Mobilizing Inuit Cultural Heritage with “Ahqahizu” sculpture on York campus
York University celebrated National Aboriginal Day on June 21 with the unveiling of Ahqahizu, a monumental granite sculpture created by Inuit carvers Ruben Komangapik and Koomuatuk (Kuzy) Curley with a team of assistants and apprentices, including students from the Department of Visual Art and Art History and members of the neighbourhood community.
“It’s wonderful to have the opportunity to celebrate Indigenous and Inuit culture in such a visible and powerful way on our campus,” said York President and Vice-Chancellor Mamdouh Shoukri. “In a multicultural city such as Toronto, this sculpture will create opportunities for dialogue about Inuit art and culture – and we at York are delighted to be part of this important conversation.”
The sculpture illustrates an Inuit legend of spirits playing ball in the norther lights. It depicts an Inuit soccer player poised in the Alaskan high-kick position. Embellished with silver eyes and holding a bronze walrus skull for a ball, the work was carved from a 26-tonne block of granite. It will be installed near the York Lions Stadium as an inspiration for athletes and spectators who will attend the North American Indigenous Games at York’s Keele campus next summer.
Ahqahizu was commissioned as part of Mobilizing Inuit Cultural Heritage (MICH), a $3.5 million multimedia, multi-platform collaborative research and creation project led by York Research Chair, curator and Art History Professor Anna Hudson and supported by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada.
“Mobilizing Inuit Cultural Heritage celebrates the contribution of Inuit visual arts and performance to Inuit language preservation, social well-being and cultural identity,” said Hudson. “Working with the artists over this past year on the creation of Ahqahizu has been an exceptional realization of this celebration, and a deep intercultural learning opportunity. It has opened our campus to increased indigenization of university education.”
Kuzy, who has worked on the ambitious project since inception, said: “We had to be very patient while carving to get the right balance when working on the motion of the bicycle kick – like floating in the air. This project is a great example for Inuit people that we can accomplish anything if we are determined.”
His colleague Komangapik agreed, adding: “I’m very happy to promote our culture and heritage through art with the help of MICH.”
The ceremonial event to unveil the sculpture opened with traditional drumming by Iqaluit, Nunavut-based musician Mathew Nuqingaq. A performance by multiple Juno Award-winning Inuk singer/songwriter Susan Aglukark, an Officer of the Order of Canada and recipient of a 2016 Governor General’s Performing Arts Award, was a highlight of the event.
Other special guests in attendance included Josh Stribbel of Torontomiutaujugut, a newly formed Toronto-based Inuit youth organization, and Native women’s rights activist Jeannette Corbiere Lavell,who received an honorary doctorate at the Convocation held at York that morning. Government officials and members of the York community rounded out the assembly.
Traditional food served in a traditional manner was also part of the celebration.
Mobilizing Inuit Cultural Heritage is a six-year (2012-2018) project aimed at recovering, preserving, documenting, facilitating and disseminating Inuit traditional knowledge and creativity. It brings together 10 academic researchers and nine partner organizations, and employs a dozen Inuit and non-Inuit community members, students and artists. Partner organizations include the Nunavut software startup Pinnguaq, Nunavut Arctic College, the Nunavut Department of Education, the West Baffin Eskimo Cooperative in Kinngait (Cape Dorset), the McMichael Canadian Art Collection, the National Gallery of Canada, and the Norrbottens Museum in Luleå, Sweden.