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Helen Konek

AN uNexPeCTeD eNCouNTer
BY JennY MCMaSter

and the Arviat History Project:

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Fall | Winter 2011 - 2012

HeLeN KoNeK

This pasT May, a group of Inuit from the Arviat History project (Nanisiniq) visited ottawa and its heritage institutions. The aim of Nanisiniq (meaning ‘journey of discovery’) is to allow Inuit youth to draw their own history from first hand resources, as well as to share it with audiences in both the North and South. Project member Jordan Konek remarked that “being confronted with Qablunaat (southerners) at every turn makes knowing who you are and where you come from even more important.” The group has spent the last year studying archival documents and interviewing elders about TB epidemics, relocations, periods of starvation and other events affecting Inuit in the 1950s and 60s. The team, made up of both youth and elders, has been blogging their experiences as well as working on a documentary film. The youth of the project are keenly aware of the importance of not only listening to the accounts of their elders but also of their own role in passing down historical knowledge. “Some day,” Amy owingayak remarked with a smile, “we will be the elders.” The first site the group visited was the Library and Archives of Canada (LAC), where they participated in “Project Naming”. The LAC holds a collection of thousands of photographs of Inuit dating from the late 19th to mid-20th century, very few of whom have been identified. Thanks to the Project Naming initiative, elders have been able to identify their family and fellow community members while youth have acted as translators or helped to facilitate the process through the use of modern technology. Most of us recognize the importance of naming. When a subject is named, an ethnographic artifact becomes an image of a particular individual with a life history. Frank Tester, a professor of social work at the university of British Columbia and facilitator of Nanisiniq, insists that naming has a special significance in Inuit culture. Inuit children are named after their ancestors as their spirits are thought to live on through them. Thus, retrieving an image of one’s ancestor is like retrieving a part of one’s self. After visiting the LAC, the next stop was the National Gallery. During a behind the scenes tour of the vault, Jordan and Curtis Konek were delighted to come across a wallhanging by their grandmother Helen Konek. Helen Konek is also the cousin of Martha otokala, one of the elders who first conceived of the Arviat History project. In the same vein as “Project Naming,” an image created primarily for a southern audience was recontextualized when recognized by members of the northern community from which it originated. Like many wall-hangings from Arviat, this untitled camp scene by Helen Konek is a realistic depiction of everyday life. The artist has portrayed a camp in the summer through appliqued forms, defining details of the inhabitants, equipment and landscape with embroidery floss. The evergreen trees and streams situate this scene in the southern arctic. Konek’s imagery, in contrast to that of wall-hangings from settlements such as Baker Lake, includes one point perspective and naturalistic versus schematized forms. The woman entering the scene from the bottom could be interpreted as the protagonist of the narrative or perhaps a representative

Left to right: Jordan Konek, Martha otokala and Curtis Konek with Helen Konek's wall-hanging. May 13, 2011, ottawa, National Gallery of Canada. Photo: Frank Tester

of the artist. This is clearly a depiction of traditional Inuit life from a female point of view. The tasks of women, such as child-rearing, cooking and especially sewing, are the focus of this image. The cut of the clothing and the seams of the tent are depicted with particular care. The elaborate detail of the parka of woman in the foreground identifies this figure as a very accomplished seamstress. The woman’s parka or amautik, originally adorned with personal amulets, was decorated with brightly coloured seed beads; the total number of beads involved a testament to the patience of the garment’s maker. As was customary, Konek learned from older female relatives how to sew clothing while still living near the Padlei trading post in northern Manitoba. When the trading post was shut down in 1960, her family was forced to relocate to Arviat due to public pressure and the sudden decline of the caribou herd. It was at this settlement that she first began to create textile works like wall-hangings. In settlements where manufactured housing and clothing have made traditional women’s skills unnecessary for physical survival, sewing has become a means of economic support for Inuit women and their families. While Inuit art work is nearly always produced for southern buyers, in the case of Konek’s camp scene, the work has unexpectedly served to pass an account of traditional ways from grandparent to grandchildren, as well as a reminder of the impact their own community has had on Canadian culture.

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Special thanks to Beth Greenhorn, April Dutheil, Christine Lalonde, Candice Hopkins and Helen Konek.

LeFT: Helen Konek, Untitled (Camp Scene), before 1994. Felt, printed cotton cloth, glass beads, cotton embroidery floss, cotton thread, animal skin, animal bone, and polyester quilt batting. 124 cm x 144 cm x 5 cm. Gift of Mary Browne, ottawa, 2009. Image: National Gallery of Canada (no. 42909.1-2).

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