Inuit art collective Isuma will be Canada’s representative in Venice in 2019

Left to right, Norman Cohn, Pauloosie Qulitalik, Lizzie Qulitalik, Mary Qulitalik, Rachel Uyarashuk, Jonah Uyarashuk, Zacharias Kunuk, on the set of Nunaqpa (Going Inland), 1990.

Canada’s representative at the 2019 Venice Biennale will be the Nunavut-based artist collective Isuma. 

Led by Zacharias Kunuk and Norman Cohn, Isuma, which means “to think, or a state of thoughtfulness” in Inuktitut, is the first Inuit video-based production company in Canada. It was co-founded in 1990 by Kunuk, Cohn, Paul Apak Angilirq (1954-1998), and Pauloosie Qulitalik (1939-2012) with a mission to preserve Inuit culture and language and to present Inuit stories around the world.

“Since the mid-1990s the Isuma collective has been challenging stereotypes about ways of life in the North and breaking boundaries in video art, including the first video-based work to win a major film award at the prestigious Cannes film festival,” said Marc Mayer, the director of the National Gallery of Canada in a media release. “Isuma’s participation in Venice also marks the first presentation of art by Inuit in the Canada Pavilion.”

Isuma’s features, documentaries and television series have been screened at the Cannes Film Festival (2001, Caméra d’or) and Documenta 11 and 14 (2002, 2017), as well as at the Edinburgh International Film Festival (2001), the Flanders International Film Festival Ghent (2001), the Toronto International Film Festival (2006) and the Sundance Film Festival (2009). Their work is in major art galleries including the National Gallery of Canada.

Works include Atanarjuat (The Fast Runner), Nunavut (Our Land), Maliglutit (Searchers), Hunting With My Ancestors, The Journals of Knud Rasmussen, and the first Haida-language feature, Edge of the Knife. The latter film is in production. The films feature Indigenous languages, producers, directors, actors and writers, they also uniquely reconstruct traditions and stories. The Igloolik Isuma archive, now in the National Gallery of Canada Library and Archives, also forms a valuable part of the work the collective has undertaken over several decades and includes thousands of hours of raw footage and interviews with Inuit elders, providing a detailed local history and rare access to Inuit culture.

“Inuit went from Stone Age to Digital Age in my lifetime,” said Zacharias Kunuk in the release. “I was on Baffin Island, living on the land, and I saw the last of that era. Since we have an oral history, nothing is written down – everything is taught by what you see. Your father’s fixing up the harpoon; you watch how he does it and you learn from it. For the medium I work in now, it was the same. Oral history and new technology match. I am trying to do this with my videos – tell the story behind how we lived. We try to make everything authentic so a hundred years from now when people see our films they’ll know how to do it.”

“Isuma’s style of community-based filmmaking merged early activist video with ancient values of collective survival,” said Norman Cohn, in the same release.

“Isuma was founded as a collective: Zach and I with our late partners, Apak and Qulitalik. In our first ten years, whole families worked on our films: Zach’s family, Qulitalik’s family, Tatigat’s family, Samuelie Ammaq’s family and Akkitirq’s family, elders, and children. Over three decades, hundreds of people came together to fill our films with artfulness through handmade clothing and tools, igloos and songs, and actors re-living their ancestors’ memories in experimental storytelling through video. Collective survival depends on the art of working together for a common purpose, of putting the group before the individual. We hope to represent that view of video art in Venice in 2019.”

Isuma was selected by a committee of experts in contemporary Canadian art including Naomi Potter, director and curator of the Esker Foundation; Matthew Hyland, director of the Oakville Galleries; independent curator and writer Candice Hopkins; Josée Drouin-Brisebois, the senior curator of Contemporary Art at the National Gallery of Canada and Mayer. A project curator will be selected by the artists. That person will be announced in 2018.

The Venice Biennale is one of the most prestigious contemporary art events in the world. It is the only one to which Canada sends official representation. The Canada Pavilion has been operating for more than 60 years. Exhibitions are commissioned by the National Gallery and produced in partnership with the Canada Council for the Arts. 

It has helped the international careers of many celebrated Canadian artists including Emily Carr, David Milne, Jean Paul Riopelle, Alex Colville, Guido Molinari, Michael Snow, General Idea, Geneviève Cadieux, Janet Cardiff and  George Bures Miller, Rebecca Belmore, David Altmejd, Shary Boyle and Geoffrey Farmer.

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.