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Issue 136

The Labrador Interpretation Centre
by Mark Igloliorte and Peter Morin

On October 13, 2017, Mark Igloliorte and I met to talk about art, communities, art spaces and land. I asked him to share with me a place in his community where he experienced art. The following is a brief transcription of what we discussed.

— Peter Morin

Peter Morin: Tell me what you wanted to write about; tell me about what this place is.

Mark Igloliorte: I’m talking about the Labrador Interpretation Centre. There is a website with a few images. It’s https://www.newfoundlandlabrador.com/plan-and-book/attractions/11303055. On the website, you can see the space. There is a kayak in the middle. Actually, this is really good because I can use it to jog my memory about the Centre for our conversation.

PM: You were saying you worked there?

MI: I worked there for at least two seasons when Navarana and I moved back to Happy Valley-Goose Bay, Labrador. We were off in the summer from our studies at the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design. The thing about the Centre is that I was unaware of it at first. I did not live in Labrador at the time, so I missed when this building was built and when it opened. Before I started [at the Labrador Interpretation Centre], I was working at an airline call centre, booking tickets over the phone. And I really didn’t like it because you would sit in a room waiting for the phone to ring and people would call in and complain. I was not happy with it. So, Navi was like, in so many words, “You should find another job. If you’re not happy with it.” I asked around and found out there was some potential for some summer work at the Labrador Interpretation Centre in North West River, which is a small town of just over 500 people and about a half an hour’s drive from Happy Valley-Goose Bay. I remember thinking on my drive over that I didn’t know what to expect to find at the Centre at all.

PM: Tell me about the first time you went into the museum.

MI: I met Mina Campbell when I first arrived. She has been the curator at the Centre nearly 20 years now. She took me through the building, walking through the temporary exhibit space – which rotates a few times a year – into the large permanent interpretation space, which features exhibits from the Indigenous people that live in Labrador as well a settler exhibit. It is a mix between archaeology, anthropological objects, dioramas, recreated scenes and commissioned artworks. In Labrador, there are several groups of Indigenous people that live there, which includes the Innu from two settled communities – Sheshatshiu and Natuashish – and the Inuit of Nunatsiavut and NunatuKavut. Each of these groups of people have one significant commissioned artwork in the exhibition space.

PM: In the space, all of those people are represented?

MI: Yes. And it is worth mentioning the significance of having the space located in North West River. I heard that the original intention was for the museum to be in Happy Valley-Goose Bay where there is a larger population. The cool thing about having it in North West River is that there are beneficiaries of Nunatsiavut, as well as other Indigenous people, in town and it is directly across the river from the Sheshatshiu Innu First Nation.

PM: It is interesting to think about that exhibition space, and its story, where people actively use the space and are happy with how their story is represented.

MI: Exactly. The building is, in a number of ways, also a community resource space. For example, when I used to teach art at the school in Sheshatshiu Innu First Nation, there would be days when the students would come over to check out the exhibits and do activities in the Centre. Same thing for the students from North West River and Goose Bay.

PM: So, folks come there and activate the collections?

MI: Absolutely. It was my job to take people on tours through the exhibitions, but the groups were often small and it would be more of a conversation as we talked about the exhibits and the people of Labrador.

I also loved the long amounts of time where I was on my own and I would read copies of Them Days magazine. It’s really well done magazine of the history and culture of Labrador published in the area. In addition to the English material, there would be articles and interviews in the Indigenous languages of Inuktitut and Innu-aimun. It was a good resource for me to read up on the history of Labrador and the people of Labrador. In recent years, the exhibits at the Centre have had text and audio in the Indigenous languages added to the permanent exhibit.

There was also a history book, As Near To Heaven By Sea: A History Of Newfoundland And Labrador by Kevin Major, who is a well-known author in Newfoundland. I reread this book while I was at work. Major’s novels are also read by students in Newfoundland and Labrador. His history book had a significant portion related to Labrador. It was always good to have the events in mind, to talk about it when people would come in. Often, I would get further perspective from the people I was speaking with.

PM: Thinking about 20-year-old [at the time] Mark, artist, thinking about this heritage, these ancestors, what did it feel like to be in that space with this old artwork?

MI: For me, perhaps the most significant was being around an original kayak from the coast of Labrador. I heard that it had been in storage in the attic of a church. There were two of them. The second one is on exhibit in Hopedale, where my father used to live. The kayak has become really significant to me and my practice. A few years after working at the Centre, I painted a series [called] Kayait (the Inuktitut plural of kayak), which were based on a series of early photographs of kayakers from Okak. Now that I live in Vancouver, I purchased a secondhand ocean kayak, which Noah Noggasak, a kayak instructor from Nain, Nunatsiavut, recommended for me. I have been learning how to get around and also learning the “Eskimo Roll,” where I can flip myself in a capsized kayak to sitting upright again.

Being around an original kayak, and also telling stories of how people would hunt from them, taught me to value this Inuit vehicle. I especially enjoyed talking about the innovation of the avataq. A hunter would have the avataq – an inflated hide– attached to the harpoon head by a line. When the seal was struck, it would swim off – yet the avataq would be attached. The resistance of inflated hide to being submerged would tire out the seal and allow the hunter to retrieve the animal. It was a great opportunity to talk about Indigenous technology and innovation. The whole exhibit, the pre-colonial vehicle and innovative hunting tools right in the middle of the room – it was meaningful to me to be around that.

PM: There is something magical there and it’s nice that you got to be surrounded by that history.

MI: Definitely. Another of my favourite objects was this Innu stick that was used for painting. It was a stick with a flat end, with areas carved out where thin strips of wood would come into contact with the material. There was also a palette. And the story that I heard, and that I would retell, is that the Innu would use fish roe – fish eggs – in order to bind pigment to paint their clothing. And what I thought was so awesome about that Innu innovation is that there is this Western parallel history of painting with egg tempera for binding pigment to make paint. The Innu people independently developed a local binding medium to make paint. As a painter, I always appreciated those objects.

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