.