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The world’s first Inuit Art Centre stands as a symbol for change

Over a decade in the making, the Winnipeg Art Gallery (WAG) will open its newest addition in Feb. 2021—an Inuit Art Centre with curators representing all four regions of the Inuit territories, seeking to bridge the gap between Canada’s Northern Inuit and Southern settler communities.

“It will be a cultural hub where everybody is able to come in, feel safe, and feel comfortable,” said Julia Lafreniere, the WAG’s manager of Indigenous initiatives, who is Métis from Treaty 4 Territory.

The Inuit Art Centre will be the first of its kind, and the WAG hopes it will set an example for other galleries across the country to embrace Inuit and Indigenous art as a step towards reconciliation.

An architectural mock-up of one of the gallery's exhibit room. It shows patrons looking at art on the walls.

The centre’s inaugural exhibition for the Winnipeg Art Gallery is INUA, an acronym for Inuit Nunangat Ungammuaktut Atautikkut or “Inuit Moving Forward Together.”

While the WAG has the largest collection of Inuit art in Canada, they acknowledge that some of the art they have collected has connections to Canada’s colonial history.

Since 2015, the Government of Nunavut has entrusted the WAG with its fine arts collection, which includes over 7,000 pieces of Inuit artwork.

While on loan, the WAG has committed to caring for the artwork by regularly conducting ceremony and prayer.

“[An Elder] said that the Inuit art being here on Treaty 1 [land] might miss its homeland, and that while it’s here, we have to take care of it in the right way,” Lafreniere said.

“So, that’s been part of my role: caretaker to the spirits of the art that we hold in our collection.”

Darcie Bernhardt, an Inuvialuk and Gwichin emerging visual artist and curator, creates art that combines memories with reactions to produce oil paintings.  Soon, her work will display in INUA.

This year alone, Bernhardt, who was chosen to be a part of the RBC Emerging Artists Project, also received Arts Nova Scotia’s Indigenous Artists Recognition award.

“I think it’ll be amazing just to see a space dedicated to Inuit artists and creators,” said Bernhardt.

Originally from Tuktoyaktuk, N.T., she uses old photographs to jog her memory and paints from what she remembers.

“My focus toward the end of my [Bachelor’s of Fine Arts] was mostly on exploring the idea of memory, memory-keeping, and also storytelling,” Bernhardt said.

The WAG has assembled an Indigenous Advisory Circle of representatives from the four regions of Inuit Nunangat: Inuvialuit Settlement Region, Nunavut, Nunavik, and Nunatsiavut. There are also representatives from urban and circumpolar Inuit communities, and First Nations and Métis members from Manitoba and the rest of Canada.

“Some of the things we had discussed in the Advisory Circle were, ‘How do we incorporate more Indigenous content into the tours that are given?’” Lafreniere said.

“Do they offer them in different [settler] languages or Indigenous languages? I’m hoping that it’ll go down that path.”

In 2015, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (TRC) published 94 calls to action, telling the Canadian government what needs to change for reconciliation to take place across the country.

The calls to action address the legacy of reconciliation from federal, provincial, territorial, and Indigenous governments.

In Call to Action 14i, the TRC called upon the federal government to “enact an Aboriginal Languages Act that incorporates the following principles: Aboriginal languages are a fundamental and valued element of Canadian culture and society, and there is an urgency to preserve them.”

Article 13 of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) reads, “Indigenous peoples have the right to revitalize, use, develop and transmit to future generations their histories, languages, oral traditions, philosophies, writing systems and literatures, and to designate and retain their own names for communities, places and persons.”

The gallery is working with teachings from the TRC and UNDRIP to develop gallery spaces that adhere to these calls to action.

The WAG has gathered a circle of language keepers from Indigenous nations across Inuit Nunangat and Treaty 1 Territory in Manitoba to name the Inuit Art Centre, the spaces within, and the WAG itself.

At the naming ceremony, the WAG was given the name Biindigin Biwaasaeyaah [BEEN-deh-gen Bi-WAH-say-yah]. It’s Ojibway for “Come on in, the dawn of light is here.”

The Inuit Art Centre within was given the name Qaumajuq, which is Inuktitut for “it is bright, it is lit.”

The name comes from the light that fills the building through the walls of windows.

Indigenous languages Inuktitut (Inuit), Inuvialuktun (Inuit), Nêhiyawêwin (Ininiwak/Cree), Dakota, Anishinaabemowin (Anishinaabe/Ojibway), and Michif (Métis) will all have a home and a presence throughout both the Inuit Art Centre and the WAG.

“I think it’s a powerful move to have Indigenous languages taking up such prominent space in the colonial institution, especially being located in the heart of Treaty 1 Territory in Downtown Winnipeg,” Lafreniere said.


An architectural mock-up of the gallery's interior. Curved walls and lots of natural light are the main features.

Built to resemble Nunavut’s northern landscapes, the Inuit Art Centre’s architecture integrates elements like the northern lights, glaciers, light, and people.

Michael Maltzan, the selected architect, developed his conceptual design after visiting Inuit communities in the North.

“The funny thing is [Maltzan] had a drawing for the building, and then after his visit to the Arctic, it completely changed,” Lafreniere said.

When finished, the 40,000 square foot building will be home to the Visible Vault, Knowledge and Sharing Centre, and Learning Steps.

The Visible Vault, named Ilavut [eelah-voot], stands three stories tall at the middle of the Inuit Art Centre and will be the world’s first and only Visible Vault, showcasing Inuit sculptures from the WAG’s collection.

“[The circle of language keepers] gave the area on the main level around the physical vault the name Ilavut, which means ‘our relatives,’ because all art has a spirit to it, and they see the spirits of that art as relatives,” said Krista Ulujuk Zawadski, member of the WAG Indigenous Advisory Circle, the naming circle, and INUA’s curatorial team.

“The language keepers and Elders saw it as the heart of the building.”

On the second of four levels, the Knowledge and Sharing Centre will feature an outdoor carving porch, a learning common with public spaces and classrooms, and the Niizhwaaso Collaborative Research Centre [Neesh-WAH-so].

The WAG wants to give the community access to outreach programs, virtual and live learning spaces, and archival resources.

“Any local artist can come in and use the studio space, maybe offer programs, teach art-making and that sort of thing,” Zawadski said.

An architectural mock-up of the gallery's learning steps. Patrons sit and watch Elders speak.

Although programs will take place in the Research Centre, Elders, performers, and storytellers will make use of the Inuit Art Centre’s Learning Steps, Ilipvik [eelip-vick], to reach larger audiences.

“I think having that kind of space opens up a more organic flow of stories, storytelling, or the sharing of knowledge,” Zawadski said. “It makes it an active space.”

By combining art with educational spaces and ongoing events, the Advisory Circle and curatorial team hope that this centre will be a welcoming space for both Indigenous peoples and the wider Winnipeg community—including those who don’t necessarily have an art background.

“I think most people, Indigenous or not, sort of feel like a little bit uncomfortable in art galleries. [They can be seen as] a hoity-toity sort of exclusive place,” Lafreniere said.

Part of breaking that stigma was announcing free admission for Indigenous people and individuals under the age of 25.

The WAG sees the new gallery as an opportunity to reach a previously unreached audience.

“People will see programming led by Indigenous people and see how valuable Indigenous knowledge and programs are, and it will be a place that they want to return to, spend time, and be a part of,” Lafreniere said.

By recognizing the artists, their work, and the stories they tell, Lafreniere hopes Winnipeg’s public will gain knowledge in a whole new way.


Rebecca Driedger has always kept herself busy, graduating with a dual major in Drama and Visual Art and double minor in Music and Psychology from Brandon University, only to pursue Journalism and Media Production at Red River College. When she isn’t being a freelance photographer and writer, you can usually find Rebecca, iced coffee in hand, reading or taking photos of her apartment companion, her three-legged cat Link.

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