Culture

How Calgary’s Kablusiak made Inuit art pop 

The Inuvialuk artist’s oeuvre—complete with Furbies, soapstone tampons and satirical selfie backgrounds—has garnered plenty of attention, a bit of outrage and even a Sobey Art Award

A split photo of a young person with dark hair, light skin, and dark eyes. On the left they are sitting down and on the right they are resting their chin on their hand.

(Photography by Allison Seto)

Artists run wild in Kablusiak’s family, on both sides. Their childhood homes in Yellowknife, and later Edmonton, were filled with relatives’ creations, including a painting of wild geese—a wedding present to their parents from Kablusiak’s uncle, Bill Nasogaluak, a famed Inuvialuk artist. “I didn’t get it then,” says Kablusiak, who busied their own tiny hands with crafts. “Now I know Inuit art collectors would’ve been foaming at the mouth.”

With genes like that, it was practically a given that Kablusiak—who jokes that they only use their English name, Jade, at Starbucks—would eventually move to Calgary to pursue an arts diploma and degree. But as a drawing major, Kablusiak says, being confined to a page quickly began to feel like “holding in a sneeze.” So they pushed the envelope—first in new mediums, then in taboo subject areas. Kablusiak’s breakthrough moment was a 2017 exhibition at Calgary’s Sled Island Music and Arts Festival, featuring soapstone carvings of tampons, cigarettes and a Diva Cup for good measure.

A photo of a young person with dark eyes, dark hair and light skin. They are wearing a t-shirt.

By 2018, Kablusiak had found representation with Calgary gallery Norberg Hall and, in 2021, co-curated the inaugural collection at Qaumajuq, the Winnipeg Art Gallery’s new Inuit art centre. They garnered buzz for their mould-breaking mash-ups of Inuit art history and Western pop culture, zeroing in on the painful displacement of, they say, “being from the North, but existing down south.”

There were smaller creations, like a spin on Ookpik, an owl figurine first popularized in the ’60s by Inuit artist Jeannie Snowball. (Kablusiak’s Ookpiks were Garfields and Furbies.) They also branched out into more sweeping, sombre installations. In 2021’s “Suviittuq!” or “Can’t be helped/Too bad!” an image of a Tuktoyaktuk cemetery hung on a wall, a background for visitors’ selfies. It poked at what Kablusiak calls the “pain spectacle” of news coverage of unearthed unmarked graves. “If I dress these things up with humour,” they say, “it’s like taking honey with a pill.” And the controversy that follows? “I get off on that.”

A photo of an art installation, depicting a person on their knees with their hands pressed together. Above their head is the words "TY MR SOBEY" and dollar signs.

A photo of “TY Mr. Sobey,” one of Kablusiak’s installations at the Sobey Art Award Exhibition at the Art Gallery of Alberta. (Photo by Leroy Schulz)

Last November, just after their 30th birthday, Kablusiak won the prestigious Sobey Art Award—the first Inuvialuk artist to do so. They plan to put the $100,000 prize toward a home in northern Alberta, one with enough room for a studio. Anyone worried about Kablusiak selling out need only lay eyes on “TY Again, Mr. Sobey,” a soapstone statue of a figure pleading on bended knee—and surrounded by dollar signs—now on display at the National Gallery in Ottawa. It elicited a big reaction from grocery heir Rob Sobey. “He was moved, but also laughing,” Kablusiak says. “I didn’t expect that.”

A photo of a young person with dark eyes, dark hair and light skin. They are wearing a t-shirt and a plaid skirt.

POP QUIZ

Secret obsession: Stickers. “I became a member of the Sandylion Sticker Club at 16. Now, I only let myself have a couple of sheets.”
Working on: Canvas-and-cowhide parka covers
Wall art: “I have a couple of framed works from Inuk artists, like Darcie Bernhardt and Shuvinai Ashoona—some gifted, some bought”
Winter activity: Staying inside, mostly
McDonald’s order: “I’ve had it less since I discovered my gluten intolerance, but the fries are gluten-free!”
Ink well: Kablusiak’s tattoos include a tablurun, a traditional Inuit facial tattoo, as well as several DIY hand-poked creations

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