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The Painted World of Megan Kyak-Monteith

Matchbox Mountaintops

Jan 27, 2021
by Tarralik Duffy

Painter and illustrator Megan Kyak-Monteith possesses a deep toolbox of techniques and perspectives which she uses to evoke scenes of everyday life in the Nunavut communities of her memory. Informing her Romantic scenes of whale hunts and still lifes of ulus carving country foods is an intimate narrative of cultural revival and pride that confronts, often directly, a colonial gaze. In this Feature, a fellow artist and writer considers the promise of Kyak-Monteith’s career and her painterly interrogations into Inuit self-representation.

In her work Playing In My Father’s Burning Lawn (2018), Megan Kyak-Monteith’s command of colour brings to life a simultaneously lovely and foreboding scene of a child tensely and tenderly clasping her hands together as she stands in front of a burning lawn. The style of her jacket is recognizably Inuk, but she is in a strange land. Trees loom ominously in the dark behind her, silhouetted against a burning red sky, signalling that we aren’t in Kansas anymore. Gone is the treeless landscape we once knew. It’s almost as though she is afraid to look behind her. 

Though Kyak-Monteith’s work is deeply personal, her work chronicles the shared experiences of a generation of Inuit that has grown up playing hopscotch on gravelly roads, skipped stones along Arctic shorelines and come of age as they jumped ice floes and climbed roofs of houses that can feel as high as mountaintops. For those of us who have had to leave our communities and relocate to more urban areas, Kyak-Monteith vividly articulates a sense of reminiscence, longing and displacement that resonates with many of us. Born in 1997 and raised in Mittimatalik (Pond Inlet), NU—a small hamlet of 1,600 residents on the north coast of Baffin Island—Kyak-Monteith moved with her family to Nova Scotia when she was ten and has spent much of her life and her career in the South. She graduated in 2019 from NSCAD University with a BFA in Interdisciplinary Arts and currently works and resides in Halifax, NS. Her work often revolves around retrospection and piecing together childhood memories in order to preserve them. 


Kids in Play Paradise
(2018) Oil 103.6 x 152.4 cm

“After we moved to Nova Scotia, we didn’t really know how to deal with all the trees,” she tells me of Playing In My Father’s Burning Lawn [1]. “I think it was after the snow melts, there [would be] a bunch of dead grass and compressed leaves and so my dad usually just burned the lawn and we would jump the fire. Thinking back now, it seems kind of scary, and the painting maybe seems a bit sinister, but back then it was just a fun thing to do.” The image reads like more of a nightmare than a dream to me, and it seems in stark contrast to the soft, dreamy hues that depict her memories of Nunavut. Even the somewhat morbid Shark Womp (2020) has a dreamlike playfulness that embodies what it is like growing up in the wild, wild North.

It is this move, this fateful migration away from home, coupled with the inevitable slippages of memory that happen with age, that drives Kyak-Monteith to document her recollections before they change shape or are lost forever. “In my experience, memories are constantly changing as I get older. Cataloging [them] in the form of painting solidifies it from that change,” she says. 


Playing In My Father’s Burning Lawn
(2018) Oil 109.2 x 116.8 cm

With strict new travel measures in place to keep COVID-19 out of Nunavut, leaving many urban Inuit, like me, unable to visit our homeland, Kyak-Monteith’s work is more poignant and moving than ever. For viewers who have resided in the North, regardless of the community they are from, her work strikes a deeply nostalgic chord. Looking over her paintings has often left me in tears, not only due to a homesickness exacerbated by the current state of the world, but because her paintings and animations are like portals into our collective memory. Her ability to capture and convey these moments, however, are not reserved for a singular audience. 

Kyak-Monteith—whose star is burning bright and rising fast—seems to be on the precipice of a breakthrough moment. Recently, her show We Play The Same ᐊᔾᔨᖓᓂ ᐱᙳᐊᓲᖑᔪᒍ at Marion Scott Gallery in Vancouver, BC, sold out before the paintings were ever hung on the wall. With the intent of keeping the collection of paintings intact, one discerning private collector purchased the entire collection. Gallery Associate Jeffrey Boone says of this remarkable and rare occurrence, “It is a testament to the importance of the body of work being greater than the sum of its parts. Kyak-Monteith created a multifaceted look at her own personal experience of the fluidity of identity as it entangles with the shared memories of her family members. Her work resonates deeply with a broad spectrum [of people].”


Shark Womp
(2020) Oil 60.9 x 91.4 cm
courtesy marion scott gallery

With her flair for classical compositions that call to mind the Dutch Golden Age, combined with luminous narrative depictions of northern life, it is no wonder that Kyak-Monteith’s work appeals to a wide audience of collectors and art enthusiasts—a mix of whom she welcomed last year to the opening of her show, Maktaaq, at Anna Leonowens Gallery in Halifax, NS, with a buffet of maktaaq and soy sauce. 

The first time I remember seeing Megan Kyak-Monteith’s work was through a social media post shared by her great aunt, a well-known Inuk artist, designer and long-time family friend, Martha Kyak. The post proudly introduced her great-niece as a featured artist for an upcoming art battle, a live painting competition where painters create the best work they can in 20 minutes. The post from 2016, originally published by The Dalhousie University Club, features a striking self-portrait of a brooding young woman wearing an argyle sweater. With thick brows, dark hair, bold bangs and a commanding gaze reminiscent of Frida Kahlo, she instantly stood out as an extraordinary and rare talent. It reminded me of the same visceral reaction I had seeing Jutai Toonoo’s (1959–2015) work for the first time, which obliterated my sense of what I thought I understood about Inuit art. 


Self Portrait
(2018) Oil 48.3 x 35.6 cm
Courtesy the artist

I can almost hear the children playing and the ambient sounds of Arctic life in her piece Kids in Play Paradise (2018): Hondas blaring, dogs howling, rocks hitting the sides of buildings, the soft crunching sound of gravel under slow moving truck tires, clouds of dust, an older lady scolding children in Inuktitut as they howl with rebellious laughter. In the work, a group of children stand tall on the tops of matchbox houses, one of them holding a stick as something in the far distance has captured their attention. The dusky blue sky signals an early or perhaps intensely late summer evening. It’s impossible to know the time exactly. Fuel tanks and satellites, hallmarks of modern community life, are as instantly recognizable as the wooden drying racks for sealskins stacked and gently leaning against the houses. This truly is paradise. 


Self Portrait
(2019) Oil 58.4 x 40.6 cm
Courtesy the artist

When I call her up to chat about her work, she answers with gleeful excitement from her newly rented studio in Halifax. Her voice is deeper than I expected, but the intonation is instantly familiar. It sounds like home to me. “I want to be like Mary Poppins and jump into your paintings,” I tell her and we both just laugh. Kyak-Monteith created the illustrations that accompanied The Language of Snow, a fictional story I wrote for Inuktitut magazine in 2019, so there was already a fondness between us. As we talk a bit about our childhoods and the progression of her artistry, the conversation eventually turns to her latest collection of paintings that formed We Play The Same ᐊᔾᔨᖓᓂ ᐱᙳᐊᓲᖑᔪᒍ.

 “The recent work that I am doing is preserving memories of me and my little brother and my grandparents, and my great-grandmother who doesn’t speak English,” she says. Kyak-Monteith speaks with a bit of sadness that she can no longer speak her language, the language of her ancestors and of her great-grandmother Letia. “I am definitely trying to hold onto my memories,” she tells me. “The way I found to connect with her, other than language, is through action-based activities. Like puzzles or with food.” 


Self Portrait as a Grandmother
(2020) Oil 50.2 x 40 cm
Courtesy Marion scott gallery

Inuit have long communicated with each other without speaking, and eating together is a point of contact that transcends language. It is something we all understand, beyond happy memories of hands stained and bloodied as we cut into seal and fish and ptarmigan. Our stomachs and souls satiated with the delicious offerings of our land, eating together also fills us with the deeper realization that the food we eat and share is the reason we are still here. 

In Letia, Her Hands (2020) and Where’s the HP Sauce (2020) the focus is on the beautifully aged, delicately feminine, able hands of her great-grandmother. For those unfamiliar with the reference, HP Sauce is a brown steak sauce originally produced in the United Kingdom. This bestselling condiment eventually made its way across the pond from British dinner tables to cardboard feasts across the North. Most often paired with maktaaq or caribou, it has inadvertently become a beloved and iconic part of our own food culture. In the first painting Letia is busy piecing together a puzzle with short, clipped unadorned fingernails. In the second she is slicing up maktaaq with an ulu. Her long, bright-red painted nails nearly steal the scene. It’s in these subtle yet bold details that Kyak-Monteith explores and expresses her interwoven identities. Brightly painted, pointed nails have become almost a signature in Kyak-Monteith’s work and are often cameoed in her social media posts. They are a character unto themselves.


Whale Hunt: I Think  Everyone Is Here
(2019) Video 46 sec

Many of Kyak-Monteith’s pieces focus on harvesting and food sharing. The power and significance might be lost on some, but to understand it we do not have to look that far back. Up until the late 90s, Inuit were not allowed to harvest bowhead whales due to over harvesting by foreign whalers and for many years before that, Inuit were strongly discouraged from eating the foods that kept us alive and thriving for generations. Something as seemingly innocuous as sharing and partaking in traditional food could seem like a passing novelty— a fun, kind-of-exotic and daring foodie thing to do at an art opening. But for Inuit, every morsel shared in the open is taking back space and erasing the shame wrongfully coerced upon our families. With every stroke of her brush Kyak-Monteith not only brilliantly catalogues her own lived experience but she boldly resurrects and reclaims the traditions of our ancestors in predominantly white spaces. 


Whale Hunt: I Think Everyone Is Here
(2018) Oil 152.4 x 226.1 cm

Before social media helped us to not only normalize but openly celebrate our traditional diet and delicacies, there was still a lot of suspicion directed toward Inuit wanting to document their culture and experience. It was something you simply did not do as it was a potential source of contention and shame. I remember so vividly how my own anaanatsiaq would admonish me to warn her before coming to her house with a white person or non-Inuk as she did not want to be caught off guard while eating or preparing traditional food or working on skins. In her animation Large Feast on a Bed of Cardboard (Maktaaq) (2019), which runs just under a minute, we take part in the most joyous act shared among Inuit: gathering around the cardboard to share “soul food,” or country food, with one another. Once again, the brightly painted red fingernails dance around the screen as skillful hands slice up pieces of the traditional Inuit meal of whale skin and blubber. A second person’s hands enter the scene and pour VH brand soy sauce, another beloved condiment we often pair with frozen caribou or char. These are living memories: flashbacks in rapidly moving oil paint, jumping, moving and shifting like a dream we cannot hold onto. 


Letia, Her Hands
(2020) Oil 12.7 x 17.8 cm

Much like the greats before her, self-portraiture is a significant part of Kyak-Monteith’s practice; she paints one every summer. From the young girl with dark, brooding eyes in an argyle sweater, to a sultry young woman pictured in front of a simple backdrop, with smooth porcelain skin, pouty lips and blonde hair cascading from dark roots “with the puffiest sleeves,” we are witness to her physical transformations as much as the evolution of her talent. Her latest painting immortalizes herself dressed as a grandmother, complete with granny scarf and the signature giant glasses we all came to associate with our northern grandmothers in the 70s and 80s. Kyak-Monteith once again commands our gaze with her playful reimagining of herself as a ningiuq. Mixing elements of Romanticism and Realism, she brings the eye of a master painter, evoking a timelessness that defies her youth. Her decision to juxtapose herself as a grandmother in youthful form encourages the viewer to question the relationship between past and present, how one cannot exist without the other. Her supple face emotes a youthful bravado while sagacious and soulful eyes steadily watch from behind amber lenses. Leaning back with a cool confidence and a knowing mischief only Elders possess, it’s as though she’s telling us she’s already been here for a very long time. 


1 Quotes from Megan Kyak-Monteith from interview conducted by the author in August, 2020.

This piece first appeared in the Winter 2020 issue of the
Inuit Art Quarterly.

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