In the serpentine vault at the heart of Winnipeg’s new art centre, a gathering of Inuit sculpture dazzles.
BY: Mélanie Ritchot
In just a matter of weeks, thousands of stone sculptures by Inuit artists were brought up from dark vaults in the basement of the Winnipeg Art Gallery (WAG) into the light.
The three-storey glass vault at the heart of Qaumajuq (meaning “it is bright” or “it is lit”)—the new Inuit art centre at the WAG—will be their home until some get called back to Nunavut. In the meantime, traditional ceremonies and prayers will be part of caring for the spirits within the art. As head of Indigenous initiatives at the gallery, Julia Lafreniere considers this her personal responsibility while the art is on Treaty No. 1 territory.
Inuit ceremonies like lighting a qulliq (a traditional oil lamp made of soapstone) were incorporated into Qaumajuq’s opening, and each month, Lafreniere will cleanse the vault with sage, cedar, tobacco and sweetgrass. She decided to do this on a regular basis after a Knowledge Keeper told her the Inuit art at the WAG is sad for its homelands. “I really wanted to make sure the spirits know we’ll be taking care of the art,” she says. “It doesn’t belong to us, so it’s important for me to take care of it in the right way.”
Without its own cultural centre, the Government of Nunavut entrusted 7,385 of its artworks (many prints and wall hangings) to the WAG in 2015, but the end goal is for the collection to be returned to the territory once there is a new space for it.
Qaumajuq’s glass vault holds 4,500 stone pieces—most from the WAG’s permanent collection—which won’t be damaged by sunlight or heat, while the 2,900 pieces made from organic materials, like ivory and whalebone (some of which are nearly 2,000 years old), will remain safely underground.
Nicole Fletcher, collections coordinator at the WAG, says she is most excited for Inuit to come and see art created by their family and community members. She has already gotten an email from a gallery visitor who didn’t know his grandfather was an artist until he saw his piece in the gallery.
Works by three generations of artists are represented in the vault (those by family members are kept together), but Fletcher says it also holds 387 works by unidentified artists. “One of my biggest hopes is that those pieces will get attributed as well,” she says. During the six-week process of moving the sculptures into the vault, Fletcher was often the one setting them up on the shelves, based on photos of the planned layout. Dr. Darlene Coward Wight, the WAG’s curator of Inuit art, spent 10 months planning this layout. The 500 glass shelves are each different shapes and sizes, and the artworks resting on them are organized by community and by artist. Working from databases, photographs and memory, Coward Wight mapped out where each piece should go. “These are pieces that I had known but hadn’t actually looked at for years,” she says. “It was like seeing old friends.”
Coward Wight says conversations about what to do with the Inuit collection have been ongoing since she came to the WAG in 1986. The idea to build a space dedicated to Inuit art came about a decade ago, with construction wrapping up in December of last year.
Designed by Los Angeles–based Michael Maltzan Architecture, Qaumajuq features a wavy exterior made of white stone, which mimics Nunavut’s landscape while doubling as a surface for art to be projected onto, making it accessible from outside the gallery. Qaumajuq’s inaugural show, Inuit Nunangat Ungammuaktut Atautikkut (meaning “Inuit moving forward together” or “spirit” or “life force”), was curated by an all-Inuit team. It opened on March 27, following two days of virtual tours, performances and ceremonies.