Extreme conditions, climate change, and colonialist perspectives. Dance artist Avatâra Ayuso travelled to Nunavut, Canada, with the Artists' International Development Fund to meet female Inuit artists, and challenge Eurocentric perspectives
Collaboration not appropriation
Naulaq LeDrew in Iqaluit. Photo: Terry Braun
There I was, flying over the North Pole 5,000km from my homeland, about to meet one of the most resilient communities in the world: the Inuit.
Road to Nowhere
I have always been fascinated by life in extreme landscapes — those with challenging living conditions where humans need to adapt in order to survive — and how cultural practices emerge under those conditions. In my artistic practice, I'm also constantly trying to move away from a Eurocentric perspective. These interests have driven me to worldwide research into contemporary performing arts, and dance in particular.
The empowerment of women has also always been a priority for me. Even at an early age I felt how women are undervalued in their personal, professional and artistic lives. To contribute to change, I established the AWA Dance Initiative (Advancing Women's Aspirations in Dance) to support girls and women from different cultures develop their potential in the creative industries. However, I did not know at all who the women of the Arctic were. I wanted to find out.
Both these interests led me to Nunavut, the most northern Canadian province, with the aim to promote exchange and develop collaborations between female Inuit performing artists and myself (a Spanish artist, based in the UK, with a multicultural artistic approach).
"I did not know at all who the women of the Arctic were. I wanted to find out."
Avatâra Ayuso performs Raven Dance in the Arctic at -25°C
The trip turned out to be my most challenging research so far, not just logistically — getting to the Arctic is not a straightforward activity — but because of the historical socio-political issues I became aware of. The Inuit are facing issues and achieving things we are not aware of, both in their lives and in their artistic practices.
So who are the Inuit of the 21st century? We — white people, as they call us — are still anchored in a colonial understanding of indigenous people. I wanted to better understand the socio-political context in which indigenous groups operate in 21st century Canada. My motto was: respect and appreciation (not appropriation). These were the driving forces of the collaboration.
I travelled to Iqaluit, (meaning the place of many fish) during the springtime Toonik Tyme festival, which celebrates traditional Inuit knowledge. Despite the sun and blue sky, temperatures dipped between -25°C and -40°C every day. Iqaluit, with a population of almost 8000 people, feels like a moon base: everything is shipped in, there are no trees, nothing can be cultivated and streets do not have names. Well, only one does: Road to Nowhere.
"We are still anchored in a colonial understanding of indigenous people"
Avatâra Ayuso and Naulaq LeDrew rehearse together. Photo: Adam Dreessen
Arts and traditional knowledge
Under these conditions, the Inuit are reinvigorating their own culture, language and traditions. They suffered from colonisation and hard assimilation policies, but now there is a strong cultural movement to bring back who they are.
Traditional knowledge is valued highly, and all artistic practices are strongly connected with it. I wanted to find out more about current Inuit artists and the catalyst for this was the organisation Qaggiavuut, the first Nunavut performing arts centre, led by the inspiring women Laakkuluk Williamson Bathory and Ellen Hamilton. Their mission is to strengthen, promote, advocate and create space for Nunavut performing artists with a focus on Inuit culture. They believe that performing artists are agents of change and renewal.
They put me in contact with local artists who introduced me to their main artforms: throat singing and dance drumming. The female artists I talked to highlighted that both throat singing and drumming are empowering activities for women. After almost disappearing during the 20th century, these artforms have been brought back by women, transmitted from generation to generation, and revalued.
"Another deep problem affects the Inuit performing arts: cultural appropriation"
Throat singing and drumming are being reclaimed and revived by Inuit women. Shown above by Naulaq Ledrew. Photo: Adam Dreessen
The stories, lyrics and themes presented in Inuit art are deeply interconnected with nature. "This might be an extreme landscape, but don't forget it is the land we chose," says Laakkuluk. "We chose to be here". And the land, the Arctic, is suffering. Global warming is changing it dramatically, to the point that the knowledge of the elders has become challenged. Cracks happen in new unexpected places and the melting of the ice comes earlier and earlier each year.
The Inuit are deeply concerned about the implications this has for their hunting practices, which is another complicated topic, whereas white people tend to ignore Inuit perspectives. Angry Inuk by the female filmmaker Alethea Arnaquq-Baril is a good film for understanding this problem.
I discovered that another deep problem affects the Inuit performing arts: cultural appropriation. As with many other indigenous communities, their knowledge and artistic practices get taken by others and their stories get to be told without including Inuit artists. Kevin Loring, Artistic Director of Indigenous Theater at the NAC, National Arts Centre of Canada, recently spoke out about this on social media: "It is not sufficient to engage the Indigenous community merely to extract their knowledge and perspectives in order to seem to be doing your due artistic diligence, or to incorporate those perspectives into your imagined version of our very real stories, and yet wilfully refuse to engage Indigenous artists. The healthy collaboration between Indigenous and Settler artists and companies has been and will continue to be a vital source of inspiration and understanding. These partnerships engender the creation of dynamic art that is authentic and nuanced."
"This may be an extreme landscape, but don't forget it is the land we chose"
Avatâra Ayuso in Iqaluit, where the ice is melting earlier and earlier each year. Photo: Terry Braun
This trip has opened new doors of cooperation and understanding between artists who belong to completely different cultures who are willing to learn and share their worlds. I definitely want to continue my relationship with the extraordinary, resilient and inspirational Inuit female artists.
In June 2019 I plan to present a new duet, No Woman's Land with Naulaq LeDrew, an Inuk woman, as part of Border Crossings's Origins Festival in London. In 2020–2021 I'm hoping to return to the Arctic to film the second part of my trilogy on women and extreme landscapes, ThreeWomenThreeFilms.
Meeting the Inuit has given me a different and more informed perspective about who they are. To me, their artistic practices portray resilience, survival and celebration. The conversations I had made me realise how little we truly know about them and how important it is to hear who they are in their own words.
Overcoming clichés and prejudices is an important part of my artistic practice, and in this project I certainly got rid of many Eurocentric assumptions (mainly related to society, spirituality, the land and its resources). Inuit have a very long and rich tradition behind them and a bright present and future. It is inspiring to see so many extraordinary women leading the way. Inuit voices must be heard around the world, and I'm extremely privileged to have heard some of those voices first-hand. All my respect and gratitude to the Inuit.
Avatâra Ayuso is a choreographer and founder of the AWA Dance Initiative (Advancing Women's Aspirations in Dance).
The research was possible thanks to the support of the Ottawa Cultural Office of the Embassy of Spain in Canada and funding from the Artists International Development Fund — a joint initiative from the British Council and Arts Council England to help artists collaborate with other countries and forge international contacts that ran up until 2018.
Find out more:
> Discover current Arctic performers in the Inuit world stage directory
> Catch up with Avatâra Ayuso's ThreeWomenThreeFilms series
> Read Kevin Loring's vision for Indigenous theatre in Canada
> Watch a performance of Inuk throat singing by Tanya Tagq and Laakkuluk Williamson Bathory
> Find out more about the AWA Dance Initiative
> Find funding opportunities for UK practitioners to develop international work