Arpita Ghosal is a Toronto-based arts writer. She founded Sesaya in 2004.
Kalaallit performance artist Laakkuluk Williamson Bathory is bringing contemporary uaajeerneg (Greenlandic mask dance) to Ikumagialiit, a new Indigenous performance art show that debuts at Harbourfront Centre on December 12, as part of the 2nd annual Festival of Cool: The Arctic (December 10 – 15). Inspired by and celebrating the International Year of Indigenous Languages, the Festival of Cool: The Arctic offers all-ages programming – the majority of it free of charge – from across the Arctic Circle. This includes contemporary music, film, dance, visual art, lectures, and panels. Habitually viewed through the perspective of international climate talks and debates over untapped resources, this rapidly melting polar region appears in a new light when Festival of Cool: Arctic presents it through another lens: its people.
In addition to Williamson Bathory, Ikumagialiit, meaning “those that need fire”, features throat singing, electric cello and beats, and hand-drawn “light” and video. Performed by four acclaimed women artists Christine Tootoo, Cris Derksen, Jamie Griffiths and Williamson Bathory, Ikumagialiit explores both the issues and pressures surrounding them. Working across different artistic disciplines, they create structured improvisations which question how to hold space for fear under mounting pressure. Ikumagialiit takes on the metaphor of the bowhead whale: the focus is learning to breathe in the depths and exploring Inuit practices of meditation and spiritual skill-building in order to make this journey.
Williamson Bathory has long captivated audiences through stories told through the expression and movements of uaajeerneg, which requires lithe flexibility of the face and body, and utilizes highly physical movement to invoke storytelling. uaajeerneg combines dance, theatrical mask performing and mask painting, plus the performance of varied expressions that explore fear, humour, sexuality and the body. Those unfamiliar with mask dancing must put aside the aesthetic associated with many Eastern and Western narrative dance forms. The movements of uaajeerneq are elemental and rooted in symbology, and so create an artform that Toronto audiences have few chances to experience. In the days leading up to Ikumagialiit, Williamson Bathory spoke with us about the appeal of uaajeerneq for young audiences, the process of collaborating with her fellow artists on Ikumagialiit, and the power of uaajeerneq as “surreal creature performance” and “artistic tool of decolonization”.
SesayArts: Festival of Cool: Arctic is a free-of-charge, all-ages festival, which means that many young people will get the opportunity to experience uaajeerneq, perhaps for the first time. What would you like them to know about the dance form, especially in the contemporary context that you present it?
LWB: Uaajeerneq is a transcustomary mask dance from Greenland that existed in pre-colonization, pre-Christian times and again as an artistic tool of decolonization from the 1970s until now. It is an idiosyncratic act that challenges audiences to confront their own fears, play with the boundaries of comfort, take delight in clowning and celebrate everyone’s sexualities as intersecting, fluid, individual things of beauty. It is an in-your-face, base, surreal creature performance that literally crawls between seats and enters personal space. I take care to keep eye contact with everyone in my path, pushing and retreating as dictated by audience body language. If you are too uncomfortable with my presence, you can hold out your hand before I come too close, but if you are curious, you can let me come as close as you dare.
Children are remarkable with uaajeerneq: some retreat for the safety of their parents arms and others laugh and peer at me with jovial defiance; I challenge children with a mixture of humour and varying degrees of fear. I clown with children, and this is a lesson from my culture for them to understand how to navigate their own sense of fear and panic in a safe environment. Adults, of course, are the only recipients of the sexual content.
In Inuit culture, displays of sexuality are not hidden from children, and parents make the decision about how much exposure children have to it. At my shows, parents will sometimes cover children’s eyes and sometimes not – I’m happy for them to make their own decisions..
SesayArts: What piqued your interest to perform in Ikumagialiit, and what would you like audiences to know about the show?
LWB: I collaborate with everyone in Ikumagialiit in a number of different projects. I’m so proud that we all get to make this particular show together. I love that our skills and artistry are so diverse, and we make something that is a whole entity on its own.
I was given the inaugural grant from the Kenojuaq Ashevak Memorial Fund, from the Inuit Art Foundation to hold an artist-in-residency to expand my art practise. We were very glad to hold this artist-in-residency at Qaggiavuut, the Inuit performing arts society where I am Artistic Director.
And I was also commissioned by the National Art Gallery of Canada to contribute a piece of art to their latest international indigenous exhibition Abadakone. It is my great pleasure to work together with the entire Ikumagialiit team to make this art. Our art is informed by our experience as multifaceted women: Inuit women, a Cree woman, queer women, a mother, northerners, younger, older, braided, shaved, tattooed…
SesayArts: According to the press release, Ikumagialiit “takes on the metaphor of the bowhead whale, learning how to breathe in the depths and exploring Inuit practices of meditation and spiritual skill-building to make this journey”. Can you tell us a little bit about how you will interpret this theme through uaajeerneq?
LWB: Uaajeerneq is an aspect of the show that helps the audience release tension and at the same time, journey down with us to the root of the pressures we feel as women of many different identities in our current society. We realize that we are often encouraged to “rise above our issues” or “fly away,” but if we want to be able to continue to make change that matters to us, we actually have to sink and learn how to breathe under pressure.
SesayArts: What has surprised you most in your work on Ikumagialiit?
LWB: The stream of power that runs through the four of us when we perform is completely surprising – our work is expanding each one of us in our own realms and creating something that is bigger than us. I am so grateful.
News You Can Use
What: Ikumagialiit (‘those that need fire’), featuring performances by Christine Tootoo, Cris Derksen, Jamie Griffiths and Laakkuluk Williamson Bathory; part of Festival of Cool: The Arctic (December 10 – 15)
When: Thursday, December 12, 2019
Where: Harbourfront Centre, 235 Queens Quay West, Toronto, ON
Info and Registration: harbourfrontcentre.com
© Arpita Ghosal, Sesaya / SesayArts Magazine, 2019