Mary Mariq Kuutsiq, At the Fishing Weir, 1994, wool duffel, felt, embroidery floss, 37 × 55 1⁄2". From “Nivinngajuliaat from Baker Lake.”

Mary Mariq Kuutsiq, At the Fishing Weir, 1994, wool duffel, felt, embroidery floss, 37 × 55 1⁄2". From “Nivinngajuliaat from Baker Lake.”

“Nivinngajuliaat from Baker Lake”

Winnipeg Art Gallery

Felt has played a key role in the practices of a number of contemporary artists, from Robert Morris to Rosemarie Trockel. But for indigenous populations in cold climates around the world, this material—made by rolling, beating, and pressing animal hair or flocks of wool into a compact mass—has been essential to survival. In “Nivinngajuliaat from Baker Lake,” an exhibition at the Winnipeg Art Gallery (which hosts the largest collection of Inuit art in the world), a group of fifteen Inuit wall hangings composed primarily of wool felt with embroidery floss stitching manage to imbue this traditionally utilitarian material with boundless aesthetic promise.

Baker Lake is a small hamlet in Canada’s central Nunavut Territory—an area the size of Western Europe with a population of thirty thousand, roughly four-fifths of whom are Inuit. These people have made the territory their home for several millennia. For the vast majority of that time, they were itinerant, sustaining themselves by trapping, hunting, fishing, and sometimes trading, especially after the establishment of a Hudson’s Bay Company trading post in Baker Lake in 1916.

In the twentieth century, this way of life was uprooted by a combination of forces, ranging from famines caused by shifting caribou migration patterns to encroachment by outside, “modernizing” interests (such as the US Air Force, which established a base in the region during World War II). In the decades after the war, Inuit communities began to relocate to permanent settlements such as Baker Lake.

The current Baker Lake community is notable for its tight-knit artists, who are celebrated for their work in a variety of media. This exhibition, curated by Krista Ulujuk Zawadski, offers an enticing view of their remarkable nivinngajuliaat (wall hangings). The show represents eleven artists, ten of whom are women. A number of them were born in the first third of the twentieth century and have used nivinngajuliaat to relate the semi-nomadic lifestyle their generation experienced early in their lives. In At the Fishing Weir, 1994, by Mary Mariq Kuutsiq (1926–2011), the subject is a fish trap—handily delineated by a thick black felt band encircling a grouping of multicolored appliquéd fish—surrounded by patches representing Inuit adults and children as well as various species of wildlife. As in many of these large-scale works, a narrative unfolds through bold, assured graphic language that utilizes reduced forms to yield an enormous visual impact. 

A number of the other artists, such as Irene Avaalaaqiaq Tiktaalaaq, traffic in the supernatural, depicting figures from Inuit myths and legends (unikkaatuat). In her Untitled (Spirits), 1970s, the artist employs twenty-two multicolored cut-felt forms of what appear to be “face creatures” (tunnituaqruk) to create a vibrant gallery of human-animal (inuruuqtut-uumajuruuqtut) composites. Repetition is a key feature of many of these works: Jessie Oonark’s Untitled, ca. 1983, presents a mesmerizing, frieze-like series of angular silhouetted profiles in bold colors, facing alternately toward and away from one another in a choreography. While thread work plays an important role in all of these wall hangings, it is particularly riveting in Marion Tuu’luq’s Thirty Faces, 1974, and Lake Trout, 1973. The latter piece frames interlocking outlines of fish in an expanding series of elaborately stitched, multicolored borders that accentuate the extreme compression of the swimming creatures.

Tuu’luq (1910–2002) and Oonark (1906–1985) are credited with being among the first women in Baker Lake to establish the nivinngajuliaat tradition. Both were members of the Royal Canadian Academy of Fine Arts, and, like the other artists in this exhibition, have had their work exhibited extensively in Canada, Europe, and the US. It’s also worth noting that Tuu’luq was married to an artist and eight of Oonark’s children became artists. The extraordinary objects on display—created by people deeply connected not only to their culture and heritage but to each other—represent a unique and deeply inspiring merging of form and function, nature and culture, tradition and innovation.