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Concordia artist-in-residence builds a sealskin spacesuit

Jesse Tungilik hopes to inspire Nunavik Sivunitsavut students to take on their own ambitious projects
April 24, 2019
Jesse Tungilik: “Inuit are definitely capable of getting into these fields and succeeding.” | Images courtesy of the artist
Jesse Tungilik: “Inuit are definitely capable of getting into these fields and succeeding.” | Images courtesy of the artist

When Jesse Tungilik was a child, his mother made him traditional caribou hunting clothes. While wearing the bulky, heavy handmade outfit, he often imagined that he was in a spacesuit.

“That memory stuck with me when I heard about this opportunity here at Concordia, with its future-themed focus, and the two ideas met in the middle,” Tungilik says.

Tungilik, an interdisciplinary artist who lives in Iqaluit, Nunavut, was invited to be an artist-in-residence at Concordia from February to May. The offer came from the Initiative for Indigenous Futures and the Inuit Futures in Arts Leadership — SSHRC partnerships to make artwork responding to the idea of Inuit futurisms.

The residency received further support from the Milieux Institute for Arts, Culture and Technology and the Faculty of Fine Arts as a Concordia in-residence appointment.

Tungilik knew Heather Igloliorte, associate professor of art history and special advisor to the provost on Advancing Indigenous Knowledges, for a number of years.

“But we hadn’t really worked directly together before. It was something that I definitely wanted to do, so I jumped at the opportunity,” he says.

His three-month mission is to build a bespoke spacesuit out of sealskin using methods that incorporate traditional Inuit and futuristic design elements. Tungilik may have watched his mother sew when he was a child, yet the whole project is taking him out of his element, which he says seems to be a recent theme in his art practice.

“I was just saying the other day that it feels like I am applying the Peter Principle to my art practice. I keep pushing myself to the limits of my incompetence — which is good for learning, but it’s stressful too.”

A youth collaboration

Tungilik is not building the suit alone. He will get help to design and construct it from six Nunavik Sivunitsavut students from CEGEP John Abbott College, project coordinator Amanda Shore, a Concordia art history master’s student, and independent artist Glenn Gear, who is acting as a project mentor.

Tungilik hopes that by taking risks and working out of his comfort zone, the students will be inspired to pursue their own artistic goals and feel empowered to take on ambitious projects themselves.

“One of the things that I really like about this spacesuit project is the idea of getting young Inuit to start imagining themselves in these sort of positions. There’s a lot of value in that,” he says.

“When I was growing up, we were often discouraged from considering ambitious or unconventional professional fields because it was inaccessible to us, and there was a lot of internalized racism. So I think it’s important for projects like these to really nail the fact home that Inuit are definitely capable of getting into these fields and succeeding.”

Tungilik comes from a creative family — his grandfather was a well-known artist — and he has worked in many artistic disciplines at different periods of his life. At eight years old, he started making ceramics art at the Matchbox Gallery in Rankin Inlet in Nunavut.

He has also worked in Mathew Nuqingaq’s Aayuraa Studio in Iqaluit as a jewelry artist specializing in baleen, muskox horn, ivory and silver.

His mixed-media sculpture pieces have been exhibited at the Nunavut Arts Festival, Great Northern Arts Festival, Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity and the Oceanographic Museum of Monaco, among other venues.

During his stay at Concordia, Tungilik gave a talk on using conceptual art to bring social change,  a sewing workshop and a lunch and learn for faculty working in the North.

On April 26, Tungilik will host a workshop for fine arts students and faculty on working with Northern organic materials and jewelry construction. The event takes place in the Art Hive (Engineering, Computer Science and Visual Arts Integrated Complex, EV 5.777) from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. Registration is required.

On April 30, there will be a show of the finished spacesuit and a reception in EV 11.705 from 2 to 4 p.m. Everyone is welcome.

Learn more about
Jesse Tungilik’s Inuit futures art residency at Concordia.



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