I dare you to visit the space at the Winnipeg Art Gallery (WAG) devoted to the work of Elisapee Ishulutaq and not fall in love with her and her art. Elisapee is 90 years old and last year she was made a member of the Order of Canada in recognition of her artistic and community contributions. One wall at the WAG holds a bright and lively mural she made in 2014. You can watch a video and look at photos of Elisapee getting out of her wheel chair, kneeling down and fearlessly starting to draw marks with her oil sticks on a long piece of paper to make her mural.
For five days she slid along the floor in her apron, seal skin boots and knitted sweater, with her wire frame glasses perched on her nose, creating a vibrant scene of life in her home community of Pangnirtung, Nunavut. You can see what life was like in Pangnirtung, generations ago, as well as today. In the 1930’s Elisapee lived a nomadic life with her family on Baffin Island. It was only when she was 40 years old that she moved to Pangnirtung.Elisapee’s mural features sleds, sealskin tents and kids playing tug of war games with animal bones from the past, and all terrain vehicles, wooden buildings and kids playing hockey from the present. On the video you can hear Elisapee describing in her native language what life was like in the past. Her narration is interspersed with laughter and song. She talks about how the community church was always so full that people ran into the building so they could get seats for the service and wouldn’t have to sit on the floor or stand. She laughs heartily as she talks about the games children played long ago in winter. She demonstrates how windows were made with seal skin intestine and describes the seal skin tents people lived in. One side of her mural shows summer scenes and the other depicts the winter months in Pangnirtung. Elisapee wants the old way of life in the north to be remembered by future generations and hopes that her art can do that.
There are several other works of art by Elisapee in the gallery besides the mural. There’s a trio of family portraits done as prints and made by dipping her brush into a sugar solution and painting onto metal. One print shows a bird trap and another children dancing to a whaler’s jig. More than a hundred years ago men from England and Scotland came to Baffin Island hunting bowhead whales. Often they spent the winter in northern communities when their ships were trapped in Arctic ice. The Inuit gave the whalers shelter and food and they in turn brought rifles, knives, flour, tea, molasses, tobacco AND accordions, which the Inuit learned to play.
On the video in the Elisapee Ishulutaq gallery you can’t help but hear the excitement in the voice of Darlene Coward Wight the curator of Inuit Art at the Winnipeg Art Gallery. She was in Pangnirtung to facilitate the mural making. She describes her experience watching Elisapee create the mural, as one of the highlights of her professional life.
The mural will definitely be one of your highlight too, the next time you visit the Winnipeg Art Gallery. Elisapee’s work will be on display till June 14 but you may want to visit soon because I guarantee you’ll fall in love with Elisapee and want to go back and see her heartwarming work more than once.
Other posts about First Nations artists………