Opinion

Light matters in the North, in a way the people who live there understand in their bones.

There's the light of summer, undying, shared by a sun that never fully sets. There's the light of the winter, thrown by lamps that allow life to thrive in the darkness, and by stars glinting in nights that never end.

Inuit Art Centre becomes Qaumajuq

Click to Expand
Julia Lafreniere, Manager of Indigenous Initiatives at the WAG. (Mike Deal / Winnipeg Free Press)
Julia Lafreniere, Manager of Indigenous Initiatives at the WAG. (Mike Deal / Winnipeg Free Press)

Posted: 28/10/2020 2:19 PM

Hello, Qaumajuq. Goodbye, Inuit Art Centre.

The soon-to-be-completed addition to the Winnipeg Art Gallery focusing on its vast collection of Inuit works of art (the largest such compilation in the world) has a new name.

Read Full Story

"Us northerners that live in 24-hour darkness in the wintertime, brightness is awfully important to us, because we do need light, because we continuously create either art or clothing," said Theresie Tungilik, from Rankin Inlet, an artist and adviser for the Nunavut government.

"We need that light to see what we are creating."

For years, the things Inuit create in that light, the paintings and carvings and works of textile art, have captured the wider art world. Now, when the Winnipeg Art Gallery's new Inuit Art Centre opens in early 2021, it will bear a name that speaks to where those works come from, how they were made and the spirit in which they'll be shown.

Qaumajuq. In the way of Inuktitut words, it consists of a root grown and shaped into a verb: it means "it is bright," or else, "it is lit." A word that calls to mind the luminosity of northern light, and the conversation it keeps between snow and water and sky, a factor that also inspired the architect who designed the $65-million building.

The name was chosen by an Indigenous advisory council composed of people from across all four regions of Inuit Nunangat, the Inuit homeland, as well as the Cree, Ojibway, Dakota and Métis nations. They chose a name for the centre and for the spaces in and around it, bestowing them with words that sing with meaning.

The Vault in the new Inuit Art Centre at the Winnipeg Art Gallery (WAG) in Winnipeg.

(JOHN WOODS / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES

The Vault in the new Inuit Art Centre at the Winnipeg Art Gallery (WAG) in Winnipeg.

So the entrance hall will be called Ilavut, or "our relatives," a word of kinship for the artists who created the works on display. The steps where workshops will be held are Ilipvik, "a place where you learn." The resource centre becomes Pituaq, which refers to the pegs on which soapstone qulliq lamps, the traditional heart of an Inuk home, rest.

The mezzanine gallery will be known as Pimatisiwin, a word shared by Cree and Ojibway that means "a life, a way of living." It was important to the advisory council that the facility hold names from tongues other than Inuktitut: it stands on Treaty 1 territory, and Ojibway, Cree, Dakota and Michif have all echoed over these lands.

And then, at the heart of it all, Qaumajuq. Not the place this time, but the action.

"It really felt right that this should be the name for the Inuit Art Centre," said Tungilik, who was part of the council. "It should be called Qaumajuq, not just because it’s bright but because it’s going to brighten the pathway for non-Inuit to understand Inuit carvings and art and read our lives through the arts in that light."

The advisory council also bestowed the Winnipeg Art Gallery itself with a Ojibway name, Biindigin Biwaasaeyaah, which resonates with the Inuit Art Centre's Inuktitut name. It carries an invitation: "Come in, the dawn of light is here."

"We must instil in them that it is a beautiful thing to be Indigenous.... With a building like this, it's very welcoming, not just for Indigenous people but non–Indigenous people to have an opportunity to learn about us and to accept us, and us the same way." – Theresie Tungilik, artist and adviser for the Nunavut government

It's the first time a major art gallery in Canada has had such a naming. It will likely not be the last. As the nation's art world reckons with the disparities of its present, and the theft of Indigenous art that compromised at least some of its past, the movement towards transforming facilities with Indigenous perspectives is growing.

Language is part of that, and it is often as simple as starting with a name. To name something is a powerful act, and the history of colonialism has often been one of determining who gets to name what. Names are not mere titles; they carry the stories of the people who did the naming. They tell us the histories of belonging to a place.

This is why, among other language topics, the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People asserts that Indigenous peoples have a right to "designate and retain their own names for communities, places and persons." And it is why the WAG made it a priority to convene the advisory council for the naming project.

"We understand that the history of our Inuit art collection is tied to colonialism," WAG director Stephen Borys said in a livestreamed news conference Wednesday morning. "We see these names as steps along our path to integrating and honouring Indigenous knowledge."

The names, in a way, invite and challenge non-Indigenous visitors to step outside the world they know, and in which they are most comfortable; a call to not only consume the art, but to learn and approach it with respect. For instance, consider the matter of how to say qaumajuq; for non-Inuktitut speakers, it may take practice.

The Vault in the Inuit Art Centre.

JOHN WOODS / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

The Vault in the Inuit Art Centre.

The WAG's pronunciation guide suggests "how-ma-yourk." That comes close, but doesn't quite capture the heart of it. To linguists, the Inuktitut "q" is called a voiceless uvular plosive, and there's no equivalent in English; it emerges from the back of the throat after a quick catch of breath, the sound landing somewhere between an English "k" and an "h."

To help on this end, the WAG's website now features audio pronunciations of each Indigenous name that now has a place in its spaces. That exchange of knowledge is, in itself, part of the vision for the place, and one Tungilik greets with open arms. This is one of the most important parts, she said: the learning.

"I like it a lot because now it shows Canada is showing respect to its Indigenous people," Tungilik said. "You know, we are always thriving, no matter how badly we were treated in the past. We want our future generations to live a better life than us. We want them to be proud of who we are.

"We must instil in them that it is a beautiful thing to be Indigenous.... With a building like this, it's very welcoming, not just for Indigenous people but non-Indigenous people to have an opportunity to learn about us and to accept us, and us the same way."

So in a name, the WAG brings the story full circle: the language is tied to the land, the land breathes its soul into the art and the art travels south to be held in a place named in the language. It's symbolic, yes. It's also a call to always remember where the art comes from and who it belongs to.

"We must instil in them that it is a beautiful thing to be Indigenous.... With a building like this, it's very welcoming, not just for Indigenous people but non–Indigenous people to have an opportunity to learn about us and to accept us, and us the same way." – Theresie Tungilik

It is, in short, a promise.

"For me, seeing and hearing and speaking my own language in an institution is something else," said Krista Ulujuk Zawadski, an Inuk anthropologist from Rankin Inlet who sat on the naming advisory council, and one of the curators of Qaumajuq's opening exhibition.

"When I go in there, it’s a safe space. I don’t have to feel like if I speak Inuktitut, everyone is going to stare at me, like they do everywhere else in Canada or the world," she added. "The Winnipeg Art Gallery, they're not just making ripples in Indigenizing, they're making waves in decolonial work. I feel privileged to be part of it."

melissa.martin@freepress.mb.ca

Melissa Martin

Melissa Martin
Reporter-at-large

Melissa Martin reports and opines for the Winnipeg Free Press.

   Read full biography