Unmasking Greenland’s Uaajeerneq: Maria Hupfield Interviewing Laakkuluk Williamson Bathory Part 1

By Maria Hupfield and Laakkuluk Williamson Bathory

Performance artist Maria Hupfield interviewed Laakkuluk Williamson Bathory in her home in Iqaluit Nunavut via Skype from Sweatshop Studios, Fort Green Brooklyn, NY on Tuesday March 25th 2014, 10:00am.

Maria: I remember meeting you in Toronto when you were working as curator for “Ilitarivingaa? Do You Recognize me?“ on art and Inuit people in the modern world at the Art Gallery of Ontario. The temporary media lab modeled after a northern drop-in center “Tausqiijiit” (the people who exchange objects and ideas) made a huge impact on my teaching pedagogy with Native curriculum to this day and the work I was doing at the time with youth at 7th Generation Image Makers, Native Child and Family Services of Toronto. We were both much younger and some would say youth ourselves at the time. Can you tell me about your name and where you are from?

Laakkuluk: I was just reminiscing about that exhibition with one of the youth participants last weekend! A lot of us are doing things in certain ways because of being together for the exhibition!

My full name is Sarah Nya Laakkuluk Jessen Williamson Bathory. He he. It’s a very long name that goes to the center of my British/Greenlandic roots, addressing cultural celebration, naming traditions and gender equality. Sarah is English, Nya, though through Denmark is Swahili, Laakkuluk is Inuktitut, Jessen is Greenlandic, Williamson is English and Bathory is Hungarian (my husband’s last name). I go by my name Laakkuluk. When I was in school, I used to mostly go by Sarah. But when I moved to Nunavut, I decided that it was time to go by my Inuktitut name full-time. Before that only family and Inuit called me Laakkuluk. Many Inuit are multi-named like that – a funny byproduct of colonization.

Maria: Although you live in Iqaluit, Nunavut today and have a strong connection with Canada. I still think of you as a global citizen and perhaps this is because of your Greenlandic origins. Do you consider yourself more of a global citizen and can you describe your relationship to nation?

Laakkuluk: I had a very funny phone call out of the blue from the Danish Embassy a couple of weeks ago. I had been given the impression that I had to give up my Danish citizenship when I was 22. The embassy called to tell me in a clear and careful Danish accent that in fact, “You have been under the wrong impression. You have always been a Danish citizen.” It made me laugh. So yes, both in a familial and in a formal way, I am a global citizen. I feel a strong connection to Greenland and to Canada.

I have always dreamed of helping people make connections between my nations, because there is so much the same and so much that is different. I feel so lucky to actually be doing this now – artistic projects, traveling with elders, bringing hunters together.

Maria: The relationship of indigenous people with nation as we know is strife with conflict throughout history and around the world. Can you talk about how you came to Uaajeerneq, or Greenlandic Mask Dancing, and do you see it as a form of self-representation in the face of such history?

Laakkuluk: I was fortunate to be surrounded with politically active Inuit as a young person. My mother and Maariu Olsen took me aside when I was thirteen to teach me uaajeerneq. Maariu was one of the artists in the 1970s to reassert Greenlandic identity through performance – taking uaajeerneq as a cornerstone of this reestablishment. Uaajeerneq was a pre-Christian art form that was hidden from Christian missionaries in the small towns of East Greenland. It had been lost to the more colonized Western Greenlanders. From the 1950s to the 1970s, there was a great push for self-determination, which ended up in Greenlandic self-rule, a very stable indigenous language and a rich arts community that both motivates and is inspired by Greenlandic politics.

Every uaajeerneq dancer has his or her own individual expression – the ways that people express themselves in the dance are fascinating, but each dancer really sees the performance as a self-realization in the face of decolonization

Maria: Wow! That is a pretty powerful form of body integrity especially these days when it is hard not to feel like our bodies are under attack by government, corporations, and media.

Laakkuluk: Yes – the performance is very grounded in its “body-ness.” You have genitalia painted and represented on your face, you re-enact bodily functions, you test people’s boundaries because of the need to feel and show respect and the need to feel and show confidence

Maria: I recall how exhilarating it was to watch you perform, how you became transformed and embodied both genders. I also remember uaajeerneq as being referred to as dance of inhibition.

Laakkuluk: It’s more like a challenge to inhibition.

Maria: Is that for both artist and by extension audience? Do you consider yourself an artist?

Laakkuluk: Absolutely – the artist works with the audience for reaction and so the two groups make the performance as a whole. I am slowly coming to the realization that much of what I do, think about, direct my passions to is art, so that makes me an artist. Ha ha! I feel lucky.

Maria: The notion of artist as profession can be considered a very Western world construct. What you talk about is a very real community based social art form that carries currency and value, something that many artists in the city strive to achieve in meaningful ways. Do you ever feel limited or effected by concepts from Western culture or terminologies such as “dance” when applied to what you do?
I definitely think of you as an artist.

Laakkuluk: Yes – people outside of our realm generally think of “dance” as a form of entertainment, filled with precise aesthetics and executed with the practiced accuracy, like ballet. While uaajeerneq definitely takes a lot of training, especially in your intellect and your ability to be so challenging, and it is important to be entertaining and use the symbology correctly, I see the performance more of an agent of change than simply as a dance. I use the principles and the strength of uaajeerneq in my other work and in many aspects of my life, since I have been doing it for so long now.

Maria: Would you say it is a sort of extension of yourself?

Laakkuluk: Yes, you’re right.

Maria: I am thinking about how uaajeerneq connects to other parts of your life, even to where you live or the land itself, and spirit-verse as a separate livelihood in contrast to the market driven work that is often witnessed where I am based in NY.

Laakkuluk: Yes – uaajeerneq was a gift to me and continues to be so. It makes me brave when I need to be, sensitive to spirit and land, it makes me see love in complicated ways.

Laakkiluk Williamson Bathroy Explaining and Performing Uaajeerneq

Maria: When you talk about your work and specifically with gender, I imagine total freedom. Is gender a big part of this form of art? I’m specifically curious about how you might relate it to feminism? And are there other cultural traditions that structure it – specifically traditions around gender?

Laakkuluk: The dance is meant to make you realize that human sexuality is an entire spectrum of individual expression and something that must be celebrated and respected. It is more about re-enforcing the values of equality than feminism.

Maria: Feminism seems to have its purpose within a general western patriarchal society does it affect you much living in the north? Would you say gender equality is a big part of Inuit culture? Do you self identify as Inuit in Iqaluit? Is Inuit the proper term?

Laakkuluk: Gender equality and inequality play themselves out differently here than they do in general western patriarchal society. For example, it is young men that suffer the most from the suicide epidemic here and young women are more likely to finish school and get better jobs. Female politicians take big positions, but the boardrooms are still filled with men. We also have a problem with voter apathy that allows, on occasion, special interest, right-wing, homophobic politicians to take positions of power: people that don’t actually represent the views of equality that most people adhere to. Yes, gender equality is a big part of Inuit culture. It plays out in power and prestige, traditional gender roles and social disorder during colonization. I do self identify as Inuk in Iqaluit. By the way, it is one Inuk, two or more Inuit.

Maria: Ah yes I remember using Inuk Inukson as a generic name in our collaborative postcard project. I always value your input because you come from such a different place it allows me to see things differently. I remember looking at that postcard of the polar bear and you saying how important it was to let the bear be a bear and do bear things like sniff a bone.

Front cover of a postcard Maria collaborated with l. Image provided by Maria Hupfield.

Front cover of a postcard Maria collaborated with Laakkuluk. Image provided by Maria Hupfield.


Back of Humpfield's and Laakkuluk's postcard. Image provided by Maria Hupfield.

Back of Hupfield’s and Laakkuluk’s postcard. Image provided by Maria Hupfield.

Laakkuluk: That’s what I love about collaborating so much. We all have so much to show each other and we learn so much more holistically by collaborating.

Maria: Totally. I dig it. Living in Brooklyn, I often wonder how much the urban environment informs and is corrupting how I relate to the world. Can you talk a bit about Iqaluit where you live and how it informs the work you do? I imagine most people might not know what it is like and how it differs from other places like Greenland and even Alberta Canada where you also lived.

Laakkuluk: Iqaluit is a town with about 8000 people in it. It’s the largest by far of all the communities in Nunavut.

Maria: So you are urban!

Laakkuluk: It is about 50% Inuit. We have a large population from Newfoundland and another large one from Quebec. One of the things that outsiders don’t realize about the Inuit population is how multicultural it is as well. Many Inuit move to Iqaluit from all over Canada and there’s even smatterings of Greenlanders like me!

He he – it is urban compared to Grise Fiord or Kimmirut, but it’s not as urban as Nuuk in Greenland. When you fly into Iqaluit (the only way to get here, unless it is by skidoo or boat), you can see that the land surrounds the town. It’s not like NYC, where the city surrounds the park. There is tundra right behind my house.

Maria: Indeed you got us on that!

Laakkuluk: I fish for char in the ocean right below my house.

Maria: Some of the best sushi I ever had was the fresh shrimp at your place. Sucking the sweet brains out. I don’t eat much meat living in Brooklyn but I still remember seal stew fondly too because of its beef like texture but fish like taste. I don’t really know how else to describe it other than seal.

Laakkuluk: Nium! Deliciousness!! I love loving food with people that love food!

Maria: How do you say thank you? Or acknowledge appreciation?

Laakkuluk: In Iqaluit you say either Nakurmiik! or Qujannamiik! In Greenland you say Qujanaq!

Maria: Qujannamiik Qujanaq Nakurmiik meegwetch merci.

Laakkuluk: Aakkuluk! (Inuktitut for heart emoticons)