The artist collective Isuma will represent Canada at the Venice Biennale in 2019. The group's participation in Italy marks the first presentation of art by Inuit in the Canada Pavilion at the influential contemporary-art happening, held in odd-numbered years.
Founded in 1990 with an aim to preserve Inuit culture and language and to present Inuit stories to Inuit and non-Inuit audiences around the world, Isuma means "to think, or a state of thoughtfulness" in Inuktitut.
Led by filmmakers Zacharias Kunuk and Norman Cohn (a non-Inuit, ex-New Yorker), the group is best known for the groundbreaking 2001 film Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner, written by Paul Apak Angilirq, directed by Kunuk and co-produced by Cohn. The Inuktitut-language epic, which won Kunuk the Camera d'or for best first feature at Cannes, was the jewel achievement of Igloolik Isuma Productions, which fell into receivership in 2011.
"Since the mid-1990s the Isuma collective has been challenging stereotypes about ways of life in the North and breaking boundaries in video art," National Gallery of Canada director and chief executive officer Marc Mayer said in a statement released by the gallery. "I am convinced that the international art world will be inspired by the insights that Kunuk and Cohn's collaborative work will elicit at the next Venice Biennale."
Among the recent collaborations of Kunuk and Cohn, the 2016 film Maliglutit is an Arctic saga inspired by a classic John Ford western, The Searchers.
Isuma was selected by a committee of contemporary Canadian art specialists. The project curator, who will be selected by the artists, will be announced in 2018.
Since the participation of Emily Carr, David Milne, Goodridge Roberts and Alfred Pellan at Canada's first official exhibition at the Biennale in 1952, the country has been represented abroad by the likes of Jean-Paul Riopelle (twice), Alex Colville, the collective General Idea, Michael Snow, Rebecca Belmore and, this year, Vancouver's Geoffrey Farmer.
Born in a sod hut on Baffin Island, Kunuk has directed more than 30 videos screened in film festivals, theatres, museums and art galleries. In 2012, he and Cohn were behind the development of Digital Indigenous Democracy, an internet network to inform and consult Inuit in low-bandwidth communities.
"Inuit went from Stone Age to Digital Age in my lifetime," Kunuk said in the press statement. "Oral history and new technology match. I am trying to do this with my videos – tell the story behind how we lived. We try to make everything authentic so 100 years from now when people see our films they'll know how to do it."
Added Cohn: "Collective survival depends on the art of working together for a common purpose, of putting the group before the individual. We hope to represent that view of video art in Venice in 2019."