It is Bright, It is Lit: Qaumajuq, Winnipeg, Manitoba

Inuk exhibition designer and architecture student Nicole Luke discusses the significance of Qaumajuq and its inaugural exhibition, INUA.

Qaumajuq adjoins the Winnipeg Art Gallery, extending to fill the triangular urban block.

PROJECT Qaumajuq

ARCHITECTS Michael Maltzan Architecture (Design Architect) with Cibinel Architecture (Associate Architect)

PHOTOS Lindsey Reid

It has been a year full of anticipation as Qaumajuq has come to completion in downtown Winnipeg. From the surrounding streets, passersby could see into the lobby and watch Inuit carvings being placed in the gallery’s visible vault, adding to local curiosity about this new place and what was happening inside.

Qaumajuq (pronounced KOW-ma-yourq or HOW-ma-yourk) means “it is bright, it is lit” in Inuktitut. It is the world’s first building dedicated to contemporary Inuit art, and will become a hub that connects Canada’s North to its southern regions. Designed by Los Angeles-based Michael Maltzan Architecture in collaboration with Winnipeg firm Cibinel Architecture, the four-storey extension of the Winnipeg Art Gallery highlights the culture, landscape and light of the North.

The project is especially meaningful to me—as an urban Inuk living in Winnipeg, who will be graduating from the University of Manitoba’s Master of Architecture program this fall. Growing up in Winnipeg is a very southern context, compared to the community where my family lives, in the Kivalliq region of Nunavut. I have always felt the lack of Inuit representation in southern Canadian cities, especially in institutional settings.

The transformation of the Winnipeg Art Gallery through the creation of Qaumajuq not only represents the potential of reconciliation in Canada, but also signifies a shift in the qualities of arts institutions like the WAG. Furthermore, it speaks to how architecture can contribute to these processes.

A visible vault of Inuit soapstone, bone, and ivory carvings is on permanent display, and can be viewed from the lobby without paying for admission.

This is reflected in the naming of the many spaces in the building by Indigeneous language-keepers. For example, the main gallery is Qilak (qui-lack) and means “sky” in Inuktitut. We can also see the transformation in the presence of the visible vault, Ilavut (which means “our relatives’’ in Inuktitut). Hundreds of soapstone, bone and ivory carvings—once stored away in the basement—are now on permanent display for the public and relatives of the artists to see, connect to, and enjoy.

The inaugural exhibition—which I am humbly proud to be a part of, thanks to the Inuit Futures in Arts Leadership’s Pilimaksarniq/Pijariuq­sarniq Project—is particularly significant. One anticipates that its content and process of creation will set precedents for many Inuit art exhibitions to come, both within Qaumajuq and beyond.

The name of the exhibition, INUA, is an acronym for “Inuit Nunangat Ungammuaktut Atautikkut,” meaning “moving forward together.” It was curated by an all-Inuit team representing the four regions of Inuit Nunangat (Inuit homelands). Inuit Nunangat includes Inuvialuit Nunangit Sannaiqtuaq (northern Northwest Territories and Yukon), Nunavut, Nunavik (Northern Quebec) and Nunatsiavut (Northern Labrador). These curators representing these areas are, respectively, Kablusiak, Krista Ulujuk Zawadski, assinajaq and Heather Igloliorte with the support of Jocelyn Piirainen.

The two-storey main gallery is topped by deeply set skylights to mimic the qualities of Arctic light.

“One of the key aspects of INUA that I am particularly proud of is the representation of Inuit artists from diverse backgrounds, “ says Ulujuk Zawadski. “We wanted to highlight the range of art, media and subject matter that Inuit artists work with, and it excites me to know that we were able to take that approach in our curatorial team.”

My role as a leading member of the exhibition design team was to assist the curators and the Winnipeg Art Gallery through digital modelling, drafting and suggesting designs that could support the culturally rich experience of the show. The team was also supported by an Inuk project manager and Inuk catalogue designer.

Our Inuk identities created a strong sense of mutual understanding between the curatorial and production teams. “As a curatorial team, we were thrilled to not have to translate our ideas through a cultural lens, but to be able to work directly with someone who both knows what the North is like and understands our perspectives on Inuit community, land, and art, past and present,” says Igloliorte.

Our collaborative process started with discussions between me and the curators. We noticed how exhibitions are typically designed with straight walls, plinths and platforms, and explored how we could challenge these norms by juxtaposing shapes, forms and concepts of cultural relevance to us. My early sketches included designs inspired by the curvature in the tail of an amauti, a traditional women’s parka with an oversized hood for carrying a child. As the selection of works was finalized and we had a better understanding of the display needs of the exhibition, this idea changed to focus on the design of traditional tattoos with V- and Y-shaped patterns. I imagined free-standing walls or plinths that would house art pieces while creating their own intimate spaces within the expansive 750-square-metre gallery.

The inaugural exhibition includes a shipping container, among other elements familiar to Northern communities. Pedestal designs were inspired by icebergs and free-standing walls reference traditional tattoos with Y-shaped patterns.

The idea of the exhibition came to embody the sense of familiarity within northern communities and their landscapes. Taking cues from the architecture of the gallery itself, which features few right angles or straight lines, I created low platforms referencing ice breaks for a life-sized, mixed media motorcycle sidecar, and for several works of wearable art.

In the main space, we were inspired by the small cabins scattered beyond the communities, with faded paint from exposure to the sun and to harsh winds; by interiors from the small “matchbox”-style houses provided by the federal government in the 1950s; and by the ubiquitous shipping containers (which due to the costs of freight shipments travel north full, and then remain there). These structures are special and familiar to Inuit Nunangat, and our intentions were to bring that familiarity to the gallery to create moments of recognition for Inuit and northerners—while giving others a taste of the true North.

INUA’s multi-media art, carvings, paintings, wall hangings, ceramics, prints, photography, film, and textiles represent a multitude of generations within Inuit art. The exhibition is designed around them to complete an experience of Inuit Nunangat, while housed respectfully on Treaty 1 territory and on the Métis homeland.

Nicole Luke is one of Canada’s first Inuk architecture students, and is completing her Master’s at the University of Manitoba. She was the exhibition designer for INUA, Qaumajuq’s inaugural exhibition.

Our coverage of Qaumajuq continues with a review by architect Lawrence Bird.

CLIENT Winnipeg Art Gallery | ARCHITECT TEAM Michael Maltzan Architecture—Michael Maltzan (Design Principal), Tim Williams (Principal in Charge), Gee-ghid Tse (Project Designer), Sara Jacinto (Project Manager), Casey Benito, Joseph Di Matteo, Abby Dorrell, Michael Faciejew, Kristin Fauske, Vano Haritunians, David Kim, Jen Lathrop, Ben Maertens, Raffy Mardirossian, Paul Morel, Hui Zhen Ng, Genevieve Pepin, Niel Prunier, Aeree Rho, Anne Riggs, Ben Ruswick, Kirsten Schroeder, Andrew Smith-Rasmussen, Paul Stoelting, Lap Kwok Tsang, Sharon Xu, Yun Yun. Cibinel— Michael Robertson (Principal in Charge), Steff Beernaerts (Project Architect), George Cibinel, Kyle Janzen, Lauren Hauser, Michael Butterworth, Ron Basarab, Desmond Burke, Julien Combot, Neil Hulme. | CONSTRUCTION MANAGER PCL Construction Canada Inc. | STRUCTURAL Guy Nordenson and Associates / Crosier Kilgour & Partners Ltd. | MECHANICAL Stantec / Epp Siepman Engineering Inc. | PLUMBING Derksen Plumbing | LIGHTING DESIGNER Lam Partners | ELECTRICAL MCW/AGE Consulting Professional Engineers | BUILDING ENVELOPE Crosier Kilgour & Partners Ltd. | CIVIL WSP | LANDSCAPE HTFC Planning and Design | CODE RJ Bartlett Engineering | AREA 3,345 m2 (addition); 1,486 m2 (renovation) | BUDGET $70 M | COMPLETION December 2020

View the article as it appeared in our June 2021 issue: