Arts and culture

Isuma represents Canada at Venice Biennale 2019


cast crew from Maliglutit Searchers set 2016

On set of Maliglutit (Searchers). Credit: AJ Messier

It's mid-January in Igloolik. The sun's just returned; a subtle blue glow stretching out across the endless snow, and Zacharias Kunuk has been reading about Venice's canals. “I've never been … I've been to Cannes, but that's the closest I've ever got," he says over a crackling phone line. “In May, it's like summertime over there, in May we're still skidooing on the ice up here."

Kunuk has just found out that Isuma, the Inuit filming collective and production company he founded alongside Norman Cohn, Paul Apak Angilirq (1954-1998), and Pauloosie Qulitalik (1939-2012) in 1990, will be representing Canada at the 58th International Art Exhibition – La Biennale di Venezia 2019.

vintage photo Isuma Inuit filming collective

Credit: Isuma Distribution International

This marks the first presentation of art by Inuit in the RBC Foundation supported Canada Pavilion at an event revered as "the Olympics of the contemporary art world."

“We were really happy to hear that we're selected," he says. “We've been trailblazing in this field for 30 years, so it's great timing for us."

By no means a barren place

The work Isuma — which means "to think, or a state of thoughtfulness" in Inuktitut — has created over the past three decades is a response to a certain void Kunuk and his co-founders identified early on.

During his first few trips south (which is, in essence, anywhere that isn't at the top of the world) Kunuk found a barren place. Not the empty, endless tundra like that of the North, but a place where language was mixed-up and twisted, indecipherable from the Inuktitut he spoke; a place where his people, the Inuit people, had no voice; where the centuries-old stories his people had carried with them for millennia seemed to disappear the further south he went.

He wanted to change that; to be heard and have his people be heard.

“We came off the land 50 years ago … our first time seeing movies, we thought they were god-sent," says Kunuk. “We never knew there was a camera and so many people working behind it."

In time, it became the logical medium for passing on the stories they'd carried with them. And not just passing them on, recreating them.

“In our culture we never had paper and pen to write our history," he says. “When we introduced the camera we realized it's a perfect tool."

Zacharias Kunuk headshot

Zacharias Kunuk, of Isuma. Credit: AJ Messier

The collective's breakout hit, Atanarjuat The Fast Runner, won the Caméra d'Or (Golden Camera) at Cannes, and six Genie Awards, including Best Motion Picture. Their films, documentaries and television shows — Nunavut (Our Land), Maliglutit (Searchers), Hunting With My Ancestors, The Journals of Knud Rasmussen — have gone on to win numerous accolades at the Toronto International Film Festival and Sundance Film Festival, among others.

Isuma's films are often in the Inuktitut language and rely on the local community to film, produce and act in them.

“Over the years, there are more Inuit getting into filmmaking," Kunuk says. “When we started we were the only ones and it was very hard — we had to create our own platform."

A sweeping collection of their work, including thousands of hours of raw footage and interviews with Inuit elders, is now housed in the Igloolik Isuma archive, in the National Gallery of Canada Library and Archives.

arctic scene with man from The Journals of Knud Rasmussen

On set of The Journals of Knud Rasmussen. Credit: Isuma Distribution International.

Representing the country in Venice

Cohn and Kunuk will tell the story of the Inuit people and their place in Canada during La Biennale di Venezia next year.

“For us to be representing Canada, we're also representing the Inuit, we're also representing the troubled history of indigenous people in Canada and it's evolution to Canadian institutions being able to choose this body of work to represent the country in a global platform," says Kunuk. “We're not carrying the flag at the Olympics, what we're doing is telling the truth about a very difficult history that obviously by us being here is moving forward."

RBC's Senior Art Curator Corrie Jackson adds: "RBC's support of the Venice Biennale reflects a larger commitment to championing the voices of Canadian artists, and fostering opportunities for professional growth and visibility with new audiences. The distinct perspective and collective process that Isuma will bring to Venice will no doubt enlighten the international art community to the range of histories and perspectives that define contemporary Canadian art."

“Isuma's participation in Venice also marks the first presentation of art by Inuit in the Canada Pavilion," says National Gallery of Canada Director and CEO Marc Mayer. "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."

 A radical notion

Cohn is the only non-Inuit member of the collective. A New York-born Canadian who'd come across Kunuk's work in the late 1980s, finding a kindred soul in the stories Kunuk was trying to tell and making the long trek north to Igloolik to meet him. He's since seen the effects of European colonization while living in the Arctic.

“We're representing Canada at the Biennale with a voice from the colonized and I think that's the opportunity for everybody who thinks about it to see this as a very special moment," he adds. "It's a special moment for Zacharias and his ancestors who were colonized."

When asked how he thinks people from other countries who aren't necessarily familiar with the Canadian story will connect with Isuma's work, Cohn says there's a certain universality in the human journey being told by the collective.

 “Especially now when Europe is filled with refugees, the world is in a certain kind of turmoil, we're getting fake news from everywhere that makes it very difficult to understand what other human beings are going through – through Venice our work is moving onto world platforms."

And Cohn points out that video is very suitable when it comes to illuminating human emotions and experience, making it an ideal medium for telling stories that have never been written down, have never been printed in a book or stored on a hard drive.

He says Isuma is an investigation of humanity as a whole, of oppression and suppression, of the human journey, of remembering and forgetting.

“When you watch our films you can't doubt that Inuit are people just like you and me," he says. “That may seem like an obvious thing to say but it's about as radical as you can get."