Qaumajuq, an art centre showcasing the world’s largest collection of Inuit art, officially opened at the Winnipeg Art Gallery on Thursday.
The Inuit art centre adds another 40,000 square feet to the WAG, making it the fifth-largest art museum in Canada.
“The WAG has this extraordinary collection of Inuit art, close to 14,000 objects (and) another 8,000 on long-term loan,” Winnipeg Art Gallery director and CEO Stephen Borys said, also noting that the WAG has been collecting Inuit art for 70 years.
“We’ve exhibited and published more than any museum in the world, but we’ve never been able to kind of share more than probably one per cent of the collection at any time.”
Borys says Qaumajuq not only showcases Inuit art and exhibits, but also provides space for research and education and bridges Canada’s north and south.
“What we can do in the south I think raises the profile of Inuit art,” he said. “(And makes us) a better partner and it gives us a chance to create opportunities for training, apprenticeships, internships for students with artists, and it just gives us a chance to do more with education.”
INUA, the inaugural exhibit of the new Inuit art centre, had a virtual opening Thursday and Friday. The exhibit is available to the public for free from March 27 to April 2 with timed tickets.
The exhibit features the work of nearly 90 Inuit artists from northern Canada, as well as a few living in the south.
Tuktoyuktuk, N.W.T., artist Maureen Gruben is one of the artists featured at INUA.
“My inspiration mostly comes from my environment that I grew up with, here in the Arctic on the shores of the Beaufort Sea,” she said. “So I do a lot of collecting of raw materials such as bone and fur and just different raw materials that I find around here and then incorporate industrial materials with the raw materials.”
Gruben, who still lives in Tuktoyuktuk, says her passion for art started from a necessity to sew.
“Part of growing up as a woman was learning how to sew, so making your own parkas, mitts, mukluks, hats, that sort of thing,” Gruben told Global News. “I think that’s where it starts for many Inuit people is the necessity of having to sew, and from there it just progressed into different types of art. So now I’m sewing ice and that sort of thing.”
Many of her pieces are engrained with a powerful message relating to preserving the environment, climate change or speaking for the polar bears.
“(My ideas) just come through me, I kind of just feel like I’m the conduit and words just come through me,” Gruben said. “So it’s such an honour when people recognize your work. Especially when you can raise awareness and be an activist for your own environment, that’s what I’m really proud of.”
Gruben’s piece Waiting for the Shaman is featured at INUA. The piece is made from polar bear bone paws Gruben has been collecting.
“They just kind of formed themselves, and I tried many ways of how to put them together, and they just formed a circular (shape), like that’s the shape that they wanted to be in,” Gruben said.
Gruben says Qaumajuq is a profound place to showcase Inuit art.
“I think they did a beautiful job,” she said. “I think we’re blessed to have a centre like this where we can showcase our work and celebrate our ancestral talents.”
Happy Valley-Goose Bay artist Shirley Moorhouse has two wall hangings as part of INUA.
“I’m so glad and honoured to be part of this exhibition, it was one of my dreams to having one of my work shown in the old Winnipeg Art Gallery,” Moorhouse said. “So I’ve been working towards this goal, this dream for about 25 years.”
Moorhouse uses a variety of materials in her artwork — everything from caribou skin, glacial rocks, traditional beading, and sometimes even electronics.
She says she has one traditional wall hanging at INUA and one contemporary one. Both have powerful messages of her own personal experiences, Indigenous culture, and the environment.
“I’m blessed to make it aesthetically beautiful, but I always try to have a conversation somehow.”