In preparation for several major projects this fall, boundary pushing Vancouver-based painter Mark Igliolorte discusses his ongoing research into the Indigenous origins of the kayak, the beauty in shifting perspectives and collapsing the vast distance between coasts. Through the careful observation of sightlines and surfaces, Igliolorte’s art makes visible the latent Indigeneity of skateboards and kayaks in his ongoing and lived practice that reframes cultural histories and sense of place.
Standing in his studio in Vancouver, BC, Mark Igloliorte points toward the adjacent open room saying, “I’d love to have the kayak out here, and now I have this space available, but it’s 17-feet and 7-inches long, and it will not fit up either of the stairwells. It’s gigantic! It’s such an object to deal with, especially in the city. But that to me is part of it—taking this on as part of my lifestyle.” He recently brought his kayak to the Indigenous Summer Intensive O k’inādās // complicated reconciliations: an artist residency at the University of British Columbia’s Okanagan campus where he practiced sketching it from multiple vantages. Speaking about his relationship to the kayak, he says, “I’m out here on the West Coast—it’s as far as you can get from Labrador in Canada, right? That’s a huge separation. So this is my idea of how I can connect with part of my culture and how I can share it with my family.” Igloliorte also has his son enrolled in kayaking courses over the summer.
Over the course of a studio visit and phone call with Igloliorte, and during our subsequent discussions with one another, we were struck by Igloliorte’s remarks about the kayak. With one of us having grown up in the Greater Vancouver Area and the other having moved here from the land-locked Prairies, we both held assumptions about kayaking as a recreational activity primarily accessed by upper-middle-class people, dressed in outfits purchased at Mountain Equipment Co-op. Although this may hold some truth, Igloliorte reminds us of the latent Indigenous origins of the kayak, as well as the skateboard, which is a descendant of surfing—a practice indigenous to Nā Kānaka Maoli (Native Hawaiians)—and another activity that he enthusiastically pursues and explores in his practice.
As an observational artist, Igloliorte views the world from shifting perspectives. He moved his family to Vancouver last year to take a position as Assistant Professor in the Faculty of Visual Art and Material Practice at Emily Carr University of Art + Design, teaching painting. Born in Corner Brook, Newfoundland—where his mother is from—Igloliorte grew up in Happy Valley-Goose Bay, Labrador, where he learned to hunt and fish with his father. He came to Vancouver, as did most of the urban Indigenous population, with his own outlook, history and sense of place. Through methodical investigations in drawing, painting and public performance, Igloliorte examines his connection to his Inuit heritage while remaining conscious of these shifting vantages and the way in which representations mediate our imaginings of culture, land and belonging.
In both sketching the kayak and learning to kayak himself, Igloliorte cultivates a practice-based methodology that, as Julie Nagam has similarly expressed about the canoe, “encompasses both metaphor and embodied practice and is strongly tied to Indigenous epistemologies.” When first researching the kayak, the artist did a basic web search for “Labrador kayak” and stumbled across photographs taken in the early nineteenth century by German and Moravian missionaries. The images were developed on glass plate negatives brushed with photographic emulsion.
During a 2006 Aboriginal New Works Residency at the Banff Centre, Igloliorte viewed these images on an iMac and was struck by the connection between the screen and the glass plate negatives as similar “vessels” of the image. The resulting Kayait series (kayait is the Inuktitut plural of kayak) is painted onto Plexiglas panels as a material that bridges the two mediums of image delivery. The historical photographs are rendered in silvery-blue tones and then abstracted by wiping across the painting, calling attention back to the surface. The original images become ghostly and ephemeral, materializing the transfer of knowledge through time and its mediation across multiple formats. Igloliorte mines such connections “to investigate the kayak and what it means, and how it’s gone viral—globally—in coastal areas, and how we (as Inuit artists) can take ownership of that practice, and make that practice really alive for ourselves.”
In another series titled Visiting Home, which depicts the landscapes of his home community, Igloliorte also works with the idea of transfer from one surface to another. In Kayait images of his ancestors move from surface to surface in an ethereal, intangible manner. In Visiting Home, however, the transfer is direct if not corporeal. Using his own photographs of his ancestral territory as a foundation, Igloliorte begins by painting these images onto unexpected surfaces, such as a large plastic drop sheet or across multiple windowpanes. He then carefully peels the painting off this initial surface in strips, sections or as a whole—which he likens to a skin or an animal hide—and transplants it onto another support. Inevitably, this skin bears the stresses of its transfer, with certain areas becoming stretched and distorted or wrinkled and fissured, depending on the varying thickness of the paint layers.
For Igloliorte, this process is both a means of taking further ownership of the transferral from photograph to painting and a recognition of his own relocation and distance from the landscape he portrays. “I’m also meditating on having this relationship with the coast, but it’s not something I’m living with every day.” He continues, “When I visit there, people do say to me, ‘It’s great that you’re home.’ That’s important to me, but I also want to acknowledge when I’m making something like this, there is a degree of separation, and how I relate to that.” He acknowledges not only an ambiguous relationship with his ancestral lands, but also a metaphoric connection between his relocations and that of the skin being transplanted from one surface to another. While one might be inclined to contemplate the fragility of the painted skin, Igloliorte is more fascinated with how, despite undergoing a “torturing process,” the images, like those of the kayait, remain distinct and intact. The transfer process entails an accumulation of specific qualities rather than a loss.
Throughout his practice, Igloliorte demonstrates a careful attention to the interrelations between imagery, process and the material of his paintings’ surfaces. Igloliorte attributes this approach to his formative years spent at the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design (now NSCAD University) completing his BFA, where discussions focused on the materiality of paint, painting in post-war art history and questions of observational representation.
Several works in Visiting Home point to this continued concern with materiality, as the support surfaces are left deliberately exposed. In both Diamond Komatik Box (2015) and Islands (2013), the background is a bright rusty orange, dramatically contrasting the landscapes’ ocean and sky blues and dark earthy tones. Igloliorte explains that the mid-tone ground, such as the bright red oxide he favours, has a specific connection to a European history of painting. For him, emphasizing the support also calls attention to the presumed neutrality of a white background. The surfaces he utilizes turn away from conventions not simply to be unconventional, but to highlight assumptions of neutrality. As Igloliorte notes, a blank, white-primed canvas has as much of a specific history as any other material, and is therefore not objective, nor free from the weight of that history. As an Inuit artist, he is especially mindful of how these materials implicate his work within the shifting terrain in which it circulates.
Igloliorte’s careful attention to material and surface is similarly evident in Diptychs, an ongoing series dating back to 2010, when he completed his MFA at Concordia University. The beginnings of this series were in part a happy coincidence, yet it follows the same questioning of value and surface neutrality that is evident throughout his oeuvre. Tearing pages from phone books to clean his brushes, the artist came to see the paper as a readily available material to sketch on. Freed from the constraints of painting on canvas, Igloliorte states, “It gave me so much liberty to have a space of trial and error, for research and an experimentation.” When the artist happened to pin two such studies to the wall side-by-side, the format of paired images became integral. “For me,” he explains, “a painting is just so many decisions in terms of how you frame it and how you paint it that I really wanted to highlight those dynamics of representation.…By adjusting the painting by just a couple of millimeters in focus, it becomes a whole other painting. That’s quite exciting to me.”
The series focuses on intimate views of objects found in the artist’s numerous studios in the cities where he has lived, worked or visited over the years: Montreal, Labrador, Amherst, Sackville, Moncton, Kelowna and Vancouver. The scope of the series is in some sense dictated by place. With a chuckle, Igloliorte remarks, “The phone book in all of Labrador is the size of a paperback novel.” By using the phone book—with its collection of names and digits—as the ground of the painting, these works index the place of their making and retain something of the people who call those places home.
What is perhaps most striking about the Diptychs series is the intensity of focus it demonstrates. Over seventy diptychs were included in his 2015 exhibition at grunt gallery in Vancouver. For Igloliorte, practice is integral to his methodology. Importantly, practice is not necessarily about representational accuracy but about gaining greater perspective. It raises questions as to why something is worth being represented in a certain way. This is a question of significance for Indigenous artists like Igloliorte who are interested in opening up discussions of representation without relying on essentialized markers of identity.
Opening up possibilities is also part of Igloliorte’s performance practice. In his ongoing Komatik project, originally staged as part of the 2014 Art in the Open festival in Charlottetown, PEI, Igloliorte offers to sketch a portrait of participants’ dogs. The dogs are tethered to a komatik (an Inuit dog sled), which is a form seen throughout many of Igloliorte’s painting and performance works. Through these portraits, he makes an implied comparison, “between the Inuit dog, how we relate to that body as Inuit, and how people relate to their domestic pets.” Once again, the process is as critical as, if not more critical than, the final product. Igloliorte takes advantage of the portrait sittings, an “intense period of engagement and time-sharing,” to have conversations with southerners about a difficult history.
Between 1950 and 1970, Inuit were pressured to relocate to settled communities. This settlement was facilitated in part by the RCMP’s widespread slaughter of Inuit sled dogs, which were central to seasonal movement and hunting. Igloliorte believes dog owners will approach this little-known history with empathy. The endearing quality of these pet portraits belies the traumatic history to which they speak. This history is brought to a broader audience by the documentary Qimmit: A Clash of Two Truths (2010), which features conflicting testimonials from both the RCMP and Inuit, gathered by the independently funded Qikiqtani Truth Commission, in which Igloliorte’s father, James Igloliorte, played an integral role. Despite the slaughtering of qimmiit (sled dogs) and relocation, the tradition of dog sledding continues. Igloliorte will stage another Komatik performance this October for the inaugural iNuit Blanche in St. John’s, Newfoundland and Labrador.
Throughout our conversations with Igloliorte, his passionate, patient and disciplined approach to his work is evident. He is contemplative about his position in relation both to a broader art history, particularly as a painter, and to the history of Labrador Inuit art. Inuit artists in Labrador have not been supported by the market in the same way as other Inuit communities, such as the well-known Kinngait Studios in Cape Dorset—a history his sister, Dr. Heather Igloliorte, has extensively researched. As an Inuit painter, he says, “there isn’t really a tradition that I’m looking at.” With artistic conventions less firmly entrenched than they might be elsewhere, Igloliorte is able to express his Inuit heritage through his own observational approach. “I’m using art as means to stay connected with my community,” he explains. His artwork has enabled him both to return home physically, offering painting and drawing workshops for Inuit youth, and to collapse the distance between Vancouver and Labrador through his various practices.
Kayait, komatiks, skateboards and phone books, removed from their locales, all speak to a sense of movement, migration and place. What knowledge do we gain from these modes of transport and signifiers of location as states of being? What experience of Indigeneity is imparted? As Métis artist and writer David Garneau has argued, “being Indigenous is an activity rather than a state; it is a being in motion rather than a being fixed in a place; it is an exercise of domain rather than a claiming of dominion.” For Igloliorte, this “exercise of domain” manifests in his exploration of multiple practices, both artistic and embodied. His various series are ongoing and interrelated; his body of work cannot be easily divided into sequential stages. He revisits ideas, adjusting his perspectives and refining his skillset. Instead of compartmentalizing kayaking from sketching the kayak, his love of skateboarding from performance (as in Komatik Skatebox, 2011), or his teaching from his personal work, Igloliorte amalgamates these through a persistent attention to knowledge learned, embodied and then communicated through his practice. Or as Igloliorte modestly quips, he is an “Inuit artist who has a kayak, likes to skateboard [and] shows up in the exhibition.”
 Julie Nagam, “A Home for Our Migrations: The Canoe as Indigenous Methodology,” in The Lake, ed. Maggie Groat (Toronto: Art Metropole, 2014), 71.↑
 David Garneau, “Migration as Territory: Performing Domain with a Non-Colonial Aesthetic Attitude,” voz à voz, October 16, 2015, accessed July 26, 2016, http://www.vozavoz.ca/feature/david-garneau.↑
This is a feature from the Fall 2016 issue of the Inuit Art Quarterly.