ART SEEN: Janet Nungnik’s wall hangings evoke deeply felt memories of Inuit life

Colourful, textured wall hangings depict daily life growing up on the tundra west of Hudson Bay in Nunavut

Janet Nungnik’s wall hangings are brightly coloured, richly textured and exuberantly evocative. They don’t follow traditional Western ideas of perspective and scale. Instead, they create emotional landscapes populated with Inuit figures and objects. They’re wonderful works.

Nungnik’s wall hangings at Marion Scott Gallery originate in her life experiences. She grew up among the inland dwelling Inuit in a remote camp west of Hudson Bay in an area called the Barren Lands. It was such a small and remote region that for the first several years of her life she grew up thinking that her family members were the only people in existence.

At about seven years of age Nungnik was almost taken away by government officials to a residential school in southern Canada. But her father couldn’t bear to lose his children. Instead, he moved his family to Baker Lake, located 320 km inland from Hudson Bay close to the geographic centre of Canada, so they could stay together at home and Nungnik attend school.

She grew up in a close-knit family that spent a lot of time together. Nungnik vividly remembers going on long walks on the tundra with her mother and father and the close relationship with her brother Eric.

Among the Inuit, women traditionally learned practical skills such as sewing and cutting skins to make life-saving clothing for their families. In the 1950s, wall hangings developed when seamstresses saved scraps of material left over from making Inuit-style clothing for the southern Canadian market.

Nungnik started making her own wall hangings in the 1970s. She was able to watch the legendary artist Jessie Oonark who helped establish Baker Lake as an art-making centre.

Son-in-Laws, wool felt, embroidery floss, beadwork on wool duffel, 2002 by Janet Nungnik. PNG

When Nungnik describes making wall hangings, she says they’re a way to release images already in her head. Her process includes sewing in her room with the door closed while listening to Johnny Cash and other singers and musicians.

“When I sew, to have my vision out I have to be completely relaxed,” she says in a video about her work. “I just let it out.”

Son In Laws (above) features a mix of perspectives and colours to tell how much Nungnik looked forward to the return of her son-in-laws John and Nick.

They’re in two kayaks in the lower part of the hanging. They’re shown from above holding paddles on the blue water marked with repeating horizontal V’s pointing to the right. Above in the blue sky where the sewn V’s point to the left, a headband faces outwards from the picture plane to spatially echo with the two kayakers underneath. The headband is a visual metaphor for Nungnik: its much larger size in relation to the kayaks reflects the emotional importance of the returning hunters. The headband’s threads catch the light so much they sparkle gold like the setting sun. It’s a joyous image.

Sewing for Nungnik is linked to language. As she works, words come to her. Before she knows it, she said, a poem has written itself.

For Son-In-Laws, it’s easy to imagine her smiling to herself as she wrote “to have them arrive home with/gladness was a sight to my heart./I have loved them as my own, even more/My Headband outshines brilliance/Son-in-Laws, builder of my name.”

Northern Lights (Inside the Iglu at Night) is a kind of Inuit pictogram (bottom). The orange heads in profile at the top are whistling to call the Northern Lights. The tan-coloured pairs of hands directly below depict fingernails rubbing together to make noise to dispel the Northern Lights in case they come too close. Inuit parents tell their children stories of the Northern Lights grabbing them so they’re never seen again to discourage youngsters from playing outdoors late at night. On the right, hanging to dry is a Hudson Bay Company blanket which to Nungnik represents the culture of the south.

“I was a night child too/I didn’t know clocks,” she writes in the poem accompanying the hanging.

“Father has lots of foxes and wolves. He goes away for many days/When he comes home/He brings with him strange and beautiful things./I want to be here.”

Untitled, wool felt, embroidery floss, beadwork on wool duffel, 2004 by Janet Nungnik. PNG

In One Fine Day, Nungnik’s family is shown working together to make rope out of caribou leather. As a group, they cut, soak, braid, and dry it before it’s softened by chewing. The figure in the top right holds an ulu, a mandolin-shaped knife for cutting meat. In the hanging it’s physically small but it has a big presence as its silver threads twinkle in the light.

“’Play with lots of scrap and I’ll make something little brother.”’, Nungnik writes about the wall hanging and the story it tells.

“Red, black and blue berries/”’My new blanket!!’” “’Never mind . . . prepare/your feast!’” Mom yells.

“Go to sit down with my family to talk about one fine day.”

Ten of the works from Nungnik’s exhibition at MSG are going to the McMichael Canadian Art Collection in Kleinburg, Ontario for an exhibition of her work from Saturday, June 8 to Sunday, Aug. 25.

Janet Nungnik: The Eagle’s Shadow is held over to Saturday, May 4 at Marion Scott Gallery/Kardosh Contemporary.

Northern Lights (Inside the Iglu at Night), wool felt, embroidery floss, beadwork on wool duffel, 2002 by Janet Nungnik. PNG




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