WAG-Qaumajuq changing the landscape of the art scene in Winnipeg

By: David Chenier

The Winnipeg Art Gallery (WAG) hosted a full day of panelists and events for the first-ever National Day of Truth and Reconciliation on Sept. 30. Over 400 people attended and all admission fees were donated to the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation.

Education on culture and history is an integral part of reconciliation. Equipped with a 90-seat theatre named Ilipvik, which means, “A place where you can go to learn,” in Inuktitut, the WAG provides a safe space for all to learn and ask questions. 

“We feel great responsibility to the Indigenous people of this territory. We want to make sure they are heard and feel safe at the gallery not just as patrons and members, but as employees and volunteers,” Lafreniere said.

A patron quietly reads protest posters from the “To Draw Water” exhibit /DAVID CHENIER

The opening of the new Inuit art centre, Qaumajuq, has been a catalyst for change in the landscape of the WAG. Exhibits are now more focused on Indigenous representation, with an emphasis on Inuit and Métis artists. 

Julia Lafreniere, head of Indigenous initiatives at the WAG, commented on the change and how important representation is in Winnipeg. 

“I think we are starting to move in the right direction, however, it took hundreds of years of colonialism, dispossession, and genocide to get into this mess, so it will take hundreds of years to heal,” Lafreniere said.

Built by a community of Indigenous advisors, artists, partners, and stakeholders, Qaumajuq’s open-concept gallery, white walls, and large windows shine brightly, like the Inuktitut meaning of its name.

Developed following the 2015 recommendations of Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, the 40,000-square-foot addition to the WAG houses the largest public collection of contemporary Inuit art in the world.

The addition was designed by Michael Maltzan, an American architect. The glass facade allows the sunlight to shine down upon the community plaza entrance. The Visual Vault towers overhead and disappears down below the glass floor into basement levels below. The vault houses 5,000 carvings, telling stories and displaying masterful craftsmanship from Inuit and Indigenous communities.

With entrance free for all Indigenous patrons, the new face of the WAG focuses on representation and education for all on Inuit and Indigenous art and history. 

Jahnavi Jahnavi, a first-year Business Technology Management student at RRC Polytech said she supports the change at the WAG.

“This is a good initiative taken by the Winnipeg Art Gallery to make a more focused gallery for Indigenous art,” Jahnavi said. “It’s a great thing.”

Since the reopening of museums and galleries and the opening of Qaumajuq, the WAG has seen record-breaking attendance despite continued health restrictions for public indoor spaces.