ᐃ: Joi T. Arcand, George Arlook, Pierre Aupilardjuk, Esaias Beardy, Nick Beardy, Elizabeth Flett, Philip Hakuluk, Jeremiah Harper, Stanley Houle, Peter Inukshuk, Toona Iquliq, Octave Tigumiak Kappi, David Keno, Dwight Keno, Jacob Keno, Nelson Keno, Saunde
by Noor Bhangu
The first time I learned about linguistic empathy— the practice of listening to someone else in the absence of a shared language— I was attending Winnipeg-based artist Hassaan Ashraf’s presentation at the 2018 Conference of the Universities Art Association of Canada, held at the University of Waterloo, and Ashok Mathur was reflecting. Ashraf was sharing his recent body of work, Saadi Saqafat (Our Culture), in which he produced Urdu transliterations of English texts addressing epistemic and systemic violence, in the attempt to illustrate the paradox of experiencing racism in the settler colonial state of Canada, while being complicit in it. From where I stood, I saw in this work a slow cancellation of both English and Urdu readers and everyone else as aimless recruits in the decolonial project. However, Mathur articulated a profound extension of Ashraf’s work and an exit out of this bind; here, I’m paraphrasing, and adding my own inflection: “If linguistic difference can be used to alienate groups from each other, then it could also be re-mediated to bring them closer to the surface, to empathize.” I have since wondered what forms such surfacing might take, especially if it was activated between groups that have been simultaneously marginalized by the colonial state, and find myself looking to Indigenous artists and curators to understand the ways in which they have negotiated enforced linguistic suppression within and amongst their communities.
This search eventually brought me to a collection-based group exhibition, ᐃ, curated by Jaimie Isaac and Jocelyn Piirainen, which brings together sculptural works by First Nations and Inuit artists. This exhibition was exciting, not least because it was one of the few in Canada to explicitly curate under the banner of 2019 as the United Nations’ designated International Year of Indigenous Languages. Naming the research and exhibition project ᐃ is significant in that it is a symbol that translates to “I,” in both Inuktitut and Anishininiwak syllabics, thus appropriate for negotiating the ways in which both linguistic groups have endeavoured to practice self-determination for themselves and in solidarity.
ᐃ is presented in the vestibule of the Muriel Richardson Auditorium at the Winnipeg Art Gallery (WAG). Bringing event attendees and gallerygoers alike through its neon hail is ᓂᓄᐦᑌ ᓀᐦᐃᔭᐘᐣ (ninohtēnēhiyawān) (2017) by Joi T. Arcand, produced for the landmark Insurgence/Resurgence exhibition, curated by Julie Nagam and Jaimie Isaac in 2017, and recently acquired for the WAG’s permanent collection. Translating to “I want to speak Cree,” Arcand’s is the only contemporary work in the exhibition and quite literally sheds light on the selection of historical stone carvings produced by The Ministic Sculpture Co-operative in Garden Hill First Nation, Manitoba, and clay sculptures from the Rankin Inlet Co-operative in Nunavut.
While the didactics for this exhibition are brief, thus pointing to the amount of scholarly work still needed to be done on these two Indigenous art collectives, they still provide some historical insight on their artistic and educational overlaps. The Ministic Sculpture Co-op travelled to Rankin Inlet in 1968 to learn about Inuit stone carving and also to understand the ways in which Arctic arts co-ops organized themselves and advocated for their practices. Unbeknownst to the Ministic group, it was also at this time that a ceramics program was introduced to the Rankin Inlet artists by the federal government’s Department of Indian and Northern Affairs. Through the use of textbooks and samples, artists were educated about the methods, forms and aesthetics of Indigenous pottery from southern Canada. The result of this confluence between the two groups at this particular time was an ambitious production of stone and clay sculptures, only a small grouping displayed here, drifting between Abstraction, Surrealism and Zoomorphism.
Walking through the curators’ imaginative reconstruction of this period of high artistic experimentation and exchange, it becomes difficult to discern what might be attributed to artists from the North, and what might characterize the stamp of the South. Experimental in their own right, the curators brought together such diversity not by isolating or providing verbose descriptions, but by creating aesthetic or affective overlaps between the two collections. For example, in one vitrine, a natural affinity is drawn between four arthropodal sculptures produced by Dwight Keno, Peter Inukshuk, Nick Beardy and George Arlook. The creatures are sculpted in the round and in semi-relief, their shared playfulness moving beyond the surface of representation to animate the joys of their makers, breaking rules of both form and material previously fixed upon them. Because, according to Isaac and Piirainen, there is little archival evidence of these groups’ activities both together and apart, we are left to imagine what Beardy, from Manitoba, would have seen in the work of Arlook, from Nunavut, or if their simultaneous attempts to borrow from each other’s methods would have given them a common visual language with which to speak to one another, and be understood. The joy of this exhibition comes from revelling in this cross-pollination, and speculating about its effects on the parties involved.
The Ministic sculptures have been in the WAG’s custody since the 1960s, whereas the Inuit clay sculptures entered the collection in 2016 as a result of a long-term loan from the Government of Nunavut to support the gallery’s ongoing curation of Inuit art. In creating this seemingly unprecedented encounter, the curators join a global discussion on the responsibility to indigenize and decolonize Western museum collections, and share a unique historical exchange. In re-positioning the work of First Nations and Inuit artists around Arcand’s contemporary plea, “I want to speak Cree,” the curators tug at a collective desire to use language as a means to transcend limitations placed on Indigenous culture, historically, and build cross-cultural empathies. ᐃ brings me to the surface and holds me there, as if to spell out the vastness of this decolonial universe.