Isuma: Isuma, 58th International Venice Biennale
by Lisa Myers
In the Canadian pavilion at this year’s Venice Biennale, the self-titled Isuma exhibition navigates from Igloolik to Baffin Island to Venice, although distance manifests as more than geographical coordinates. Featured most prominently is the collective’s new, 112-minute feature film One Day in the Life of Noah Piugattuk_(2019), which recreates the day in 1961 when the last Inuit family on Baffin Island was coerced by the state to leave their camp to settle in Igloolik. At a number of intervals throughout the exhibition’s run, the screens showing _One Day are taken over by a series of live webcasts called Silakut Live from the Floe Edge (2019), which collapse spatial distance by transmitting video and sound from Baffin Island. There—at a location within view of Noah Piugattuk and his family’s forced departure—Inuit gather, hunt and discuss the proposed Baffinland’s Mary River Iron Mine expansion, harnessing the crucial issues of displacement, dispossession and global environmental crisis to Venice and the present. Installed at the far end of the space, a smaller, wall-mounted monitor offers rotating programs from IsumaTV, “the complete archive of Igloolik’s Inuktitut video production since 1985 with more than 7000 international Indigenous films and videos in over 70 languages.” While so many pavilions at the Biennale serve fleeting audiences, the depth and pace of this exhibition overflows in its demand for the audience to spend time. Isuma encourages immersion here to consider not only the injustices within Inuit and Canadian relations, but the value of countering them through collaboration and Inuit self-determination.
In 1985, Inuk producer and filmmaker Zacharias Kunuk began making films with Elder Pauloosie Qulitalik, Paul Apak Angilirq and Norman Cohn, and in 1990 they co-founded Isuma. Created with the mandate to make videos that share knowledge of Inuit culture and language, Isuma’s work has always been about connecting people—even (or especially) if they are geographically separated—and this ethos carries through to film production. As asinnajaq wrote in “Isuma Is a Cumulative Effort” for Canadian Art: “Isuma’s workflow and structure follows a route more culturally relevant to Inuit ways of working. Many people are valued and many opportunities are created,” including the valuable contribution of knowledge from Elders. In 1991, Isuma established the first artist-run media arts centre in Igloolik called Nunavut Independent Television Network (formerly called Tarriaksuk Video Centre), which included multiple video-making collectives, and was instrumental in co-founding IsumaTV, which was availed in the North via Internet-TV (IPTV), a technology which involves converting the digital files to a format that can play through the community’s older analogue cable systems.
For their Venice project, which also marks the grand opening of the Canadian pavilion’s reconstruction, Isuma chose five curators to work with: asinnajaq, Catherine Crowston, Barbara Fischer, Candice Hopkins and Josée Drouin-Brisebois. In “Vantage Point: Indigenous Art on a Global Stage,” published in Inuit Art Quarterly, Inuk scholar and independent curator Heather Igloliorte credited the curatorial team for “opening space for the frank and urgent conversations we need to have about the ongoing legacies of colonialism and paternalism in the Arctic, while showing the world that we are not afraid to break down the myth of Canada and the North in order to move forward together.” Two large, double-sided monitors divide the arc-shaped pavilion into four synchronized viewing areas, each of which offer subtitled translations—one in Italian, one in French and two in English. Opting for monitors over black box spaces with projections recalls the intimacy and economy of television home viewing and large cushioned seating offers spaces for people to sit and view together.
One Day recounts the arrival of a government official named Mr. Whyte (portrayed by actor Kim Bodnia) at the camp of Piugattuk (Apayata Kotierk) and his seal hunting party. Whyte arrives with a translator and a package of supplies containing tobacco, sugar, tea and other provisions. The opening scene foreshadows this arrival: Piugattuk and his wife are sitting on the edge of their bed inside their qarmaq; she reaches for cups to make tea and remarks that the sugar is finished. Watching this film in the Canadian pavilion, I think about temporal distance, the relatively recent era in which the story is set; I think of colonial coercion and how a commodity like sugar signals imperialism here, and it seems, in every corner of the world.
Piugattuk refers to Whyte as “Boss.” They sit together in the snowy outdoor camp, where members of the hunting party sit and work around them. Through a translator, Boss urges Piugattuk to move to the settlement and put his children in school. He aggressively persists, repeating the question: “When will you give me an answer?” This nation-building project is socio-spatial, seeking not just to take land but also to create distance between individuals, communities and their homes. Because translation is never objective, Boss’ translator, Evaluarjuk, also becomes a mediator, seeking to translate not just words but their nuances. Still, translating social cues, such as silence, poses challenges for his clear translation of meaning. Piugattuk’s silence and pauses amplify the intensity of the dialogue. These spaces between words are at times contemplative, and at others, express refusal and disdain for these government demands. In this way, silence is a key part of the communication and most frustrating for Boss as he insists on the answer he seeks, asking in increasingly threatening terms. Their dialogue—which emphasizes the expanse between the integrity of Inuit communities and the agenda of the Canadian state—entails the tensions and failures of translation, not just of language, but also of the distance between values and priorities.
During preview week, Isuma’s My Father’s Land (2014) played continuously on the small monitor. The film contrasts clips of archival footage of Inuit Elders and youth on their family’s traditional hunting lands with more recent public hearings of Baffinland’s Mary River mining expansion that includes building a railway at the north end of Baffin that would surely threaten walrus and other food sources. I think of My Father’s Land, in its material implications of dispossession, as a kind of sequel to One Day, and the Silakut webcasts ground these issues in the immediate present.
Piugattuk was born in 1900 and died in 1996. One Day in the Life of Noah Piugattuk ends with archival footage of him singing a song for the water, evoking his sustained connection to home.