A central man dances with his drum. A group of shy boys and girls gaze at each other from across the room. An orbiting ball casts glass beads of light over the crowd. “Don’t you see it!?” Janet Nungnik said to me, gesturing toward the large-scale textile Nungnik’s First Dream (2007) at the opening of her exhibition at Marion Scott Gallery in late March 2019, now on view at the McMichael Canadian Art Collection in Kleinburg, ON. “It’s a disco!”
Known for her autobiographical wall hangings, Nungnik weaves together intricate familial stories and memories such as the disco captured in Nungnik’s First Dream. The longer one looks, the more elements of the artist’s personal history emerge. A beloved Hudson’s Bay Company blanket, children’s games such as jump rope and hopscotch and white flowers that will eventually bear fruit all appear as reoccurring symbols in her work. Through attentive observation of each piece, the felted, beaded and stitched scenes quickly reveal themselves as vignettes of distinct moments from the artist’s life.
Yet, as McMichael chief curator Sarah Milroy explains, the rich detail in her work finds a counterpoint in her sometimes daring abstraction. “Her depictions of beaded amauti (women’s parkas) seem to record every detail, with an extraordinary richness of texture, but Nungnik will often represent a head with a simple oval of monochrome colour,” says Milroy. “Her colour sense is electric, and so is her ability to convey the emotional connection to her early days spent on the land. But, from an aesthetic point of view, I think it is this tension in her work between abstraction and fine detail that I marvel at the most.”
Born in 1954, just west of the Tasiujarjuaq (Hudson Bay), Nungnik was raised in a small camp inhabited only by her immediate family before relocating to the community of Qamani’tuaq (Baker Lake), where she could receive mandatory schooling without being separated from her parents, and would later go on to pursue further education in Churchill, MB and Yellowknife, NT. She began creating wall hangings in the 1970s, learning by observing the work of celebrated artist Jessie Oonark, OC, RCA (1906–1985). Nungnik first met Oonark and encountered her iconic textile work as a young woman working in the Health Center in Qamani’tuaq, accompanying nurses on home visits to elders.
“We used to go see Jessie Oonark,” Nungnik recalls of their early meetings. “I used to try to help her, but she would tell me to sit down and just talk. She would tell me to take fabrics or threads, because she had a lot. I never took any, but from there I started experimenting. The ideas were already in my mind anyways.”
Nungnik also credits much of her artistic development to her older sister Vera who taught her new stitches to employ early in her practice. Since then, her masterful textile works have been included in the collections of the Art Gallery of Guelph in Guelph, ON, as well as the Textile Museum of Canada in Toronto, ON, and exhibited at the Museum of Art and Design in New York as part of the three-part exhibition Changing Hands: Art Without Reservation.
Despite the months, even sometimes years, that go into each wall hanging (the 15 works on view in Revelations were made over 16 years between 2002 and 2018), Nungnik emphasizes the importance of keeping a good state of mind. “When I’m sewing, I have to be at perfect peace,” she notes of her process. “When I’m not at perfect peace, my stitches are no good. In order to do a fine art, I have to be completely relaxed.”
While visiting her recent show, my attention was immediately drawn to the spectacular 1.4 x 2 m masterwork Eagle’s Shadow (2018), for which the iteration at Marion Scott Gallery was named. Crafted from wool felt, embroidery floss and beading, the piece depicts the community of Qamani’tuaq, the Thelon River and lands on which Nungnik was born. At the top of the hanging, the artist’s mother throws flower petals to her father as he paddles down the river toward her. The last petal thrown in the air is embroidered with a heart and the word “Yes!” in reference to a game of “he loves me, he loves me not.” Nungnik’s sister is shown playing along the shore, while her brother fishes in the Thelon. It is among the many affectionate depictions of her family that Nungnik includes in her extensive body of work dedicated almost exclusively to her immediate kin. While the eagles that soar above this scene are out of sight, she has masterfully stitched the subtle gradients of the shadows they cast onto the river and the land.
Like each of her intricate works, Eagle’s Shadow is rich with hidden imagery and symbolism. Stitched into her depiction of Qamani’tuaq on the far side of the river is a heart, included to honour her late husband. Opposite to the river, in the lands of her birth, she has tucked away vestiges of her family’s belongings from their time on the land that were left behind during their relocation. “We left everything there,” she says. “If I were to go back now, it would all still be there.”
This connection to family history, belongings and the environment is further illustrated in Artefacts (2004), in which she depicts items from her homeland that have been left to the ages and the open air. A pair of snow goggles, uluit (women’s knives), a pipe, an inuksuk and the frame of an old drum lay amongst the flowers and the butterflies.
Often, the artist’s work revisits her formative years spent living on the land in pieces such as So Sure of Himself (2003). Accompanying these works are elegant poems that both compliment and expand on the textiles they share space with. At the opening, at once touchingly personal and stunningly theatrical, she read out the accompanying poem of the same name.
The cottons are flying
Big game behind them hills
Collect firewood today
Waves goodbye with a smile, same smile
Will greet me upon his return with a laugh
and a hug.
So sure of himself, that is okay.
“If I sketch, the words start coming out,” she explains about her verses. “The more I sew, [the more] words just come naturally. Before you know it, I have a whole poem.” As though animating the scene with her fingertips, Nungnik brushes over the thread and felt and shows us where the cottons blow in the background of her family’s caribou hide tent, with fillets of trout hung to dry in the open air. A minuscule embroidered figure of her father waves self-assuredly as he heads beyond the distant hills. Behind, the hint of a caribou rack is visible suggesting what he will bring home to the family before the day’s end.
While referencing her childhood memories, she also stitches stories from her adult life. For Sons-in-Law (2002), the accompanying poem is written from the perspective of her father about the men that have married into his family.
John, big game hunter. Nick, builder of the
To have seen them arrive home with
gladness was a sight in my heart.
I have loved them as my own, even more
My headband outshines my brilliance
Son-in-laws, builder of my name
The wool felt, embroidery floss and beads come to life as Nungnik’s late husband, Nick, an electrician, and brother-in-law, John, a hunter, are shown paddling in kayaks along the river banks of their community. A brilliant copper headband rendered in metallic thread seems to hang in the sky overhead, its dangling beads brushing over the rooftops of town.
Nungnik also makes work inspired by her descendants, with her 2003 wall hanging In Love centring on a geometric design originally sketched by one of her granddaughters. On the left hand side of the panel, children hang from playground equipment and conquer the monkey bars, while the opposite side depicts a favourite pastime from her own childhood – a classic game of hopscotch. Complementing her many joyful depictions of children and childhood, Nungnik speaks fondly of her relationships with her grandchildren, adding with a laugh that she hopes one day some of them might carry on her work. “For me and for the next generation, it is always important to have a good family bond right from the beginning,” she says of the intimate nature of her storytelling.
Across her works, Nungnik uses her medium to relay stories of epic proportions, such as the fantastical Kiviuq and His Journeys (2007), to the quotidian. She curates moments of past, present and even future for her audience, immortalizing her lived experiences while moving from the intimate to the near monumental. Taken together, her poetry and enveloping tapestries act as a guide through her life—a choreography in her own words and stitches.