Creating a visual language
The Canada Council for the Arts announced on February 23, 2021, that Germaine Arnaktauyok was one of the 2021 winners of the Governor General’s Awards in Visual and Media Arts. She won the Artistic Excellence Award for her 60 years of contribution to the Canadian arts landscape and her ongoing artistic explorations. She is the first Inuit artist to win this award. As her nominator, I was excited to be able to call and speak with her several months earlier when we first received unofficial news of the award. With her typical humour, Germaine expressed surprise at winning the award since she thought that only younger people were considered for such honours!
Germaine was born in a camp near Igloolik, Nunavut, and her early years were spent on the land with her family. She has been drawing since childhood: “When I was a child, it seemed natural for me to make art. I can remember drawing on gum wrappers and any bits and pieces of paper I could find.” At the age of nine, she was sent to a Roman Catholic residential school in Chesterfield Inlet. The only bright spot during this period was provided by a nun who was a talented painter and encouraged Germaine and three other girls to spend Saturday mornings painting and listening to music.
Germaine attended high school in Churchill, Manitoba, and while there, she met artist and Inuit art specialist, George Swinton. He encouraged her to attend the University of Manitoba School of Art, where she spent two years in 1968-1969. She continued her art training at Algonquin College in Ottawa for one year before moving to Iqaluit where she supported herself with design projects and book illustrations.
A turning point came in 1993, when she was encouraged to study printmaking by Iqaluit art dealers Thomas and Helen Webster, then owners of Arts Induvik Canada. With their support, she created many drawings and catalogued portfolios of her prints.
In 1998, I worked with Germaine on her first solo exhibition at the Winnipeg Art Gallery and she became the Gallery’s ninth Artist-in-Residence. The following year, her design was used on The Nunavut—1999 Millennium $2 circulation coin to mark the birth of the new territory of Nunavut. In 2015, she wrote a book with Gyo Oh, My Name is Arnaktauyok, which was named one of the “20 Books to Read for Nunavut’s 20th Anniversary” by CBC.
In 2019, Germaine was the co-writer, art director and illustrator for Unikkaaqtuat, a major multidisciplinary production blending circus arts, music, theatre, and video projection. Her drawings were projected on the massive outdoor Kipnes Lantern at the National Arts Centre in Ottawa, Ontario. Another exciting animation project, Arctic Song, featuring her drawings, will be launched by the National Film Board of Canada and Taqqut Productions in December 2021.
Piujut Arnaqsiutit, an exhibition of 13 of her prints, was held at the Nunatta Sunakkutaangit Museum in Iqaluit in 2020. The prints reflect the artist’s lifelong interest in expressing Inuit femininity through images of traditional tattoos, or tunniit, and prehistoric ivory combs that she has researched in ethnographic texts. Throughout her career, her prints and drawings have often centred on feminine narratives including the female sea spirit known by Iglumiut as Takannaaluk.
For over 60 years, Germaine has continued to develop artistically and professionally. She has charted her own course and created her own visual language. A life-long interest in her own unique Inuit culture has been an inspiration to many younger artists.
Darlene Coward Wight is the Curator of Inuit Art at the Winnipeg Art Gallery.