Olivia Lya Thomassie is program officer with Aumaaggiivik, the Nunavik Arts Secretariat at Avataq Cultural Institute. As part of her position, she works closely with Inuit artists and supports them in various aspects of their work, including helping them to promote their work and assisting them in obtaining financial support. As a multi-disciplinary artist working with a variety of artistic mediums herself, with experience in beadwork, filmmaking, acting, clothing and jewelry making, Olivia is well placed to understand the realities faced by Nunavimmiut artists from the inside, and so she is in a good position and well equipped to support them in their career paths. She was born in Kuujjuaq and has been living in Montreal since her childhood. She lives and works between Kangirsuk and Montreal.
Janique Johnson-Lafleur is a postdoctoral Fellow in the Department of Anthropology at McGill University and with the RAPS team (Research and Action on Social Polarizations) at Sherpa University Institute in Montreal. Grounded in a conversation between anthropology, art, and the psychological disciplines, her work explores the interface between the personal and collective dimensions of identity, violence, suffering, care, and creativity. Janique collaborates on different projects as a critical medical anthropologist, including the Atautsikut initiative. She is particularly interested in participatory and anti-colonial approaches, gender studies, art-based methodologies, and clinical ethnography. She was born in Quebec City, and now lives and works between Carleton-sur-Mer and Montreal.
By Janique Johnson-Lafleur
It was a sunny day in early June 2020, three months after a health emergency was declared in Quebec in relation to the COVID-19 pandemic. We had left Montreal the day before for the Gaspé Peninsula. I was walking down the wooden stairs leading to the sea and as I reached the last few steps, the experience imposed itself on me. A total experience. The smell of kelp and pebbles warmed by the sun. The rhythmic sound of the waves to which the cries of the gulls seemed to respond. The crazy wind that played in my hair and caressed my face. And the sight of this blue immensity, of this magnificent opening towards the horizon. I felt my body being reborn. As if it was taking a big breath of fresh air.
The first months of the pandemic were difficult for many of us. This sudden interruption of daily life, of family and social gatherings, of the mundane and the taken for granted. Suddenly, reality took on a science fiction quality. In Montreal, people passed each other on the sidewalks with unease, almost distrust, trying to maintain a certain distance. In the shops, behind the masks, the worried eyes of the customers met those of the clerks, scanning each other. Suddenly, we had to tame this new need to think about small gestures. The hands that touch. The air we breathe. The hands we clean thoroughly. The air we must prevent from traveling between our lungs and those of others. A palpable anxiety. And the social nature of human beings that complicates everything.
To want to protect others is to protect ourselves, says Olivia when talking about the masks she patiently crafted in the spring of 2020, during that strange period that marked the arrival of COVID-19 in our lives. The Sanannguanitigut Makitaqatigiinniq project was born in response to this particular historical conjuncture, in response to this global situation that has radically transformed our daily lives and invaded our imaginary worlds. It is in this context that some Nunavimmiut artists have generously accepted to create art from their experiences of the pandemic, drawing on their imaginations and sharing the fruits of their work with us.
A pandemic is a crisis. A global crisis, but one that is experienced first and foremost in the intimate space of each individual. In homes, bodies, interpersonal relationships. Although the idea of a crisis spontaneously evokes images of difficult moments, of ruptures, or loss of balance, a crisis also serves as a revelation. It allows us to illuminate the invisible and invisibilized. It sheds new light on the ordinary and on what is taken for granted. It can shake up and challenge the status quo. A crisis is therefore also a source of opportunity, even hope. Rarely have we been so aware of the interconnectedness of human beings on a planetary scale. Of the impact of human activity on ecosystems. And rarely has the idea of contagion been so present in our imaginations. Contagion of viruses, of course, but also contagion of ideas, contagion of emotions, of stories, of images. It is also difficult for many not to feel a form of ambivalence towards this pandemic. How can we not observe the relief that this deviation from the normal has brought in many ways? The slowing down of frantic work schedules. The silence of the absence of air traffic overhead. The images of car-free city centers during periods of confinement. But it’s hard not to feel the obscenity of rejoicing over a situation that has brought so much suffering in its wake. So much grief, tragedy and injustice.
To want to protect others is to protect ourselves. And protection for ourselves is protection for others. The theme of protection is central to this pandemic experience. Protection which, if it is one, must inevitably be deployed at the crossroads of the individual and the collective. Protection against viruses, but also protection against violence, against social injustice. Lilla Watson, a Murri artist who has worked to defend the rights of indigenous people in Australia and elsewhere, reminded us: Your liberation is linked to mine. Inspired by the thoughts of Franz Fanon I would be tempted to add: Your dehumanization is linked to mine. In the fall of 2020, when the pandemic had already been with us for a few months, another shock wave passed through Quebec. Joyce Echaquan, an Atikamekw woman from the community of Manawan, filmed and broadcast the last moments of her life, which she lived through under the scorn and racist insults of the health care personnel, while she was seeking help for stomach pains at the regional hospital center. The body is not only intimate, it is also collective. And it is just as political. Pandemic and coloniality. Some bodies are more heard and protected than others. Some bodies suffer more than others. The artists who participated in the Sanannguanitigut Makitaqatigiinniq project approached this difficult reality with sensitivity. In Hannah Tooktoo’s work, how can we look away from this black woman wearing a mask on which the inscription “I can’t breathe” challenges us while the phone she is pointing in our direction seems to want to capture our reaction? Several works in the project aptly evoke these threads of interrelated experience. National Inquiry on Missing and Murdered Aboriginal Women and Girls. Black Lives Matter movement. The Cancel Canada Day event. The past haunts the present and challenges the future.
Images, more than discourses, are loaded with a multiplicity of meanings and potential interpretations. They are the language of raw experience and spontaneous bodily reaction. They inhabit the opaque world of our unconscious. Art allows for individual expression, as well as a sense of collective belonging and interpersonal connection. It is protective. The language of images opens a non-linear way of thinking and stimulates a contagion of sensations and experiences, diffracted according to our biographies, our biologies and our subjectivities. It allows for the expression of the unspeakable. To evoke the incommunicability and the invisibility of certain experiences. Like the thread in Olivia’s three-dimensional beadwork, which is not shown to us but is there, producing and sustaining the desired form, the challenges overcome on the journey are not always visible. The suffering of some is not always seen, understood and considered, especially by those who do not experience it on a daily basis.
Art allows us to create and inhabit profoundly intimate and particular worlds, just as it allows us to create and recreate a shared world in order to make it more habitable for all. Art invites us to pull on those narrative threads that produce the illusion of rigid and unchanging forms. It helps us re-imagine the birth, the life and the death of certain myths, of certain discourses. It also allows us to approach in a tangential way the violence that we all carry. To abandon our attempts at innocence and turn instead to respect, tolerance and solidarity, to play and creativity. Echoing the title of Niap’s work, my thread of thought today has led me to sketch out my experience of the pandemic by focusing on what sometimes binds us together and what sometimes separates us, what sometimes soothes us and what sometimes hurts us. In this respect, the capacity of images to move us, touch us and transport us is undeniable. Like Olivia’s beaded aurora borealis, the work of art elegantly evokes the imagery and emotional nature of the human experience. The work challenges us and offers us a multiplicity of meanings. Personal meaning first, as Olivia proposes that we see the Northern Lights as beautiful dancing lights in the darkness. Scientific meaning too. Aren’t the aurora borealis a fascinating meteorological phenomenon? Cultural and artistic meanings as well, as although the Northern Lights are sometimes seen as spirits that can play with our heads if we indulge in the forbidden, they also appear to us as nature made art, as the flagships of the hypnotizing and inspiring beauty that abounds in our world.
Thank you Nunavik and Gaspésie.
Thank you artists.
Nakurmiik the Sanannguanitigut Makitaqatigiinniq project.
Montreal, October 2021
A Breath of Fresh Air
I would scream if I could move
Stuck in this pandemic
Bed, table, chair, wall
Stuck in this body
Skin, blood, bones, teeth
“No systemic racism”
Varnish that cracks
Your bile visible in your outrage
The window that binds and separates us
“No systemic racism”
A sea of golden lights
The senses that cohere
The gaze that escapes
A breath of fresh air
Carleton-sur-mer, June 2020
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