Isuma in Venice

At the Canadian Pavilion, the Inuit artist collective disputes the ideas of nationhood and representation on which the Venice Biennale was founded

By Mark Rappolt

Mallik (Jacky Qrunnut) and Japati (Gouchrard Uttak) scouting for a dogteam. Production stills from One Day in the Life of Noah Piugattuk, 2019. Photo: Levi Uttak. © Isuma Distribution International The dogteam on location of One Day in the Life of Noah Piugattuk. Production stills from One Day in the Life of Noah Piugattuk, 2019. Photo: Levi Uttak. © Isuma Distribution International Benjamin Kunuk on the set of One Day in the Life of Noah Piugattuk. Production stills from One Day in the Life of Noah Piugattuk, 2019. Photo: Levi Uttak. © Isuma Distribution International Inuit elder Noah Piugattuk (Apayata Kotierk) with Boss (Kim Bodnia), an agent of the Canadian government. Production stills from One Day in the Life of Noah Piugattuk, 2019. Photo: Levi Uttak. © Isuma Distribution International Polar bear monitor guards the camp at night. Production stills from One Day in the Life of Noah Piugattuk, 2019. Photo: Levi Uttak. © Isuma Distribution International

“We are often told the Inuit way isn’t written down,” says Paul Quassa, cradling an antique-looking comb in his hands. “It may not be in words, but these pictures show us who we are.” As he says this (in Inuktitut, not in English), Quassa holds the comb to camera. On it is carved a scene describing a traditional hunt for a bowhead whale. He’s speaking as three of his fellow Inuits are on trial for illegally killing a bowhead and distributing its meat to the community. It’s the first time a bowhead whale has been killed by Inuit hunters in 23 years.

The scene is from Arviq! (Bowhead) (2002), a documentary film by Isuma, an artist collective and Canada’s first Inuit production company, founded in 1990, in Igloolik, Nunavut, in northern Canada. Quassa was Inuit chief negotiator of the Nunavut Land Claims Agreement (the largest aboriginal land claim settlement in Canada’s history) that concluded in 1993, a three-time mayor of Igloolik and a prominent campaigner in Canada’s reconciliation process in the wake of historic government abuse of indigenous peoples. He was also part of the project team for Isuma’s 2012 Digital Indigenous Democracies project, which uses a combination of tradition and technology to improve communication and Internet access in Inuit communities in order to enhance the means by which they can bring their transparent, consensus-driven decision-making and traditions of environmental stewardship to bear on the political issues that affect them (principally the Baffinland Mine Project, an open-pit iron mine on Baffin Island, Nunavut, which was expected to triple the area’s GDP, and pays royalties to the Qikiqtani Inuit Association), while at the same time preserving their language. (In 1928, when the first residential school for Inuit opened, the principal language was English, and the government continued to press its dominance following the Second World War with the suggestion that learning it was key to Inuit people, often among the poorest in the country, finding employment in Canada, ignoring the fact that Inuits needed to find employment, in the main, because European settlers and the policies of Canada’s government had effectively destroyed their traditional subsistence culture.) This, incidentally, is the United Nations’ International Year of Indigenous Languages.

“No one owns the whales”

What the person who carved the comb did in terms of preserving Inuit culture all those years before, Isuma – which means ‘to think’, or an idea – does today using television, film and the Internet. Their online archive IsumaTV contains a complete archive of over 7,000 Igloolik video productions, in 75 languages, made since 1985. Isuma’s film, Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner (2001), was the first feature to be written, directed and acted in Inuktitut. A retelling of a legendary Inuit family saga that has been passed down through the oral tradition (as was the majority of Inuit knowledge), it was directed by one of the collective’s founders, Zacharias Kunuk (the others being Paul Apak Angilirq and Norman Cohn, who are among the film’s producers) and won the Caméra d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival that year. Arviq! looks at the role the bowhead played in Inuit culture and at how, from the seventeenth to the twentieth centuries Europeans began to overfish the whales, whose bodies they used to fashion everything from corsets to carriage springs (generally luxuries rather than essentials), making their fortunes and leaving the bowhead so endangered that in 1971 hunting it was banned, the longstanding relationship between the local animal and the native people terminally interrupted. The ban was broken in 1994, after an Inuit elder, Noah Piugattuk (then in his nineties), announced on radio that the one thing he would wish to do before he died was once more to taste Muktuk, the fat of the bowhead whale. A group of hunters from Igloolik killed and butchered a dying whale in order to fulfil his wishes. But that tells only half the tale, as the butchery and distribution of the whale’s parts is a communal event with a festival atmosphere, with families having travelled long distances to attend. It speaks not just to a desire to give the elders a last taste of a flavour with which they had grown up and are now denied, but also to allow younger generations to sample a piece of their heritage from which they have been forcibly divorced (though, that’s not to say that every Inuit likes the taste of Muktuk: some of those who travelled to the event state that they have no desire to taste it at all).

Arviq! describes the culture of an indigenous people, the crises it contends with and the different outlook it has in relation to ideas of community, sovereignty, ecology and environment

“No one owns the whales,” says one of the attendees, arguing that therefore no one can ban their hunting. The idea that banning the hunting of the whale implies an ownership of the whale (and thus a continuation of colonial relation of the world to property and commerce) introduces a series of further questions about legislating over areas that constitute a tradition, a culture and an identity, who has the right to do so and how they might do it. And as a result of these (or as a partial acknowledgment of them), the Canadian government agreed that the Inuit, as a people, could kill one whale every two years. The final part of Arviq! looks at the first of these authorised hunts (and the media circus that surrounded it), in which the whale, despite being harpooned with buoys (equipment supplied by the government, in part a result of the loss of traditional knowledge) to float it, sunk to the bottom of the sea, resurfacing only once the meat had spoiled and the resultant gases had floated the beast. The Muktuk, at least, remained edible.

Like much of Isuma’s output, Arviq! describes the culture of an indigenous people, the crises it contends with – primarily in the face of that culture’s orchestrated destruction – and the different outlook it has in relation to ideas of community, sovereignty, ecology and environment. Moreover, although it describes a local situation, it speaks to key global issues that affect both indigenous (current estimates put the world’s population of indigenous peoples at around 370 million) and non-indigenous people around the world today. One might look, for example, to recent and violent disputes between the Baka people of Southwest Cameroon and the World Wildlife Fund (which funds the policing of the national park in the southwest of the country, which covers indigenous lands) over what constitutes hunting and what constitutes poaching (a memorandum of understanding, between representatives of the indigenous people and the Ministry of Forestry, granting the Baka greater access rights and more influence over the management of the parks was signed in February).

Isuma’s process will continue when it represents Canada at this year’s Venice Biennale, marking the first time an indigenous collective has done so. The pavilion will feature the debut screening of One Day in the Life of Noah Piugattuk (2019), a 112-minute film documenting a meeting between an agent of the federal government and Piugattuk, the chief of the last family on outpost land (in Kapuivik, north Baffin Island) to move his band, who lived a nomadic life, hunting by dog team, as their ancestors had done for generations before them, to settlement housing. In part it’s a follow-up to Kivitoo: What They Thought About Us (2018), which revisits and examines an incident that took place in 1963, when the inhabitants of Kivitoo were moved by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police to the nearby town of Qikiqtarjuaq, with the promise that they would be able to return. When they did so they found that their homes and belongings had been destroyed. It’s this familiar strategy – separate the land from the people and then the people from their language – by which a nation asserts its sovereignty by suppressing its indigenous or colonised peoples, that Isuma seek to reverse. In keeping with Isuma’s commitment to fusing tradition and technology, the pavilion will also feature live links to Inuit communities in Nunavut, focused on the proposed expansion of the Baffinland Iron Mine. A 500 percent expansion in volume is due this year, against environmental advice (concerning the impact of greater shipping and road traffic), but with the support of the Qikiqtani Inuit Association, which deemed that the increased revenues (and its share in them) would act as ‘enablers’ for the indigenous community in a way that more than balanced out any environmental impact. Public hearings on the expansion are due in September and will, presumably, be made even more public by Isuma, much of whose activities will be facilitated by their website rather than the architecture of Canada’s pavilion in the Giardini. But what better place than Venice during the Biennale, with its archaic structures of national pavilions and their hierarchies, to discuss fundamental ideas of place, race, home, community and belonging.

Work by Isuma is on view at the Canadian Pavilion in the Giardini as part of the 58th Venice Biennale, 11 May – 24 November

From the May 2019 issue of ArtReview