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Venturing into space is a mission beyond any human’s instinctual comfort zone.

Yet, as Inuk interdisciplinary artist Jesse Tungilik can attest, stepping outside of one’s safe place can be well-worth the challenge.

The Iqaluit-based artist’s full-body sealskin spacesuit stands as his most complex project to date. Conceived as part of a future-themed artist residency at Concordia University in Montreal last year, the suit stitches together traditional material with space-age ideas, pushing Inuit culture beyond Earth’s boundaries. 

“Inuit have always been a very technology-interested culture,” says Tungilik. “I saw the sealskin spacesuit as a natural evolution of Inuit technology. If you look at the traditional Inuit clothing, the foundation is fundamentally the same as a spacesuit—protecting humans from a very hostile environment.”

The idea for the project originated from Tungilik’s childhood memories, when he used to imagine putting on a spacesuit while layering on his traditional caribou hide hunting clothes that his mother sewed for him. 

“I took the idea of a spacesuit and projected it into the future and imagined an alternate history where Inuit were left to our own devices, developed our own space program and started exploring other worlds.”

The suit took a year to complete and features head-to-toe sealskin, an acrylic helmet and two beadwork patches. Sewn onto the left shoulder is the flag of Nunavut while on the right rests a patch resembling the NASA logo emblazoned with Inuktitut syllabics for Tungilik’s fictional Inuit Space Program.

As Tungilik had no previous experience sewing, beading, or designing clothing, Concordia connected him with other Inuit artists, including Glenn Gear, Julie Alivaktut, and Nunavik Sivunitsavut students from CEGEP John Abbott College, to bring the spacesuit to life. “For me that was the most interesting part of the whole thing, the process of figuring out who I can get help from and how to do something new.” 

The sealskin spacesuit will be included in the inaugural exhibition of the Winnipeg Art Gallery’s Inuit Art Centre, scheduled to open this fall.  

A sealskin spacesuit
PHOTO COURTESY OF JESSICA KOTIERK