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Drawing joy from truth and reconciliation

Even as a little girl growing up in Iqaluit, Aija Komangapik was destined to be an artist.

Her mother was a dancer. Her family friends were all artists. And her father – renowned Inuit artist and musi Ruben Komangapik, whose work is in the National Gallery of Canada, amongst other important collections – constantly encouraged her to explore her talent.

“I just followed the path that was laid for me,” says Aija, who now lives in Gatineau, QC. “It just kind of snowballs where art is so saturated in my life…it just becomes something that I feel I was able to do and something that I was good at.”

Art became even more integrated into her future dreams when, at age 13, she moved from Iqaluit to her father’s home and studio in Gaspésie, QC. After finishing high school and enrolling at Sherbrooke University, then experiencing COVID-19 shutdowns, she realized she was striving to achieve things she didn’t want.

Pivoting back to doing art fulltime, Aija is also pursuing traditional knowledge, such as going on hunts with her father, who founded Reconseal Inuksiuti, which promotes “reconciliation by celebrating Indigenous and non-Indigenous seal hunting traditions.” Meat is donated to Inuit communities.

So, when CAA North & East Ontario approached Aija to create a t-shirt design as part of our Truth and Reconciliation events, the seal hunt she’d just taken part in was top of mind.

Three images she produced showed the importance of tradition, the hunt and the key role seals play in Inuit food security and culture. Ultimately, one image – a joyfully dancing family – was chosen, which will be on orange t-shirts worn at CAA’s September 30th REDBLACKS Game Day.

We sat down with Aija to talk about hunting, culture and the role of art in reconciliation.

For Truth and Reconciliation Day, we asked you to create an image that would reflect something important to you. What is the story behind the dancing family?

There is joy in the Indigenous family, there is joy in the Inuk family. Whenever you hear about Inuit families these days, it’s always just sadness and pain. Yes, there is pain. Yes, men go missing, women go missing, children go missing. And this is very upsetting. And it is something we have to come to grips with. But we can’t just make that our whole story. We are a continuous people. And we need to understand that we are joyful and we will continue to be joyful, time immemorial.

It really captures the other aspect of Orange Shirt Day, which is Every Child Matters. What was part of your thinking?

It really wasn’t part of my thinking, but that’s an interpretation you could have because…life needs to be joyful. Something bad happened to you and it’s okay to feel bad about it. It’s okay to try to make amends. It’s okay to make sure it doesn’t happen again. But that can’t rule your whole life. And you can’t put that on to your future generations. There might be hard times in the future, but you can just focus on this moment.

The other two images you submitted really tell the rest of the story about hunting and the importance of Inuit country food.

Well, the images I first gave you were one about a man and a seal, and a person doing majjaturq (cleaning a seal). Food is so integral to culture. If you can nourish the body and mind at the same time, you are enabling someone to reach their full potential. I think the seal hunt is very good for reconciliation because having food security for the population is one way you can really ensure that we are able to continue as a proud people. 

Your father has spoken about learning hunting and Inuit customs from his grandfather in Pond Inlet (Mittimatalik) on the north coast of Baffin Island. Is hunting also about sharing knowledge?

When I’m hunting with my father, I’m learning so many skills that I feel I should have learned when I was younger. I’ve learned how to make tools. I know how to make knives and ulus. I know how to skin a seal, I’m learning how to treat meat and make sure it’s right for human consumption. I feel like I should prize that as much as the rest of my knowledge.

Aija Komangapik’s art can be found on her Instagram page. CAA North & East is proud to partner with Tungasuvvingat Inuit Ontario. Join us at the REDBLACKS September 30th game.

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