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A Sobey Art Award Winner in New Zealand

An Interview with asinnajaq

May 05, 2020
by Emily Henderson

Chatting by phone with Profiles Editor Emily Henderson just days after the announcement of her Sobey Art Award win, multidisciplinary artist asinnajaq shares insights on her artistic process, how she makes her personal and cultural values the core of her practice, and why curating is a little bit like party-planning. 

Emily Henderson: First of all, congratulations on your win! At the time of this interview, it’s been about 12 days since the winners of the 2020 Sobey Art Award were announced. What, if anything, has changed for you?

asinnajaq: One of the big changes is a really small change! I had a website a while ago, but I let it expire. Now I have a new website! Otherwise, I don’t think that much is different, but I have been getting requests for shows and projects that I wouldn’t have had otherwise. I’m still processing this surprise, because this is really an achievement.

I didn’t think that I was there yet, because I have really high standards and expectations of myself. When I was nominated by one of the curators at the Esker Foundation, Shauna Thompson, I didn’t think I was ready. I thought that when she saw my CV she might second guess herself. Being one of the longlisted artists was really an affirmation and reminder that I am producing good work.

EH: You’re the fifth-ever Inuk artist to be nominated for the award. How does it feel to be a part of that legacy?

a: Inuit art and Inuit artists are so powerful and have made such an amazing world of artwork. I’m so inspired by that art world and it’s incredible to be a part of it. I think it’s surprising that more Inuit artists haven’t been recognized yet, but there are definitely older artists who aren’t eligible for the Sobey but who are so talented.

EH: Absolutely, I can understand feeling a sense of continuity from that rich legacy of art and artists. How do you feel about the Sobey Foundation’s decision to split the prize this year among the longlist winners?

a: It’s rare to have an opportunity so beautifully seized like the decision made by the Sobey Foundation to support as many artists as possible. It’s pretty incredible. I think that it shows a lot of empathy and kindness on their part. I’m thankful to have been nominated, to have been on the longlist and to be a winner when there are so many other incredible artists I get to share the honour with. I’m in good company.

EH: This win comes shortly after other major milestones and projects in your still-early career within the past few years, like having your documentary Three Thousand (2017) win win the Best Indigenous Short Film Award at the 2018 Skábmagovat Film Festival in Inari, Finland and having your performance film Rock Piece (2018) tour internationally. What is the significance of this award to you at this stage in your practice?

a: I think it’s really good support for the future. The little bit of foundation that I’ve laid currently shows a lot of who I am and what I want to keep doing and I feel like that vision is being encouraged. It makes me feel like I can continue on my own path and continue to work on what I feel is interesting. It also introduces me to people who maybe didn’t know who I was and lets them know my work is interesting and valuable.

asinnajaq Three Thousand (2017) Video 14 min
Your practice is mostly rooted in film, but you have also produced experimental performance oriented work. What direction do you envision for your practice the coming months? Are there any dream projects that this award will make possible for you?

a: Something that I’ve been wanting to pursue is more performance videos–those are hard. I think a lot of my practice is best done when it comes to me on its own terms and isn’t forced. While I’ve made some performance videos that are similar to Rock Piece (2019) I’m not sure they all came naturally enough to be as potent as that one was. 

With much of my work, I might have an idea that I want to explore, but it takes time for it to come into my mind in just the right way to feel powerful to me. What I want to do following this award is to let myself continue to have experiences and observe the world, and to make space for those ideas to take shape when they are ready.

EH: Currently, you are staying in New Zealand indefinitely until things become safer with COVID-19. Is there anything about your current situation and being out of your regular creative zone that you find inspiring?

a: I’m working on a lot of things, but I’m usually working on a lot of things. Right now, I’m doing research for a film about my late uncle, Inuk archaeologist Daniel Weetaluktuk, which I’ve been working on since before I even released Three Thousand. A lot of the work happening on that film isn’t physically in the world yet, it’s still just taking place in my head. I think it’s important to have time to dedicate to thinking about and envisioning work–where you can learn to live in the world of it. Right now, I’m taking time to get to know the world of the film. Every day it’s becoming clearer to me what it’s about and how I’m going to share that story with other people. It’s pretty exciting, and it’s one of the things I love the most about making a film. I was a bit disconnected from this film because I hadn’t yet “felt” it, but now it’s starting to feel alive.

The music video for Beatrice Deer's 1997, directed by asinnajaq

EH: What does this process of research and exploration look like to you right now? Is there anything you're doing in your work or research that you’re finding particularly generative while you have this time?

a: Every once in a while, I make a point to try to reaffirm the Inuit Qaujimajatuqangit (IQ) values in my life and work. One of the most important things to me is my values and the ways I can establish them as the core of my work. Lately, I’ve been reading up about the IQ values specifically from the point of view of the educators for children in Nunavut. Those stories were amazing affirmations and reminders of my values that have been making me really happy. The values that I keep coming back to and thinking about lately are about relationships to our environment and the seasons. Each season gives you what you need for the next one and prepares you for what’s coming. Because of this, we must respect each season. We need them and they support us and each other. 

EH: Does that feel like a theme that will start to make its way into some of your upcoming work?

a: I think that all of it does, whether or not you see it. When it comes to my work, I love to do research and there’s tons of research that you would never think had anything to do with what you might see in the completed project, but helps form the foundation and shapes the work. All of it is important.

EH: Beyond your own artmaking, you’ve been working on some significant curatorial projects over the past few years, including collaborating on Isuma’s installation at the 58th Venice Biennale and the inaugural exhibition at the Inuit Art Centre as part of an all-Inuit curatorial team. How do you see your curatorial and artistic practices complementing each other?

a: I think that curatorial practice is just another way of thinking and telling stories, which is exactly what I would do making a film. The unique and amazing thing about curating, for me, is the opportunity to support other artists in their work. It’s kind of like party planning! You have a lot to organize and pull together, and you’ll always have some kind of opening celebration where you get to support really incredible people. But I think they go together because, like I said, everything to me is about values and doing everything for a reason. The core values I live my life by are going to be the same values I employ in curation and art. That’s how it all comes together, through a guiding purpose which is helping people on their learning journeys so we can all be as strong as we can be.

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