Fine arts professor studies the new generation of northern artists

When “southerners” think about Inuit art, the classic images of soapstone carvings, beautiful prints and textile works depicting animals and traditional Inuit stories immediately come to mind.

Visual arts Professor Anna Hudson is currently researching the circumpolar cultural shift from the visual artwork created by generations past to feed a hungry collectors’ market in the south, to a new generation of artists who are using words, music and digital media to create work for northern audiences.

With support from the Social Sciences & Humanities Research Council of Canada, Hudson’s research project, “Breaking the Boundaries of Inuit Art: New Contexts for Cultural Influence”, addresses the gap between the established Inuit visual arts and the increasingly relevant time-based media, performance and autobiographical storytelling produced primarily for Inuit audiences.

“While there’s still a market for carvings and prints, and they’re an economic resource for the Inuit, they are also very resource-intensive,” said Hudson, who was the associate curator of Canadian art at the Art Gallery of Ontario prior to joining York. “In the past, many artists had access to these resources through co-ops, but such art centres are now fading away and it seems the next generation isn’t interested in continuing these market-based art practices.

“Today, young artists in the north are working with everything from hip hop-influenced music and fashion to performance poetry, beat and throat boxing, and video. They’re disseminating their work by digital means. And they’re looking for opportunities to travel with it, to perform or create their work live – unlike the generations of visual artists whose work was shipped away while they remained at the co-op in their community.”

While the mediums these up-and-coming Inuit artists are exploring are common in the south, there is often a distinctly northern feel to what they create.

“Beat boxing has been combined with throat singing to become throat boxing,” said Hudson. “And the poetry, whether it’s written for spoken word or as lyrics to songs, is deeply connected to the artists’ personal experiences. Often, it’s very dark, reflecting on issues such as the extremely high suicide rate in the north.”

Hudson’s research award has allowed her to make several trips to communities in Nunavik and Nunavut in the Canadian north, and to bring northern artists south to Toronto and Ottawa. Most recently, she organized a four-day artists workshop and a two-day concert, co-produced by Alianait Arts Festival in Iqaluit, Nunavut to celebrate both National Aboriginal Day, June 21, and the end of term with School’s Out performances.

Aided by her graduate assistant Jean O’Hara, a doctoral student in theatre studies, Hudson arranged for throat singers and spoken word, rap, beat box, hip hop and folk performers from Nunavut, Greenland and Toronto to lead workshops for each other and the public, creating new collaborations and sharing the results in a free public concert.

Jean O’Hara (left) and Anna Hudson soak up the scenery of the Frobisher Bay coastlineRight: Jean O’Hara (left) and Anna Hudson soak up the scenery of the Frobisher Bay coastline

“It was a great experience and I was thoroughly impressed by the talent of all the artists,” said O’Hara. “I think York’s involvement was what made this collaborative approach possible. We created a space for Inuit and non-Inuit artists to inspire each other and create new works while also showcasing their own pieces. For example, we had throat singing combined with spoken word, a harmonica and beat boxing. Fusions like this allow for new imaginings and reflect northern life, which is filled with both traditional and contemporary art and music forms.”

The concert featured Greenland’s Nive Nielsen and the Deer Children, an award-winning Inuk indie band known as the “heirs to Arcade Fire”; Baker Lake rapper Shauna Seeteenak and her cousin, beat boxer Nelson Tagoona; harmonica master Mike Stevens; madeskimo DJ Geronimo Inutiq; and Toronto’s spoken word artist/rapper Ian Kamau.

Harmonica master Mike Stevens (left) and beatboxer Nelson Tagoona collaborated at the “School’s Out” workshopsLeft: Harmonica master Mike Stevens (left) and beatboxer Nelson Tagoona collaborated at the “School’s Out” workshops

The entire program was documented by Philip Joamie of Inuit Communications and Jimmie Papatsie of the Inuit Broadcasting Corporation, with the intent to share it online.

“While there are similarities between producing a concert and curating an art show, this was my first time working with live performance, and I was very grateful to be collaborating with Jean,” said Hudson. “It was amazing to see the collaborations come together, watching older performers work with younger artists in front of a very intergenerational crowd.”

“Most of the research in the North centres on climate change, social sciences and ecology,” said Hudson. “But there’s also a very exciting arts revolution happening up there. I think one can facilitate positive change in communities that are struggling with massive challenges, but more importantly, non-Inuit can learn a lot from Inuit peoples about being engaged in a globalized world.”