A Call to Action: The Inuit Futures in Arts Leadership Project

Heather Igloliorte, Reneltta Arluk, Alethea Arnaquq-Baril, Taqralik Partridge, Jessica Kotierk and Jesse Tungilik

The more empowered Inuit and Inuvialuit are to determine our own futures, the stronger our voices will be in how our visual arts, songs, stories, performances and other artistic practices are protected, shared and circulated within our Inuit communities, across Canada and around the world. The sole purpose of Inuit Futures in Arts Leadership Project: The Pilimmaksarniq / Pijariuqsarniq Project is thus to foster, support and increase Inuit and Inuvialuit leadership and participation within all areas of the arts. The project is supported by a 7-year, Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council grant that enables us to train and mentor Inuit and Inuvialuit across both the north and south, supporting emerging scholars and arts professionals to become the next generation of researchers and leaders in our communities and across Canada within academia and the arts. Our partnership began in 2018 with seventeen original partner institutions across the north and south, and it continues to grow, adding new partners and mentors who share our vision. Our ultimate goal is nothing short of Inuit self-determination and sovereignty over our own arts. We want a seat at every table where our culture is at stake.

The Inuit Futures project is steered by an all-Inuit / Inuvialuit leadership group composed of project director Dr. Heather Igloliorte (Nunatsiavut; art history / curatorial practice), Reneltta Arluk (Inuvialuit region; theatrical playwriting / directing), Alethea Arnaquq-Baril (Nunavut; filmmaking / producing), Taqralik Partridge (Nunavik; visual and performing arts / writing & publishing), Jessica Kotierk (Nunavut; museology / collections management / archives), and Jesse Tungilik (Nunavut; mixed media arts / arts administration). Together we represent all regions of Inuit Nunangat (the four Inuit regions of Canada) and have expertise in all aspects of this project. Our alliance is both practical and political: we draw on our wide disciplinary and regional networks to contact potential postsecondary students and emerging arts professionals Ilinniaqtuit (learners) allowing us to pair them with institutions and mentors according to their studies, talents, interests and aspirations; but collectively we also represent a unity across the provincial and territorial borders that overlay Inuit Nunangat and often prevent us from working together. This allows us to foreground Inuit solidarity in our project instead of working in our regional or disciplinary silos. As Year I cohort member Tom McLeod, an OCAD University student, noted after our second annual gathering, “The best thing the project has done has been to bring the folks that are a part of it together.” Concordia University doctoral student Nakasuk Alariaq adds, “I had only ever met one other Inuk university student while I was at [the University of Western Ontario],” she says. “Having so many Inuit university students in the same place at the same time […] made me feel more confident in myself and the Inuit studies field in general.”

The impetus for creating this initiative arose from a troubling paradox that we, the Inuit leadership team of the Inuit Futures project, identified as a longstanding issue impacting the entire circumpolar and Canadian arts landscape. While Inuit cultural and artistic productions of some kind or another can be found in the collections of nearly every one of the over 2300 museums and galleries across Canada—from the tiniest rural house museums to the largest national institutions—rarely, in the entire history of museums and galleries in this country, has an Inuk held a meaningful, long-term position of agency in one of these institutions such as a curator, collections manager, director, or educator. Rarely do these institutions prioritize Inuit audiences and our engagement with our own cultural heritage, and instead assume their audiences are primarily Qallunaat. We have likewise been the subject of countless films, novels, plays, and studies, yet we have seldom had access to the same platforms and resources to become our own filmmakers, playwrights, or novelists, let alone to partake in the plethora of other interesting careers surrounding the arts, such as technicians, designers, collections managers or editors. We want to tell our own stories and lead projects that we dream up, not those imposed upon us. But the barriers to Inuit academic and professional success are many: geographic isolation from the south and from each other, access to education and especially postsecondary institutions, the high cost of virtually everything in our home territories, and the history and ongoing legacies of Arctic colonization, to name a few. Of course, Inuit have always, and continue to, succeed in the arts industry despite these great challenges. We stand on the shoulders of those Inuit who blazed trails in the art world, like writer Minnie Audla Freeman; magazine editor, columnist, and illustrator Alootook Ipellie; curator July Papatsie; filmmaker and producer Zacharias Kunuk: the list goes on and on. They kicked a door open that had been shut to Inuit, and it is our responsibility to keep that door open as wide as we can for more Inuit to come through, so that they can also make and hold space for those that will come after them. Concordia University student and member of our first cohort of Ilinniaqtuit, Jason Sikoak, underscores this shared goal, stating in his profile on our website, “[Inuit Futures] is helping me and I, in turn, want to help other people once I’m through the program.” Nicole Luke, a Master of Arts student and aspiring architect who joined us in Year II of the project, echoes Sikoak, saying, “I hope one day I can be a mentor for other Inuit.”

We work towards these goals by creating opportunities for Inuit to gain the skills, knowledge and experience they need to step into positions where we can create, direct and steward our own culture, in ways that more closely align with Inuit knowledge, worldviews and ways of learning. Our project is designed to be flexible and adaptive in order to address the challenges of professional development and research training in both the north and south, and tailored to the way that Inuit learn “through observation, mentoring, practice, and effort,” or Pilimmaksarniq/ Pijariuqsarniq, which is a tenant of Inuit Qaujimajatuqangit, our living knowledge and system of values.

We want to tell our own stories and lead projects that we dream up, not those imposed upon us.

Our partner institutions, including universities and a wide variety of arts institutions both big and small, are located throughout Inuit Nunangat as well as in southern Canadian cities with large Inuit populations.

Together, we carefully consider how best to integrate Ilinniaqtuit into the smaller organizations, where the work of supervising a new trainee can be overwhelming if an organization is temporarily understaffed or overburdened with administrative responsibilities, as northern, Indigenous-led arts organizations often are. We work with our partners to find the best timing and fit for meaningful mentorship to occur that benefits both trainer and trainee.

Likewise, we do not simply drop Ilinniaqtuit into larger institutional partner organizations where they either sink or swim in the status quo. As a leadership collective, we have all had disastrous experiences in academia and the arts (and we share our past horror stories with our current students, so they hopefully do not find themselves in the same situations in the future). We have all experienced being exploited as the token Inuk to make Qallunaat organizations eligible for grants and funding, or to check a box in a final report; we have all worked with and for those who speak like they are allies but act only in their own self-interest; we all have stories about gatekeepers and/or those who condescend or are openly racist, including the racism of lower expectations.

We know that for Inuit to succeed, we need to collectively change many aspects of institutional cultures and organizational structures, thereby creating better, more welcoming, more culturally aware environments that will support Inuit to succeed. We want these placements to be transformative – for both the trainee and the institution. One strategy we collectively employ towards this end is through our annual gatherings, which foreground Inuit speakers and leaders but enable our other many partners and mentors, who may be Qallunaat or Indigenous colleagues from other institutions, to bear witness to Inuit institutional experience and knowledge. As second year participant Simeonie Kisa-Knickelbein reflected, “It’s amazing to be able to ask questions to each other and talk to each other without having to over-explain ourselves.” And the development of that Indigenous mentor and peer-network has been invaluable to our collective action. Emily Henderson, who started out as a student on the grant working long distance for the Inuit Art Foundation, and who as a result is now the Inuit Art Quarterly’s first full time Inuk editorial staff member, notes, “The support so far has just been incredible. […] Not only do I have a strong network of mentors I can turn to for help and advice through my own career, but also really strong bonds with a lot of my peers in my program that I’m so excited to grow alongside into the future.”

This work of institutional transformation is already underway with some of our partner institutions, who have committed time and resources to training and mentoring Inuit and Inuvialuit to become leaders within their institutions. Some have already begun the difficult and necessarily uncomfortable work of considering the Eurocentric underpinnings of their institutions and how they can change their policies, processes and work cultures, from how they support artists directly, to their staffing, direction, and boards. But we want more and are working towards it. We want all institutions in this country who hold our knowledge, creativity, culture and heritage in trust to consider their responsibilities to Inuit as well, and to follow our lead in matters pertaining to our culture. As Inuit arts administrator and advocate Theresie Tungilik has declared, it is past time for Inuit to take control over their own representation (Buis and Smith, 2011).

These institutions can do so by prioritizing the hiring, training and promotion of Inuit and Inuvialuit; providing them with the tools they need for long-term success; sharing leadership roles and responsibilities as the Inuit within their institutions develop and strengthen their capacities; and crucially, being ready to step sideways, backwards, or even out to make space when an Inuk is ready and able to join or replace them. This is particularly urgent for those organizations that have decision-making authority over the creation and dissemination of Inuit art, and the production of knowledge that surrounds Inuit art. Our call to action is this: will you make public and transparent your plan to foster and develop Inuit talent in positions in which they should lead? Can you make their hiring, training, and promotion a priority, with a concrete plan of action? We are working together towards the future we want. Not just equitable, but empowered and self-determined. And we’re calling on our colleagues and partners to lean into this with us, by leaning out, lifting up, making space, sharing authority, and ceding power.

Heather Igloliorte

Heather Igloliorte is the Director of the Inuit Futures in Arts Leadership: The Pilimmaksarniq/ Pijariuqsarniq Project. She began this project because she wanted to see more Inuit in decision-making roles in the arts.

Heather holds the Tier 1 University Research Chair in Circumpolar Indigenous Arts at Concordia University, is an associate professor in the Department of Art History, and co-directs the Indigenous Futures Cluster of the Milieux Institute for Arts, Culture and Technology.

Igloliorte has been a curator of Indigenous art since 2005. She also publishes on critical museum studies, circumpolar and other Indigenous arts, and curatorial practice frequently. Her essay “Curating Inuit Qaujimajatuqangit: Inuit Knowledge in the Qallunaat Art Museum,” was awarded the 2017 Distinguished Article of the Year from Art Journal.

She is also the President of the Board of Directors of the Inuit Art Foundation, currently serves as the Co-Chair of the Indigenous Advisory Circle for the Winnipeg Art Gallery, and serves on the Board of Directors for the Native North American Art Studies Association and the Faculty Council of the Otsego Institute for Native American Art History at the Fenimore Art Museum in Cooperstown, New York, among others.

Reneltta Arluk

Reneltta Arluk (Theatre and Performance; Inuvialuit Region) is Inuvialuit, Dene and Cree from the Northwest Territories. She is a graduate of the University of Alberta’s BFA Acting program and founder of Akpik Theatre, a professional Indigenous Theatre company in the NWT. Akpik Theatre focuses on establishing an authentic Northern Indigenous voice through theatre and storytelling. Raised by her grandparents on the trap-line until school age, this nomadic environment gave Reneltta the skills to become the multi-disciplined artist she is now. Reneltta has taken part in or initiated the creation of Indigenous Theatre across Canada and overseas. Under Akpik Theatre, Reneltta has written, produced, and performed various works focusing on decolonization and using theatre as a tool for reconciliation. This includes Pawâkan Macbeth, a Plains Cree adaptation of Macbeth written by Arluk on Treaty 6 territory. Pawâkan Macbeth was inspired by working with youth and elders on the Frog Lake reserve. Reneltta is the first Inuk and first Indigenous woman to direct at The Stratford Festival. She was awarded the Tyrone Guthrie Derek F. Mitchell Artistic Director’s Award for her direction of the The Breathing Hole. Reneltta is Director of Indigenous Arts at BANFF Centre for Arts and Creativity.

Alethea Arnaquq-Baril

Alethea Arnaquq-Baril (Film and Video; Nunavut) is an Inuit filmmaker from the Canadian arctic where she has been working in film since 2003. Recently she and fellow Inuit producer, Stacey Aglok MacDonald, launched their company Red Marrow Media. Currently they are producers on Nyla Innuksuk’s movie Slash/Back, where a group of teenage Inuit girls fight off an alien invasion in Pangnirtung.

Alethea directed and produced Angry Inuk, a feature documentary that broadcast on CBC, about Inuit coming up with new and provocative ways to deal with international seal hunting controversies. Angry Inuk premiered at Hot Docs 2016, taking home the Audience Choice Award, was selected as one of the TIFF Canada’s Top Ten for 2016. Angry Inuk has continued to win several other prestigious awards since. In 2016, Alethea was presented with the Meritorious Service Cross by the Governor General of Canada, having been nominated for contributions to the arts and the craft of documentary filmmaking. Also in 2016, Alethea was bestowed the “DOC Vanguard Award” by the DOC Institute, for “a keen artistic sensibility and forward thinking approach to the craft, with the potential to lead the next generation of doc-makers.”

For a list of Alethea’s other previous work, go to unikkaat.com/projects/

Taqralik Partridge

Taqralik Partridge (Arts Writing and Editing, Performance and Visual Arts; Nunavik) is a performance artist (spoken word poetry and throat singing) as well as a visual artist and writer from Kuujjuaq, Nunavik, now residing in Kautokeino, Norway. Taqralik incorporates throat singing into her live performances; her performance work has been featured on CBC Radio One, and she has toured with the Montreal Symphony Orchestra under Kent Nagano and with Les productions Troublemakers under the direction of Cinematheque Quebecoise composer Gabriel Thibaudeau. Taqralik is the cofounder of the Tusarniq festival. Partridge’s writing focuses on both life in the north and in southern urban centres, as well as the experiences of Inuit. Her short story “Igloolik,” published in Maisonneuve magazine, won first prize in the 2010 Quebec Writing Competition and has been published in Swedish and French; her short story “Fifteen Lakota Visitors,” was short-listed for the 2018 CBC Short Story Prize. As a visual artist, her work is currently included in both the touring exhibition Among All These Tundras, and the 22nd Biennale of Sydney, Australia, opening in March 2020.

Fluent in French, English, and Inuktitut, and having lived and worked with artists throughout Nunavik, Taqralik brings decades of experience working across the literary and visual arts world to this role.

Jessica Kotierk

Jessica Kotierk (Museum Leadership and Archival Practices; Nunavut) is the Curator and Manager of the Nunatta Sunakkutaangit Museum in Iqaluit, Nunavut. Jessica is also one of Canada’s very few Inuit archivists, having trained at Fleming College after studying at York University. Originally from Igloolik, Jessica gained valuable skills and knowledge in collections and data management while studying in Toronto and Ottawa, and has experience working at institutions both internationally and within Canada. For example, she has previously worked on the preservation and documentation of the McMichael Art Gallery’s Inuit print collection, consulted on Inuit art in Bern, Switzerland, and researched Inuit archeology at the Avataq Cultural Centre in Montreal. Prior to her current role with Nunatta Sunakkutaangit Museum, she also worked for the Nunavut Film Development Corporation. Jessica contributes a wealth of knowledge to the Inuit Futures projects. She advises, “I think that if anybody takes their interests and what they are good at, then they can do that in their work.”

Jesse Tungilik

Jesse Tungilik (Arts Administration and Collections Management; Nunavut) is an interdisciplinary artist, arts administrator, and Inuit arts advocate, based in Iqaluit, NU. He has worked in many artistic disciplines and in many professional capacities, starting as a ceramic sculptor at the Matchbox Gallery in Kangiqliniq (Rankin Inlet), NU (beginning at just eight years old, and continuing into adulthood) before working in Mathew Nuqingaq’s Aayuraa Studio in Iqaluit as a jewelry artist specializing in baleen, muskox horn, ivory, and silver.

Tungilik also works in mixed-media sculpture, with pieces exhibited at the Nunavut Arts Festival, Great Northern Arts Festival, Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity, and the Oceanographic Museum of Monaco, among others; his work can be found in both public and private collections nationally and internationally, such as the Museum Cerny Inuit Collection in Bern, Switzerland.

Tungilik has served as Manager of Cultural Industries for the Government of Nunavut and as the Executive Director of the Nunavut Arts and Craft Association; he is currently an Inuit Community Liaison for the Inuit Art Foundation and serves as the Chairperson for the Board of Directors for Nunatta Sunakkutaangit Museum in Iqaluit, as well as Chairperson of the Nunavut Arts and Crafts Association.