For the First Time, Inuit Artists Will Represent Canada at the Venice Biennale

The Isuma collective is a video production company run by Indigenous artists of the Canadian Arctic

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Members of Isuma (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. Courtesy of the artists

The 2017 Venice Biennale just wrapped last month, but countries are already starting to plan for the next installment of the prestigious international art event. As Gareth Harris reports for the Art Newspaper, Canada has announced that the artist collective Isuma will represent the country at the 2019 Biennale, marking an important moment in Canadian art history; it is the first time that Canada has showcased the work of Inuit artists at its Biennale pavilion.

Isuma, meaning "to think, or a state of thoughtfulness" in Inuktitut, was founded in 1990 by four Inuit artists: Zacharias Kunuk, Norman Cohn, Paul Apak Angilirq and Pauloosie Qulitalik. For the past two and a half decades, its collective of indigenous filmmakers and media organizations has produced feature films, documentaries and TV series that have screened around the world.

Isuma was selected for the 2019 Biennale by a committee of arts experts; the decision was announced in a National Gallery of Canada statement on December 13. “Since the mid-1990s the Isuma collective has been challenging stereotypes about ways of life in the North and breaking boundaries in video art,” Marc Mayer, director and CEO of the National Gallery of Canada, said in the statement. “I am convinced that the international art world will be inspired by the insights that Kunuk and Cohn's collaborative work will elicit at the next Venice Biennale.”

From its inception, Isuma has been dedicated to presenting “independent video art from an Inuit point of view,” as the collective writes on its website. Its earliest videos featured recreations of Inuit traditions, and were produced with the help of the artists’ communities.

“In our first ten years, whole families worked on our films,” Cohn, one of the collection’s co-founders, said in the National Gallery statement. “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.”

As Isuma broadened its focus to include feature films and television series, it remained committed to telling stories from an Inuit perspective, and to employing Indigenous actors, producers, directors and writers. The group is currently working on a film titled Edge of the Knife, which will be the first-ever feature film shot in Haida, an Indigenous language spoken by groups along the Pacific Coast. The artists behind Isuma have also helped launch an Inuit media arts center, a youth media group and a women’s video collective.

Kunuk, another of Isuma’s co-founders, grew up in a settlement that deliberately shunned television in the 1970s, believing that English-language programs had little to offer them.

But Kunuk believes in the potential of video technology, which he sees as a modern-day compliment to the oral traditions that have been passed down by his ancestors for generations.

“Since we have an oral history, nothing is written down – everything is taught by what you see,” he said in the National Gallery statement. “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.”

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