“There is this Inuk teaching, the more you give the more you get. So if I’m gifted seal flippers, I’ll give a pair of earrings to the huntress or hunter that gave them to me. It’s an exchange and it just keeps giving me more and more.”
On Friday, June 1, 2018 Inuit Art Quarterly staff met with Barbara Akoak of Inuk Barbie Designs. They discussed how she got started jewellery making, her interest in combining traditional teachings from elders with modern metalsmith techniques and more. Below is a condensed transcript.
Inuit Art Quarterly: How did you get started?
Barbara Akoak: About six years ago when I was pregnant I was living in Halifax, NS and I started learning how to do beadwork from the Mi’kmaq women on their territory. When I returned home I was still doing jewellery and it was so nice and I felt so passionate about it and I was always inspired. I enrolled into the jewellery and metalwork program and that is a two year diploma program so I graduated in 2015. After that I just kept doing metalwork. Lately I’ve been branching off into more natural material and it mixes so well with the semi-precious metals and the metals. It is nice to be in Iqaluit, NU and talk to elders and ask them about their traditional jewellery that they made; what is the symbolism behind it and what the motifs mean. It is just a fun and exciting time to be a jeweller.
IAQ: Why do you choose to work with the materials you do?
Barbara Akoak: With the natural materials, I work a lot with seal claws, mostly harp seal. I work a lot with antler and walrus ivory, narwhal tusk and raven feet. I get a lot of materials from my friends too. There is this Inuit teaching, the more you give the more you get. So if I’m gifted seal flippers, I’ll give a pair of earrings to the huntress or hunter that gave them to me. It’s an exchange and it just keeps giving me more and more.
I get a lot of ravens. I harvest these mostly from the dump in the winter months because we can’t hunt ravens, as they are a federally protected. I harvest them when the pass away. It’s almost like taxidermy; it takes about six months to cure them and I use epson salts. And then I clean them and then fit them in silver. I use goldsmith technique to cap them, but the other parts all come from traditional teachings about how to clean this and how to preserve this. I like to take teachings from the generation before me and I’ll mix it with the goldsmith.
IAQ: What does being part of Indigenous Fashion Week mean for you?
Barbara Akoak: I like to practice mindfulness and being aware of looking at shapes and colours for inspiration. So it is nice to slow down in such a big city and just look at a pair of earrings and be with the artists, or meet with artists I follow online. It would be nice to build a rapport with Toronto and the Indigenous designers and the Indigenous community. Events like this are a lot of networking, which is always exciting because it is nice to meet with new people and to tell the stories of what it means to be Inuit or what it means to be Inuit for me. The whole time in the opening ceremony, I was just sitting there thinking ‘this is really happening.’ This is the first time! It is just such an exciting thing to be part of.
IAQ: Are you excited about anything in particular?
Barbara Akoak: The fashion shows and to start vending because it would be nice to meet other artists.
IAQ: What influences you and your work?
Barbara Akoak: Coming from any Inuit community, with everyone’s bloodlines there is always an artist, and not necessarily fine art where it is something you can wear or hang up. But there are hunters and huntresses that make their own sleds, cabins, and all the hunting tools, to me that is a form of art. It is amazing getting the teachings from other people in different communities because there are different protocols in each community. It is nice to learn all the teachings of what it means to be Inuk on a global scale. I’m inspired by everyone in my bloodline because I have ancestry from Alaska, my great-grandfather David was Inupiak and he had a schooner and he would travel across the arctic in his boat and ended up settling in Gjoa Haven, NU. My grandparents on my dad’s side were fox trappers, so I learned how to take care of skins through their teachings for the few weeks I was with them, because I was always moving. My early childhood was inland in Inuvik, NT and I just remember all the smoked hide and beadwork. I’m inspired by the experiences I had and the places I lived.