Qaumajuq: Illuminating The Largest Collection of Inuit Art In The World

April 5, 2021
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Exterior of Qaumajuq Inuit art centre featuring scalloped white granite and first floor glass paneled walls
Winnipeg Art Gallery’s Inuit art centre, Qaumajuq, in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada, showcases Arctic art from across Canada and the circumpolar world

In a previous post It is Bright, It is Lit, I offered a preview of Qaumajuq, the Winnipeg Art Gallery’s Inuit art centre. The centre in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada, is home to the largest public collection of traditional and contemporary Inuit art in the world. It opened to the public in late March 2021 and I have now had the opportunity to visit in person.

After seeing a virtual preview and attending the virtual opening, I was hyped to expect something special. I was not disappointed. The 40,000 square foot building is beautifully designed to display the Winnipeg Art Gallery’s impressive collection of Inuit art. The Winnipeg Art Gallery (WAG) holds over 14,000 Inuit art works, which includes carvings, drawings, prints, textiles, and new media. You’ll find traditional soapstone carvings of Arctic animals, but you’ll also find so much more. The wide range of works displayed at Qaumajuq will broaden your understanding and may shatter a few preconceptions of what constitutes Inuit art.

Qaumajuq Building

The Inuit are an Indigenous people, the majority of whom live in the northern regions of Canada. Inspired by visiting the Canadian Arctic, architect Michael Maltzan designed the building to reflect the northern landscape. As mentioned on the Qaumajuq website, it celebrates the North in the South. Winnipeg is located in the southern part of Canada, just 110 kilometres (68 miles) north of the U.S. border.

Qaumajuq, pronounced “kow-ma-yourk” or sometimes heard as “how-ma-yourk,” means “it is bright, it is lit” in Inuktitut. The building and the spaces within it were named by a group of Indigenous language keepers and elders. Beneath an expanse of scalloped white granite reflecting the curves of the North, a wall of glass panes at ground level makes the museum visible to the outside and lets in light. A collection of skylights illuminates the third-floor exhibit space. Undulating white walls evoke the scale of the Arctic and provide a perfect background for displaying the art.

A series of circular skylights in a white ceiling illuminates Qaumajuq Inuit Art Centre
Skylights in the gallery space

You can read more about the architecture of the building, its inspiration, and the role of Inuit and other Indigenous peoples in the creation of Qaumajuq in my post It Is Bright, It is Lit.

Qaumajuq Visible Vault

The focus of the Entrance Hall, named ILAVUT [pronounced eelah-voot] which means “Our relatives” in Inuktituk, is the Visible Vault, a three-story glass-walled vault containing approximately 5,000 carvings on its 500 glass shelves. The curved walls of the vault allow for an immersive feeling as you walk around it.

Three story Qaumajuq visible vault with undulating glass walls and glass shelves displaying Inuit carvings

Light shining through the glass walls of the building and the vault interacts with the carvings. The carvings are organized by community. The material used for the carvings vary by community based on what is available in the community, but all the carvings in the vault are resilient in terms of being made from stone that can be shown in the light. More organic material is stored in another vault downstairs.

The volume of carvings in the vault is somewhat overwhelming. Just the amount you can see at eye level is daunting, never mind looking up or down. The carvings higher up are more difficult to see, but some are more visible from the second level.

People viewing Inuit carvings inside behind the glass walls of the Visible Vault at Qaumajuq

The carvings are displayed without any identification. I would have liked to know more about them – the artist, the material used, some of the stories behind them. A staff member told me there will eventually be touch-screen panels set up around the vault with photos you can zoom in on to get more information on the pieces in the vault. Current COVID-19 restrictions don’t allow for touch-screen displays. In the meantime, there are printed sheets of paper available that map the numbers and letters displayed on the shelves with the communities the pieces on those shelves are from.

Part of the collection of Inuit carvings on display in the Qaumajuq visible vault with numbers and letters on shelves identifying the source community
Café at Qaumajuq with food counter, chrome round tables and chairs, and a red and black Inuit art piece along one wallQau
There is also a main floor café in this space. It is named KATITA [pronounced kah-tee-tah] which means let’s get together in Inuktituk.

Qaumajuq Gallery Space

Colourful embroidered Inuit wall hangings depicting the four seasons and a mannequin wearing an embroidered top with beads and pearls at an art exhibition at Qaumajuq
Four Seasons of Tundra wall hangings and the clothing art piece Our Flourishing Culture by Maata Kyak, part of the INUA exhibition

On the third floor, an intimate focus gallery named PIMÂTISIWIN [pronounced Bi-MAHDS-a-win], which means “life and the act of living, to be alive” in Cree/Ojibway, leads into a two-story 8,000 square -foot gallery with skylights in the ceiling. This main Inuit Gallery is called QILAK [pronounced qui (like the French pronunciation) qui-lack] which means “sky” in Inuktituk.

Two story skylight art gallery with white walls and ceiling displaying Inuit art
QILAK

The size of this space allows for large-scale exhibits, like the fishing cabin and the shipping container shown in the above photos, to be displayed without overwhelming the space. Large wall hangings or groups of hangings can be effectively shown on the massive walls. In spite of its scale, the space is also a fitting venue for smaller pieces as well.

Collection of Inuit wall hangings hand-stitched with traditional images
Collection of Inuit dolls displayed on individual wood shelves on the side of large white wall at Qaumajq
Collection of Inuit dolls
Three sugar-lift etchings showing Inuit figures in parka on display at Qaymajuq
Elisapee’s Family, a suite of 3 sugar-lift etchings by Elsapee Ishulutaq
A mezzanine level art gallery with a central table of Inuit carvings and art on the walls
GIZHIG/KISIK

On the fourth floor is the Mezzanine Gallery, named GIIZHIG/KISIK [pronounced Gee-shig or Key-sick] which means “sky, heaven, day” in Cree/Michif/Ojibway. It overlooks the QILAK gallery and provides another perspective to that space.

Looking into a two-story sky-lit white walled art gallery space from a mezzanine gallery at Qaumajuq

Note: All of the art featured in the photos from the galleries is part of the inaugural exhibition entitled INUA. INUA has two meanings. It means spirit or life in many dialects across the Arctic. It is also the acronym for Inuit Nunangat Ungammuaktut Atautikkut or “Inuit Moving Forward Together.” It reflects the curators’ vision of Qaumajuq as a site where Inuit from throughout Inuit Nunangat (an Inuktituk term meaning “homeland” that describes the four Inuit land claim regions) can collectively gather and share, be inspired by previous generations, and create new pathways forward in Inuit art. INUA features work by over 90 Inuit artists from across northern Canada and some living in the urban South as well as works by other circumpolar Indigenous artists from areas such as Greenland and Alaska. For more about this exhibition see INUA: Inaugural Exhibition At Qaumajuq Art Centre.

Qaumajuq Connected to the WAG

On each level, Qaumajuq connects to the WAG building and you can walk freely between the two spaces. In conjunction with the opening of Qaumajuq, the WAG building received a new name: BIINDIGIN BIWAASAEYAAH [pronounced BEE-deh-gen Bi-WAH-say-yah] which means “Come on in, the dawn of light is here” in Ojibway. The bridge connecting the two buildings on each level is named NAKISHKAMOHK [pronounced na-KISH-ka-mok] which means “connection” in Michif. The main floor corridor between the two buildings is named OHNI IZANZAN [pronounced OH-Nee ee-ZHAN-zhan] which denotes an everlasting light in Dakota/Lakota.

Gallery exhibitions in this space change over time and may focus on items in the WAG’s permanent collection, feature temporary exhibitions of art from around the world, or showcase still more of the Inuit collection. Two exhibitions running when I visited during Qaumajug’s opening week were Inuk Style which showcased Inuit fashion designers and Nuliajuk’s Story about the storytelling aspect of Inuit culture.

Art gallery space with dark blue walls displaying Inuit art work at the Winnipeg Art Gallery

The WAG’s Gallery 5, which housed the Nuliajuk’s Story exhibition, is a narrow gallery. Its deep blue walls were a good backdrop for the paintings in the exhibition. However, the small space, the darkness of the walls, and low ceiling gave me a closed-in feeling after coming from the bright openness of QILAK. The contrast made me further appreciate how the design of Qaumajuq reflects the brightness and vastness of the North.

Painting of a figure in seal skin under swirls of black and teal water tells a story about the Inuit sea spirit
Sedna, Ruler of All Sea Animals by Germaine Arnaktauyok speaks to the stories told about the Inuit sea spirit
Row of shelves in WAG art gallery shop contain books, cushions, pottery, Inuit carvings, and other gift items
The gallery shop is located off the OHNI IZANZAN hallway. It also has a direct entrance from the street.

Qaumajuq Outdoor Plaza

The outdoor plaza space in front of Qaumajuq is called NUTAAQ TUMMAQTUYUQ which means “Big steps forward” in Inuvialuktun.

Large stone sculpture of a family of bears called Time to Play by Inuit artist Anghik Ruben
Stone carving Time to Play by Inuit artist Anghik Ruben
Green marble sculpture by Inuit artists Goota Ashoona is a sytlized version of Sedna, the Inuit sea spirit, and the tattooed face of a lady.
Verde Guatemala marble sculpture Tuniigusiia/The Gift by Inuit artist Goota Ashoona was commissioned by the Manitoba Teachers’ Society to honour teachers all around us – in the land and in our lives – who reveal the truth, wisdom, and beauty that connect us all. The other side of the sculpture (more visible from the inside of the Qaumajuq shows two faces in profile – mother and daughter.

For more information on Qaumajuq, current exhibitions at the WAG, hours of operation, and ticket prices visit the WAG website. Tickets give you access to exhibitions in both buildings. I look forward to many more visits in the future

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Qaumajuq Inuit Art Centre in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada. The large full-of-light gallery whose name means it is bright, it is lit is home to the largest public collection of Inuit art in the world. It showcases Arctic art and Inuit art from across Canada and the world. #Winnipeg #Inuitart

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  • Reply
    Doreen Pendgracs
    April 13, 2021 at 4:13 pm

    Thanks very much for sharing your impressions of Qaumajuq with us, Donna. I’ve not yet visited in person, but like you, I did enjoy the online previews. One of these days I’ll make my way back to Winnipeg!

    • Reply
      Donna Janke
      April 14, 2021 at 5:36 pm

      Doreen, I’m sure you’ll enjoy it when you do get a chance to visit Qaumajuq in person. Someday, we’ll be going out and about again!

  • Reply
    TravelGalCindy
    May 3, 2021 at 7:45 pm

    So so jealous!! Thanks for the virtual visit. I didn’t realize the vault is organized by community, but that makes a lot of sense. Can’t wait to see Qaumajuq myself when the border finally reopens. But until then at least I can enjoy my own copy of Germaine’s Sedna, Ruler of All Sea Animals on the wall of my dining room. . . funny to see it in your post.

    • Reply
      Donna Janke
      May 4, 2021 at 1:52 pm

      Cindy, this is one of the very few places I’ve visited in the last many months. It’s lovely to have something like this in my home city. I’m sure you’ll enjoy Qaumajuq when you are able to visit. And maybe we’d have a chance to meet in person then too. In the meantime, enjoy the art in your dining room!

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