“My name is Irene Avaalaaqiaq and I am from Baker Lake Nunavut. Baker Lake is the only inland Inuit community in Canada and is also the geographic center of Canada. As we do not have marine life, we depend on caribou for food and clothing.” This was spoken in Inuktitut during her address at the University of Guelph convocation in 1999.

The gallery space is bare- a wide expanse of white. In hindsight this seems fitting- an echo of arctic landscape. Avaalaaqiaq’s wall hangings lie rolled in two large cardboard tube forms- a skin of tree pulp and plastic for travelling. The prevailing themes that inhabit these artworks made of brilliantly coloured wool duffel, felted material and cotton embroidery cloth, are ones of solitude, escape and transformations.

Judith Nasby curator and author of Irene Avaalaaqiaq: Myth and Reality, notes: “She feels deeply about the loss of her traditional nomadic culture resulting from having to adapt to a settlement lifestyle with its western ways. By recording her grandmother’s oral stories, she extends the mythological world of the collective consciousness of those Inuit who once lived in the manner of their ancestors on the barren grounds.”

In the 50’s, because of famine, many Inuit “chose” to settle. Men who worked were not allowed to hunt. Women used their sewing skills to supplement family income. A woman’s inner parka was traditionally one of the few places decorative embroidery was practiced. In the 1960’s new materials – left over inventory from the closure of the clothing plant -, were made available through the government sponsored craft program. They offered a new place to expand and express on.

“No one taught me to sew,” recalls Avaalaaqiaq. Due to the circumstances of her childhood – death of her mother soon after childbirth, precariousness of existence for her and her grandmother alone on the Tundra, an unloving adoptive mother, an early marriage– Avaalaaqiaq had to teach herself. She would eventually create her own embroidery stitch: a branching chain stitch that looks like the branches of the arctic willow.

Irene Avaalaaqiaq speaks Inuktitut. She lives where you can see an unbroken 360 degrees horizon, where nightfall can mean death. “I grew up at a time when Inuit did not live in communities. We did not have schools to go to but we did get an education. If Inuit did not learn well, they would not survive in the harsh climate. We had to learn in order to live.” Language, environment, education create a unique world view. Avaalaaqiaq has stitched and made hers evident in these artworks.

With regard to style, Nasby highlights the artist’s perceptive and intuitive understanding of colour, wrap around borders that symbolize night or dawn, soft shapes (I would venture a direct response to the hard facts of life so clearly endured and accepted by all the living creatures in Avaalaaquiaq’s world/art) that shift, part animal part human.

Notice the smiling quality that prevails in all the life forms and animates them. Shambhala Buddhists speak of basic goodness. She knows something this Willow Woman.

I hear a recording of church bells ringing. It draws me out of the catalogue – Nasby cushions Avaalaaquiaq’s own words with all the pertinent background info you could hope for in a multifaceted / interdisciplinary approach that is captivating…

Irene Avaalaaqiaq talked about learning how to live en direct and in situ. It seems that Western approach teaches about life through art, solidified points of view or science. I’ve always been partial to the art route myself, and find in Avaalaaqiat’s wall hangings the vividness and flux of life. 

Organised and circulated by the Macdonald Stewart Art Centre at the University of Guelph, ON
Curated by Judith Nasby
Saint Mary’s University Art Gallery
5865 Gorsebrook Halifax, NS
Phone: 902.420.5445
21 May – 24 July 2011