It seems like a long time since I first heard about the Winnipeg Art Gallery’s plans to create a special space for its enormous collection of Inuit art. The WAG certainly needed it, as they had so much wonderful art and so little space to display it!
But that’s no longer the case.
I made a virtual visit to the WAG’s new Qaumajuq Inuit art center the other day. And it looks like an amazing facility. Not only is there a huge exhibit area, but there are also classrooms, art studios, a theatre, research space, and an expanded gift shop. But for those of us who complain that the WAG never has enough Inuit art on display, a three-story glass vault allows visitors to see about 5,000 Inuit sculptures in storage! That’s a lot of Inuit art on display.
But Qaumajuq is much more than an art museum. As the WAG explains, It is
a place where art and technology offer direct connections to the land, people, and cultures of Inuit Nunangat, the homeland of Inuit in Canada
The new Inuit art center isn’t open just yet. But here’s all the info you need to get a look at it as soon as possible.
Attend the virtual opening celebration March 25-26
With COVID-19 limiting in-person attendance, the gala opening of Qaumajuq will be a virtual event.
Festivities begin the evening of March 25 with a tour led by the building’s architect, Michael Maltzan, and will include performances by artists from both the Inuit homeland in Northern Canada and from Manitoba. Performers range from throat singers to hip-hop dancers, so there should be something for everyone!
The next evening, the virtual ceremony and celebration will tell the story of the spirits that exist within the art. There will also be a blessing ceremony by the Seven Nations of Manitoba and celebratory messages from across the country and beyond.
The virtual opening is free and accessible to all, streamed on the WAG website, social media, and through broadcasting partners. Both segments are approximately 60 minutes and start at 6:30pm CT. RSVPs are optional.
This event is part of a year of celebrations called Qaumajuq365, offering many ways to get involved with the inaugural year, virtually and in-person at a safe distance.
Two free in-person preview events are available for Indigenous people and WAG supporters. More information and timed tickets are available at wag.ca.
- March 22: Inuit, Metis & First Nations Welcome Day invites the Indigenous community into the building first, as they are the original keepers and protectors of the territory on which WAG-Qaumajuq stands.
- March 23-24: WAG supporters are invited for a sneak peek. If you aren’t currently a WAG member, there’s still time to join!
More than an expansion of the existing museum
Although it is fully integrated into the existing museum, Qaumajuq can function pretty much completely independently. It’s more like adding an entire new house to your existing home than adding a big guest suite. It is a home in and of itself. It just happens to be operated by and physically attached to an existing museum.
The addition is designed to evoke the scale and light of the north.
On the outside, waves of sculpted white granite rise above the entrance’s glass façade like a mountain of windblown snow.
It’s a striking structure.
Here’s what you can expect to see inside beginning March 27
Although it almost appears to be a separate building, Qaumajuq is incorporated into the existing WAG building. It’s designed to allow visitors to move between the two buildings on all levels and the two share the (completely re-imagined) gift shop and café. There are three main exhibit areas.
- The Main Inuit Gallery is named Qilak, meaning sky in Inuktitut. Located on the third level, it provides 8,000 square feet of open, flexible exhibition space for Inuit art.
- On the 4th floor, the Giizhig/Kisik Mezzanine Gallery is a broad balcony overlooking the Qilak gallery. The name means sky, heaven, day in Cree/Michif/Ojibway. It’s more intimate scale and elevated position was designed with special exhibitions, events, and ceremonies in mind.
- The Focus Gallery is named Pimâtisiwin, a Cree/Ojibway phrase meaning life and the act of living, to be alive. The name reflects the use of this gallery for video, film-based exhibitions or shows that require a more intimate, light-sensitive environment.
The Visible Vault
With glass walls along the street on the main floor, even passers-by out on the street are sure to notice the Visible Vault inside.
This is the Qaumajuq Inuit art center’s most striking feature. Not only does it display a huge amount of art in a dramatic fashion, it’s well-lit. Something that will delight anyone who has peered at items in dim light of most visible vaults!
About 5,000 Inuit carvings fill almost 500 shelves that rise three floors from the basement. These are visible to the public as they move through all levels of the museum. But there’s more. Touch screens allow visitors to learn more about a selection of pieces in the vault, making this functional exhibit space!
You can see a preview video of the visible vault on the WAG’s Qaumajuq Visible Vault page.
The two main gallery areas, the enormous Qilak gallery and the smaller Giizhig/Kisik mezzanine/balcony area, are filled with filtered light from rooftop skylights.
The huge expanse of towering white space in the main Quilak gallery is intended to reflect the natural environments of the North, putting the art into a setting reminiscent of the place where it was created.
This is the only part of the museum that leaves me a bit skeptical. The main gallery is two full stories of white walls. Only a small portion of these walls will ever display artwork – most of this space is intended to place the art into an Arctic landscape.
I understand the idea is to express the vastness and isolation of the landscape in which Inuit art is (traditionally) based and created. It’s to give the work a context. But it looks as if it will overwhelm the art. And I wonder how well it actually reflects either the most significant influences on the work of Inuit artists past and present or the reality of their lives today.
But these are just questions. My skepticism might be completely off-base — this may be a brilliant design. And, if not, perhaps Niap or another artist who works on a large scale can put some of those big, blank walls to good use!
On the other hand, I love the look of the Giizhig/Kisik Mezzanine Gallery.
It appears to offer a perfect balance between vast open spaces and the ability to make an intimate connection with the art. And, as intended, it should be a wonderful performance space. I can imagine words and music drifting down to those below like voices from the spirit world.
Qaumajuq opening exhibit: INUA
INUA is the inaugural exhibition in Qaumajuq’s Qilak Inuit gallery. (Fortunately for those of us south of the border, this exhibit will be in place until December 2021.)
INUA has two meanings that speak to both this particular exhibition and the broader goal of Qaumajuq:
- Spirit or life force, a concept used throughout the circumpolar world.
- An acronym for Inuit Nunangat Ungammuaktut Atautikkut (‘Inuit Moving Forward Together’), which articulates the collective vision for Qaumajuq as a site where Inuit from across Inuit Nunangat can, together, collectively gather, share, be inspired by previous generations, and create new pathways forward in Inuit art.
The exhibit includes a wide range of work by 90 Inuit artists from across Inuit Nunangat (the Inuit homeland in Canada), including artists living in the urban south, as well work by artists from circumpolar regions like Alaska and Greenland. Work in the exhibit ranges from digital media and installation art to mixed-media sculpture, painting, textiles, photography, and more. New work commissioned for the exhibition are featured along with work drawn from existing collections that spans generations of artists.
There are pieces by familiar names like Joe Talirunili, Michael Massie, Pudlo Pudlat, Napachie Pootoogook, and others on the exhibition page.
Click on image for detailed information. Images from the Winnipeg Art Gallery.
However, the live media presentation I saw included all sorts of interesting things, including a large selection of textiles and a motorcycle!
Other artists included in the exhibit include Niap, who many of you will remember from the Inuit Art Society meeting in 2017 in Corning, and Billy Gauthier, who participated in the 2011 meeting in Hamilton.
INUA was curated by an all-Inuit team representing the four regions of Inuit Nunangat, the Inuit territories of Canada—a first in Inuit art exhibitions:
- Heather Igloliorte (Happy Valley-Goose Bay), Special Advisor to the Provost, Advancing Indigenous Knowledges; University Research Chair, Circumpolar Indigenous Arts; Associate Professor, Department of Art History, Concordia University; and Co-Chair of the WAG Indigenous Advisory Circle
- Asinnajaq (Inukjuak), filmmaker and curator; one of 25 artists selected to share the 2020 Sobey Art Award; curatorial team member for Canada’s Pavilion at the 2019 Venice Biennale
- Kablusiak (Somba K’e/Yellowknife), multidisciplinary Inuvialuk artistand curator; one of five artists shortlisted for the 2019 Sobey Art Award
- Krista Ulujuk Zawadski (Igluligaarjuk/Rankin Inlet), Curator of Inuit Art for the Government of Nunavut; multidisciplinary
The team of Inuit curators was supported by:
- Jocelyn Piirainen (Ikaluktutiak/Cambridge Bay), WAG Assistant Curator of Inuit Art
- Darlene Coward Wight, Curator of Inuit Art
- Nicole Luke (Kangiqtiniq/Rankin Inlet & Igluligaarjuk/Chesterfield Inlet), Research Assistant in Exhibition Design; Masters Program, Department of Architecture at the University of Manitoba
I sincerely hope the border reopens in time for those of us in the USA to see what looks to be a stunning exhibit.
Note that I have not seen this facility in person. Most of my information comes from fact sheets, press releases, web pages, and a virtual press conference held by the WAG. All photographs are used with the WAG’s permission. The choice of information to highlight and any errors are my own.
Special thanks to the Winnipeg Art Gallery, Tourism Winnipeg, and Travel Manitoba for including me in their media briefing and making so much material available for this story. I can’t wait to head north again!