In September, the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts (MMFA) announced that Lisa Qiluqqi Koperqualuk would be joining its team as Curator and Mediator of Inuit Art. Koperqualuk, who is also the Vice President of International Affairs at the Inuit Circumpolar Council, a trilingual speaker and trained anthropologist, will manage one of Canada’s largest collections of Inuit art that’s comprised of carvings, drawings, prints, jewelry, textiles, and other decorative arts. Koperqualuk speaks with IAQ Contributing Editor Emily Henderson about her new role, Inuit leadership, and lots more.
Emily Henderson: Can you tell us about your new role within the MMFA?
Lisa Koperqualuk: My position is Curator and Mediator of Inuit Art. It is intended to engage an Inuk person within the MMFA to curate and oversee the renewal of the permanent Inuit art exhibition. This collection dates to 1953 and deserves a little bit of a refresh and reconfiguration. There’s some very interesting new art coming from younger people now, so that will be part of the exhibit for sure.
EH: Looking back on your career, how did you begin working in curation and cultural work?
LK: Firstly, my interest is in politics and I am the current Vice President for the Inuit Circumpolar Council Canada. At the same time, I am invested in cultural values and issues because as well as having a BA in Political Science, I also hold an MA in Anthropology. During my masters, I studied Inuit spirituality and the fundamental cultural values that make us who we are. After my education, I worked in communications for several years for different Inuit organizations and during that time I met many people in my field who were working in different capacities in the arts. Later, because of my background in Anthropology, I was also invited to be a commissioner for the renewal of the permanent Inuit collection at the Canadian Guild of Crafts along with my son, Gabriel.
EH: How will these other past and current mandates—such as your involvement with the Inuit Circumpolar Council and the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls—inform your work as Curator and Mediator of Inuit art?
LK: I think the way I was raised lead me to my work and eventually to my position with the MMFA. My grandfather Koperqualuk was a sculptor and I watched him carving while I was growing up. He was a force in our community that encouraged his sisters and other Inuit women from our community to start throat singing again. In that way, his pride in being an Inuk was the start of everything for me.
When I look at art, I particularly like birthing scenes in which Inuit women help a woman through her labour because it speaks to the power of women. One of the Calls to Justice in the report of the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls is to bring the practice of Inuit midwifery back to communities. When birth, Inuit birth, came to be medicalized, it took power away from those communities, away from the Inuit women. When I see that expression of Inuit women and midwives in art, it’s an affirmation of who we are. That is just one example of a connection that can be made between my different roles.
EH: In your keynote speech at the opening ceremonies of the 21st Annual Inuit Studies Conference, you emphasized Inuit capacity building and leadership and the way that you use your various mandates to help facilitate advancement and opportunity for Inuit. Can you tell us how you will use this new role to continue to advocate for Inuit?
LK: We absolutely need to build leadership capacity as Inuit so that not even one of us will be left saying, “We’re not ready to govern ourselves!” The MMFA, with its residency program Impressions, invites every year an emerging visual artist representing Montreal’s cultural diversity or a First Nations, Inuit or Métis community, to create a project by taking an original look at the Museum’s collections.
It is much like my work with the Circumpolar Council in which we stress the importance of having young people present with us to learn and participate when we engage in international issues as they relate to Inuit, such as when we attend International Maritime Organization meetings. I’ve always made it a goal to include younger people alongside myself in my work so they can gain experience and become more knowledgeable.
EH: What is the significance of more Inuit such as yourself stepping into leadership roles in the arts?
LK: I consider this step of having hired me as a Curator and Mediator to be a new vision. For me to be in this position means that we as Inuit will have a relationship with this prestigious organization in Montreal that currently has a collection of Inuit art showing in a quiet gallery, where perhaps people go once in while and look, but then step out again and that’s it. I see this as an opportunity for more interaction and engagement with the Inuit community as well as a chance for non-Inuit to learn more.
The MMFA is also beginning a collaborative relationship with the Avataq Cultural Institute, which is very exciting. I think it’s wonderful; I can’t even quite express it in words yet. Of course, the MMFA is geared towards education and one aspect of its partnership with Avataq Cultural Institute is to adapt content on our website for Inuit and translate parts of it into Inuktut. I think that’s important, especially as this year marks the Year of Indigenous Languages. It’s a nice step towards museums better engaging with communities and reaching out to Inuit to work with us directly.
EH: Can you tell us about the scope of the collection you’ll be managing?
LK: There are nearly 900 pieces of art in the collection. They come from across Inuit Nunangat and there are some very old pieces that I think we will valorise and make space for in the gallery. There are a lot of transformation images that, because of my work as an anthropologist, I take interest in due to the spiritual aspect. I think for me that’s going to be a lovely issue to look at. What can we learn, as Inuit about our spirituality through art? These images of spiritual transformation are always present within the sculptures and drawings, but when we speak with each other in everyday life, we never talk about these things. This is something I’m going to be wanting to look at.
EH: Are there are any upcoming or dream projects you can share with us?
LK: I haven’t thought up any dream projects from my part yet, because there are already some projects that have been thought out for now. In 2021, the MMFA will be presenting an exhibition on Inuit music and music from the north featuring works from Niap, an artist and throat-singer. After that exhibition, we wish to see that installation adapted for travel and to be featured in different parts of the country and communities in the North too.