Inukjuak born, Tio'tia:ke based artist and curator, Asinnajaq works in film, video, installation, and more recently, digital illustration. Her practice is research driven, centres intentionality, collaboration, and histories of representation, and draws on storytelling as methodology and inspiration. Her most well known short film, Three Thousand, 2017 won the Kent Monkman Award for Best Experimental Work and has screened nationally and internationally at major festivals.
In fall, 2017 she curated a retrospective for Isuma, the Nunavut-based, Inuit led production company, as they celebrated 30 years of production. From here she has been invited by Isuma to co-curate the Canadian Pavilion for the 2019 Venice Biennale, and is on the curatorial team for the Inuit Art Centre opening in 2020. In the summer of 2018, as part of the most recent iteration of ᑎᓪᓕᑕᕐᓃᑦ Tillitarniit she curated a selection of Inuit dolls made by her great aunt, Elisapee Inukpuk, animated by children’s stories and films.
This interview is a condensed version of an expanded conversation with a friend, recorded in two sessions, one longer and one shorter. Both times I went to Asinnajaq’s family home in Tio'tia:ke (Montréal), which is in a truly stunning part of the city. We sat in the company of meticulously crafted grass work baskets made by family members, seal skin hide in various stages of assembly, a wall of family photos, and her father who comes and goes as we talk. During our conversations, she sings the beginning of Kentucky Babe, recites one score, and one poem. We discussed her experiences growing up in Tio'tia:ke as an urban Inuk, her love of filmmaking, tunniit (facial tattoos), Fluxus, “Indigenous only” exhibitions, and “knowing who you are,” amongst other things.
i am an Inuk artist and will always be an Inuk artist, and will always be honoured and want to show with Inuit or other Indigenous peoples and maybe even feel more comfortable if that is the situation, but at a certain point you wonder and ask, so when do I get to show with other artists?
Maybe we can start with one of the first things that people encounter when learning about your work, which is your name, or names. Often online the text will read something like: “Asinnajaq, also known as Isabella Rose Weetaluktuk”… can you talk about your name(s), and what it means to you to go from being called Isabella to being called Asinnajaq?
Now I hate it whenever the names are together because at one point it was a transition, but now I have moved on. It's as if I moved houses but every time I walk into my apartment, the old house is inside it. I remember, because now I haven't been on Facebook for more than seven years, and there are a lot of reasons why, but one of the reasons was the feeling of not being able to move forward from people's memory of me, and I think that people's memories are important, but also people are growing and becoming new things, so that is mostly how it feels, as if this old memory is haunting me, and I am ready to be whoever I am now. I have two brothers: Zebedee and Naluturuk, and I was called Isabella. I always felt that I wanted an Inuk name, too. But I was named after my grandmother’s aunt who took a lot of care of the family when they were growing up in Toronto in the depression, so that's where that came from, but Asinnajaq is an old family name on my fathers side, and like receiving my facial tattoos, I really felt I would be embarrassed to stand next to my film without having my tunniit, and then I did that (received tunniit) and it felt like it was also time to use my name, Asinnajaq.
You spoke a little about your tunniit, can you talk more about that, including the way you highlight tunniit in your artistic and curatorial practice?
I think that probably it's the same thing for everyone, but I really lean into it. The fact that no event in your life is separate from others. Making Three Thousand directly relates to me having felt like it was the time that I was ready, and that I should have facial tattoo's and I think that the strength of my family and where I come from, that's why all of those things fit really well together in Insurgence/Resurgence. Because that's just the truth, and that's how I experience life. I think for me the core values of myself and what I want to see in the world are the most important thing. I think that the way you operate in the world needs to have some kind of intention and to try to make sure you have one and remind yourself what it is that’s important. I am definitely conscious of it when it comes to the art world, maybe not all the time, but as much as I can, and I think one of the things I really believe in is showing and doing and not just saying. One of the things I think a lot about is territorial acknowledgments because I spend most of my time outside my home territory. When we were doing the credits for Three Thousand, I wanted to make sure there was an acknowledgment. I started writing this really sad thing then I thought that what I was saying was mostly words, and that I can actually do something behind the words, and instead of even putting the words, it’s better to just find an action. I am still trying to figure out the way to do it, but if I am going to be in Tio'tia:ke and have a need to try to give something back it is better that I contribute to language revitalization, or to the survival school or something. So I am still trying to find a way to do it, but that is kind of how I think.
When you talk about core values, can you elaborate on that?
I try to think about being able to know where I come from, that there is a strength in that and thinking about other people like me, and what will also make them feel strength. For example, the film festival that we do [at the FOFA], ᑎᓪᓗᑕᕐᓃᑦ Tillitarniit, this year one of the big focuses was children. Of course, I was also a child that grew up in the city, that was also Inuk. There were feasts and some things that connected me to Inuit culture, but not that many things. So having a focus on children was really important and satisfying and enriching because I was able to see something very concrete that was happening that enabled children that were just like me feel a sense of pride and to be with other Inuit and see it as a positive thing.
That's amazing. Did a lot of children come?
A lot of children came. This was the first time we did an installation [as part of the festival], and the installation was of dolls that were made explicitly for children, and we installed them at a height that children can see them from. We opened with storytelling so I think a lot of kids came the first day. Also, I programmed mostly films that, well more than 50 % of the films were appropriate for children, or even geared towards them.
I love that. And what was the artist's name that made the dolls?
Her name was Elisapee Inukpuk.
And is she still living?
No, she passed away two months before the opening.
That's really special on a lot of different levels.
Yes, it was her first solo show ever, and she was happy I was doing that. She is my great aunt. I would go to her house and just sit. You wanna make sure it's ok. We still had to pay her artist fee, I brought it to her husband and he almost fainted.
What a powerful moment. ᑎᓪᓕᑕᕐᓃᑦ Tillitarniit developed as a really powerful response to a really negative situation where a non-Inuit filmmaker represented Inuit in really degrading ways. From this situation, you created this festival that centres Inuit voices. Was that your first major curatorial project?
I think so. I think the first year was mostly programming and something like party planning.
But I feel like that's part of learning about what curating is about.
That's a good way to describe it: intelligent event planning and programming. But also not to undercut what that says about the way that you naturally are towards curating, because someone could have just put some films together and...
They really would have! Yeah! I think the number one thing we think of is, how do we do it? Knowing the audience, we want Inuit to feel welcome here, usually [these] films are in film festivals, I don't think many Inuit go to film festivals unless we are explicitly invited. So knowing where people feel comfortable and who you want to come to the table is important. How do you make them comfortable? Also on the other side, people that are comfortable coming to see the films that aren't Inuit may only be used to seeing [Inuit culture] through films. So adding food and games makes it more comfortable, and for Inuit to feel more invited. It also opens the door for people who would only see us on the screen to hang out with us as real people.
I think that the way you operate in the world needs to have some kind of intention and to try to make sure you have one and remind yourself what it is that’s important. I am definitely conscious of it when it comes to the art world, maybe not all the time, but as much as I can, and I think one of the things I really believe in is showing and doing and not just saying.
Since then you have curated Isuma's 30-year retrospective, and you are on these large curatorial teams. The Venice Biennale is one of the pinnacles of the western art worlds understanding of itself, and the Inuit art centre in Winnipeg opening up. Can you talk more about your curatorial approach for these projects coming up?
I think what's always been true in my life so far, and maybe it's not always true for everyone but it's true for me, so I am going to stick with it. The reason that Isuma asked me to curate and work with them at the retrospective is because of the work I did for ᑎᓪᓕᑕᕐᓃᑦ Tillitarniit. That was about community and about the honesty of who I am and what I want to see, and how proud I am of where I come from. So it's the same thing with everything that I do. I have been invited into spaces, really early in the game because I know who I am, and stay true to that. I am always trying to grow and understand more and be the best person that I can in each moment. I think that's what you can do and it's easier and harder on different days, but that's the goal, or that's my goal at least. I learned most of my life philosophy from one soccer coach, and also all the books that I read. When you are part of a team, and I consider myself part of a team, that is my Inuk team, and my indigenous team, then you are only as strong as the weakest link in a chain. I can only control myself, so I try to be my best self, but I also try to help others to be their best self. That is what is really important to me, and that is what you can do in curatorial work, just be proud of people and support people that are doing beautiful things. I like stories and strong curation is also like telling stories.
There is something that came up recently and seemed really relevant to some of the conversations we have been having. There is an artist who put up a question on Instagram that asked: "does anyone still need Indigenous exhibitions?” I know that this is a question that comes up somewhat regularly and seems to be a tension within the discourse around Indigenous arts exhibitions. Thinking about a statement you made about your practice being "all Inuk all the time" I am curious to know what you think about this? It is also a tough one because it seems hard to even ask this question when the term ‘Indigenous’ is so huge and encompasses so many people.
So many people. All over the world, too. There are Indigenous people all over the world, not just on Turtle Island. I guess I wonder where the question comes from because I think it comes from a place where you don't want to be ‘othered' all the time, it's always the question of when can you just be an artist. So coming from that place, I understand the question, but I think it will always be beneficial to have places where you can have Indigenous artists housed together. Of course you want to be part of exhibitions that aren't part of that focus. Ultimately what you want is both.
Yeah, like, do you want to only be relevant in that space?
Yeah, I mean, I am an Inuk artist and will always be an Inuk artist, and will always be honoured and want to show with Inuit or other Indigenous peoples and maybe even feel more comfortable if that is the situation, but at a certain point you wonder and ask, so when do I get to show with artists?
Right, you want to be able to show work without having to always centre your identity.
Or have that be the reason that you are interesting.
Exactly. It seems important to make space for conversations that centre Indigenous voices, but also the space to be relevant outside of that context alone. Now, thinking of your artistic practice, your family is also important to your artistic development and ongoing practice. You mentioned your great auntie, the doll maker, your father is the director, Jobie Weetaluktuk, and you are making your upcoming film, Danieli about your uncle, a famous archaeologist, and collaborating with your brother on the research. I am curious about your relationship to filmmaking, how it has evolved towards that medium.
Filmmaking is one of my favourite things in the whole world. What I like about it is all the steps. That is one of the reasons I like being a director. When you are a director, you get to be in on all those stages. I also like certain technical things a lot. I like sound for example, but I don't think I would be satisfied personally with only doing one thing. I like doing research, and I like writing, and I love making a team. Trust is a really difficult thing, and in a way when you are filmmaking you have to bring yourself to the edge and jump and try to trust people, in other parts of my life it's never going to be easy, but there it's kind of exciting.
So it's a place where you feel like you can have trust that you might not be able to have access to in other types of relationships?
Or not, in the same way, it's very different, and it's creative, and it's fun, and scary. So I love that. I try and follow the story, and not force it anywhere. So it's also fun because when I am working on a film people always comment that they can't wait to see it, and I always feel like "me too!” Because I don't know what it will look like! [laughter]
It has its own intentions.
I just try to listen to it. And I like cameras, I love framing.
Can you talk about working with the National Film Board (NFB) archives, and archives in general?
Working with the archives, for me, basically, I started working with the NFB before I graduated from university. I grew up in Montreal and always knew where I am from and proud of where I am from, but didn't have much knowledge. I could see a ramp up. I took an Indigenous art class and realized how many smart and amazing people there are, and started thinking more about where I come from, and then I did a craft class, and my grandma passed away, and I went home and cleaned her house with my family, and put away all her things and took some with me. I was taking this craft class, and we had to write a paper about an object, and my grandmother had made, she made baskets, and one especially for me. So I wrote about that basket, and I feel that it was maybe in the last two semesters, or the last two years of university where I started realizing that there was something that I really cared about and that was always a part of my life, but that had never really been talked about too much, or that I didn't really know how to have access to making it part of my life. I realized that was really important to me. Also when you are in school, if you are in this system in Canada, you... or at least I didn't have any time for my life really, so, of course, you have your time after school and so forth, but your brain is being owned and run by someone else. So as soon as I had the decision to do what I wanted and cared about, it was all Inuk all the time!
Nice! Making up for lost time.
Yeah, so after having that experience, being there (the NFB) and working on that film, and looking at those archives it was an amazing initiation into that new part of my life. I worked with images and history and lots of strong people.
You spoke previously about being influenced by the films you watched during film school. Are there specific directors that you are specifically influenced by, or approaches to montage, visual aesthetics, etc.
One film I think about every other day is called The Gleaners and I by Agnes Varda. It's a documentary so she's asking people to share their stories and because it’s about people that are maybe more at risk or more vulnerable. I think that especially because of the vulnerability of the people that she's asking to contribute, it seems like she became aware that, really hyper-aware of the power imbalance between the Director / Filmmaker and the people that are contributing their stories, so she inserts herself into the film and becomes a part of the story because it's only fair that she also has to be vulnerable if she's asking all these people to be vulnerable. I think about that all the time. Another film that I really like is called Daisies by Věra Chytilová, it’s from the Czech New Wave. If you know the Bechdel test, I think it’s the first film that people considered to pass it. There are just so many films that don’t pass it.
Recently as part of the exhibition ᐊᕙᑖᓂᑦ ᑕᒪᐃᓐᓂᑦ ᓄᓇᑐᐃᓐᓇᓂᑦAmong All these Tundras at the Leonard & Bina Ellen Gallery in Montreal, you showed a video of a performance piece you did while in Aotearoa. You mentioned Fluxus as an influence for this piece, can you talk about that more?
That work is called Rock Piece the one that showed was the Ahuriri Edition. I made it at the residency in Aotearoa. I think with Fluxus, and what I understand about it, that regular everyday things can be artful, I think that translates for me into being conscious of my actions, which is really central to my entire life, and also the way that I look at things and interact with people. So I think that [this way of thinking and being] is a really big influence in general. In terms of the movement, I am especially interested in Yoko Ono's scores. In terms of Rock Piece, it is a Fluxus score that I wrote and then performed. The use of scores also influenced my thesis project. The second fiction that I directed at school was only scores that I wrote, or that were from this Fluxus workbook, and I made a narrative film that was all out of Fluxus scores.
Like multiple Fluxus scores that you created a narrative from?
Yeah! That’s something that I'm really inspired by and I want to do more of. I think it's really a nice form because if you think about short stories or short films, the whole idea is that you have an essence, an idea, a core theme, and you have to be able to express it really fast, and people have to be able to feel it really fast, and that means you have to really understand what that emotion or idea is. I think it's the same thing with the Fluxus scores, you have to be concise to get your idea across, and I think that's a really good way of communicating that can be really powerful.
That comes up with your interest in memes also.
Exactly, it's all about communication. Everything for me is about communication, and to have good communication you have to do the work to think and exercise your brain and try to understand where you are.
Can you share the score for Rock Piece?
Feel the Weight of the World;
For people who haven’t seen the piece, how does the score unfold in the video?
Actually the first time that I ever performed it, it wasn't even really my idea. I was with my friend Mea and her father and brother and we were walking in Halifax at the park I used to go there all the time now I can't remember its name... but it's Point Pleasant Park. It has a really rocky shore and we were just going for a walk, I think it was spring, and we followed this trail of blood through the snow to this rocky beach, I think it was animal’s blood, not sure, but we just followed it so we took a really weird route through the park, and we ended up at the rocks on the shore and then we did… someone laid down and we buried them with the big flat rocks, and then I guess we did it a few more times, so we could all have a chance, and that's where the idea came from. So after performing the score first, then I wrote what it was through feeling it. That's actually not usually at all the way it works, but I think that one needed to happen that way. So I made sure it was okay with them [to use our experience], I told them that I wrote it and asked them if I could put it in my film. So we did that and you really feel the energy of the stones when they're on top of you, and you’re also being crushed into the earth, and you have to take your energy… and also when we did it at that time, we sang lullabies to each other and it was really sweet. We were singing this song, a lullaby my mom used to sing to me it's called Skeeters am a Hummin.
What does it mean?
It goes like this [singing]
Skeeters am a hummin' on the honeysuckle vine
Sleep, Kentucky babe
That’s what it’s called! Kentucky Babe! [Laughter]
She sang it to me every night, so I was teaching it to my friends for a film which was about trauma, through scores.
Wow. So then you decided to make the rock score its own piece?
Yeah because it was very powerful. So then after being buried, you have to break yourself out of it, so if you think about it in the context of the score: “feel the weight of the world” and then “free yourself.” Every time you can do a meditation, every time a rock goes on you, you can think about whatever you have to work on, or whatever you’re working through, and then feel what it is and then let it own you, and then take yourself out of it and it all falls away and that's what the score is. I think it was really nice to isolate it and make it its own thing. And the context of it, in terms of how I understand myself and where I come from changed. So from 2014 when we first did it just by accident! to when I just did it in Ahuriri, I have a completely different knowledge. Now I've watched all these archives, I know a lot about my own culture and realized that there are two things, one thing is my friend Lucy Tulugarjuk was saying that what it made her think of was the story about the beginning of the world when babies came out of the land. So that’s what it reminded her about. What it made me think about was being buried. In the summertime for example, if someone dies you can bury them by circling them with stones and then covering them with stones so that’s like a grave, which is what we're doing. I’ve seen people doing that, circling [bodies], I don't know if they were showing how to do it or playing, the archives don't always say exactly what's happening, but I see people doing that in the archives. And then of course when I used to work on the cruise ship, Cruise North, I saw graves and food caches all across Inuit Nunangat. So I had a big shift in what it meant for me, so what it meant for me was still about rebirth, but not just about the birth part. Lucy really read into the birth part, but for me, it was both death and birth, and especially thinking about myself and my connection to my culture.
It’s nice to hear about the evolution of the piece and to be able to return to ideas again in a new context and see them change. Thank you for sharing that.
Collaboration plays an important role in your practice, whether it’s being part of a curatorial team, or putting together a team for a shoot. You also have worked with a mutual friend of ours for a while, Camille Georgeson-Usher, we all met around the same time. Can you talk about the collaborative work you have been doing wit her and collaboration in general?
Over the past two and a half years I have been collaborating with my friend Camille. She works in a really similar way and we trust things to happen in the moment. When we are together and working it’s a lot of communicating, there’s a lot of working through good and also hard feelings with the world or even each other. Learning how to really listen to someone.
We have done two installations together called This World; Here, We collect natural materials in our daily lives, living in different cities, or being in different parts of the world. During the creation of the installation we bring our items together, and as we are putting them in the space we hang out and talk through things, and as we talk through things happening in our lives we see the items speaking to those feelings. It’s about finding ways to bring all the scattered parts of our life together and also take time to listen to each other and work through things. It’s really nice to work together, with our objects, and talk, and sometimes become frustrated with each other, but because we are in the middle of doing [these installations] we have to find a way to make it work. A lot of times I want to bail when it gets hard because you can just have someone else be your friend, or you can just collaborate with someone else, or you can just do it on your own, but Camille is really important to me, and Camille is really special, and the way we are able to work together is priceless, so it’s so worth it, even though it’s hard sometimes to try to work through it. I think the reward after going through that is so much more.You have to be really vulnerable to be able to create in the way that we do together.
Sounds really personal to yourselves individually, but also exposing the process of communicating and commitment to care and relation, which is hard.
Yeah, I think the important thing is that we learn how to set boundaries throughout our life. Maybe the hard thing is to know your boundary and then have someone cross it, and then to let them know they crossed it. It is really easy to cut someone out or run away because it’s hard to talk about your feelings.
Yeah, like how do you keep a boundary but…
How do you keep a boundary but not totally punish someone for not understanding that it was there? But then when you make them aware that it is there, then you, as a friend have to honour it.
I feel like that conversation around boundaries is becoming more and more pertinent both on an interpersonal level, but also the ways it plays out professionally. It’s an interesting one...
There are also power dynamics that can be really hard. To know that you can tell someone you have boundaries, for example.
Exactly, and also try to be generous, but also to know when that generosity is being…
is going too far…
Do you want to tell me about what you have coming up? It seems that things are happening really quickly.
Just two days ago I performed a poem with Yo-Yo Ma, that I wrote, at one of his community engagement events [in Montreal]. That was fast but really fun.
Can you share the poem?
Yeah, I can, it goes like this:
I reach out my hand
Ripe with all my best intentions
Filled with freshly polished seeds
that smell an awful lot like love
Plant them, if you want to
and I’ll follow with my bucket of water
But let me warn you,
it's an action that must be repeated
It's about community and connection, so I was thinking to be connected with people is not just a one-time effort. It’s about reciprocity.