Piliriqatigiingniq: In Toronto, a giant mural near King and Church streets started off as a collection of animals until one of its young creators, Parr Josephee, remembered a story about his grandfather’s snowmobile breaking down on the land and him having to carry it back into town. When the mural was completed—by a group of young Kinngait (Cape Dorset) and Toronto artists under the guidance of mentors—everything was on Josephee’s grandfather’s shoulders: machine and mammal.
Alexa Hatanaka is a co-founder of the artist collective Embassy of Imagination and she helps the young artists express their stories visually. “Part of our role is guiding them to realize that they do have quite a power as communicators, especially bringing artwork down south,” says Hatanaka. “I think it’s still just as powerful to share their experience, share a story that’s as simple as the act that we eat seal meat. It’s still powerful and ground-breaking considering how little the general population knows about the North and understands Inuit.”
Hatanaka and her partner Patrick Thompson have been travelling to the Arctic for a decade creating murals of their own. Youth, out at all hours under the summer’s midnight sun, would watch them paint—admiring the craft, asking questions. It felt natural to have them take part and eventually Hatanaka and Thompson started to run mural and printmaking workshops and projects for youth from Cape Dorset—a community with a long line of influential artists.
“Now it’s very much us in a supportive role, trying to create platforms and get their art out there in their own community and down south as well,” says Hatanaka. “It’s all their drawings now. We work with them to think what would be an interesting storyline to share, but it’s their creations being shared."
Tunnganarniq: A low, wide wall posed a creative challenge to the Embassy of Imagination crew this summer in downtown Ottawa’s ByWard Market—the epicentre of countrywide Canada150 celebrations. The shape of a whale fit the space. “We felt a responsibility to have a discussion, to have something for Canada150. Inuit have been here much, much longer than this idea of Canada, so we landed on a bowhead whale—which can live to 200 years—as a nice abstract, or maybe not so abstract, nod to that,” says Hatanaka. On an earlier trip up North, Hatanaka and Thompson heard a story of a bowhead that was hunted and had a harpoon in its belly more than one hundred years old. That also became a part of the story.
And at the entrance of the Art Gallery of Ontario, aluminum casts of snowmobiles, modeled out of playdough by Cape Dorset youth, circle an installation by Hatanaka and Thompson that represents the Arctic and the importance of listening to the voices of its people. The plaque reads: “It’s time to confront the authority and privilege of settler perspectives, and listen to those at the centre of the continuing injustices of colonization.”
The aluminum snowmobiles are on sale through the gallery to raise money for equipment for on-the-land programs in Cape Dorset. Money from the snowmobile casts will go toward purchasing the real deal.
The future: Printmaking and carving are mainstays of Cape Dorset’s economy. Many of the youth working with Embassy of Imagination can quickly trace their lineage to notable carvers or graphic artists: Josephee’s father, grandfather and great-grandfather are well known artists in both media. In Toronto and Ottawa, Josephee and others are able to see the work of their forebears at galleries and recognize their artistic roots. And hopefully, Hatanaka says, it helps them to find their own voice.
Last year, Josephee moved to Toronto to finish his high school education at the Oasis Skateboard Factory—an alternative secondary school where students design and print clothing, hats and skateboards. They also create their own businesses. He graduated this past summer and moved to Ottawa in the fall for college. It’s a hopeful first step to the Ontario College of Art and Design. One of Embassy for Imagination’s focuses is creating opportunities for youth who don’t always fit in to the traditional school system—and allowing them to practice art that’s less common in their home communities. “The youth are interested in exploring all sorts of different modes of expressions,” says Hatanaka. “Cape Dorset has established printmaking and carving programs—youth are interested in trying different things and they have talents that can be broader than what’s available.”