Winnipeg Art Gallery exhibition puts spotlight on Inuit clothing and jewelry

This beaded amauti would have been worn on special occasions. (Lenard Monkman/CBC)

Art fans will have a chance to preview some of the work that will be featured at the Winnipeg Art Gallery’s Inuit art centre at a new exhibition on Inuit clothing and jewelry design. 

“The amount of detail that goes into making some of the parkas and then even the smaller, finer jewelry pieces, it really is spectacular to see,” said Jocelyn Piirainen, curator of the Inuk Style exhibition.

The exhibition opened Oct. 10 and runs until May 2. The Winnipeg Art Gallery’s Inuit art centre, which unveiled its name — Qaumajuq — on Wednesday, is expected to open in 2021.

Inuk Style features work from Inuit clothing designers and jewelry makers from all across the Canadian Arctic. The items from the Winnipeg Art Gallery’s permanent collection as well as the Government of Nunavut’s Fine Arts Collection, which is on long-term loan at the gallery.

Piirainen is Inuk, from Cambridge Bay, Nunavut, and is the assistant curator of Inuit Art at the Winnipeg Art Gallery. 

“I felt that these pieces are really quite contemporary and some of these works, I feel like they haven’t been given… enough spotlight,” said Piirainen.

Many of the pieces are considered wearable pieces of art and include hand-carved necklaces and jewelry, and a number of amautis — winter parkas worn and designed by Inuit women — some of which include intricate beading detail. 

Jocelyn Piirainen is the Assistant Curator of Inuit Art at the Winnipeg Art Gallery. She pitched Inuk Style to highlight the contributions of past and present Inuit designers. (Lyzaville Sale/CBC)

Piirainen said today’s Inuit designers are often paying homage to the past by fusing old techniques with modern contemporary design, creating something new.

“I’ve been noticing that with Inuit artists and some Indigenous artists, that they have mostly been influenced by a lot of the elders and the traditional kind of styles and designs, and then making it their own,” said Piirainen.

“There’s a lot of contemporary jewelry artists and contemporary seamstresses that are taking from what they know and what they’ve grown up with, in terms of design work.”

‘You know right away that it’s Inuit’

Martha Kyak is an artist and clothing designer from Pond Inlet, Nunavut, who also teaches Inuktitut and Inuit history at Nunavut Sivuniksavut college in Ottawa.

When she moved to Ottawa nearly 10 years ago, she needed to supplement her income. She started making parkas, advertised them on social media and then turned it into a business called InukChiq, a riff on the term inukshuk.

Kyak doesn’t have a piece in the Inuk Style exhibition, but has contributed an amauti which will be on display at the Qaumajuq art centre when it opens in the new year.

This Canada Goose parka was designed by Inuk seamstress Mishael Gordon. (Lenard Monkman/CBC)

When it comes to Inuit style in general, she said the designs are inspired by the northern climate.

“Since Inuit live in a cold place, there’s a lot of warm clothing,” said Kyak.

“There’s parkas and the amauti is one of the unique designs — where you carry a baby in the back, and the tail. It’s so unique and [different from] other cultures. You know right away that it’s Inuit when you see this garment.”

Kyak said contemporary Inuit clothing style is not much different than the past and that she was taught how to make clothing by her late grandmother, Letia Panipakoocho.

“If you look at old photos, you can tell how creative and innovative the Inuit were,” said Kyak. 

“When I was growing up, that’s all I saw. They are the ones that inspired me, especially my grandmother who was blind. She was still able to sew and watching her sewing, that inspired me not to stop, even when there’s obstacles.”

One of the items that is on display at the Inuk Style exhibition is a parka that was part of a collaboration between Inuit seamstresses and the Canada Goose outerwear company in 2018.

Kyak said she hopes partnerships between Inuit artists and companies like Canada Goose will continue and hopes that the designs become mainstream.

“For my design in the future, I think it should be more global. Other retailers… should be buying Inuit designs or Indigenous designs,” said Kyak.

The Inuk Style exhibition will be on display at the Winnipeg Art Gallery until May 2021.