To describe Laakkuluk Williamson Bathory as unapologetically Inuk is an understatement. The Saskatchewan-born, Kalaaleq Greenlandic Inuk, now based in Iqaluit, is perhaps best known for her intense and electrifying uaajeerneq performances, a Greenlandic face mask dance that combines fear, sexuality and humour as a way to push boundaries and challenge comfort levels. Yet it is deliciously impossible to place her into any one category of artistry.
Laakkuluk learned the once-forbidden practice of uaajeerneq from her mother as a young teenager living in Saskatoon. In pre-colonial times, Kalaaliit would blacken their faces with soot; bits of blood were used to highlight and decorate the face, giving the wearer a menacing, otherworldly appearance. Some dancers stuffed their clothes or placed balls in their cheeks to further distort their appearance. The Christian missionaries could not deal with the unpredictable, seemingly devilish performances. Ignorantly and arrogantly viewing it as demonic, the practice was banned. When the ancient art form re-emerged in the 1970s, it was imbued with political meaning.
“I always thought it was very funny, very scary and very silly, and it always attracted me,” Laakkuluk says, describing uaajeerneq as the cornerstone of her artistic practice. It was also a way to get the party started, she tells me, with her joyful, instantly recognizable and infectious laugh. “Usually it would be with somebody just deciding in the middle of nowhere to put black all over his face and distort his or her features, and then jump out and scare everybody, and that would be the beginning of the celebration.”
But the power of uaajeerneq is many layers deep. It has a way of focusing on fear, too. It’s a way to “teach children, in a safe setting, how to deal with panic, weather changes, or if something sudden happens (like an accident),” she says. “You have to be able to quell your fear and think rationally through situations.”
Laakkuluk’s ability to handle difficult situations has been put to the test many times. One especially harrowing incident found her staring into the eyes of a polar bear as it stuck “its greasy nose” through a window of her family cabin, aggressively attempting to get in.
She remained calm while her husband swiftly handed her a rifle; she fired a warning shot, but when the bear persisted Laakkaluk had to shoot it. Her children stayed peacefully asleep during the whole ordeal.
When we chat about that experience, she reveals the places where she continues to draw her strength: From her community, from having difficult conversations, from being a mother and partner and from her ability to transform into a provocative, menacing, sexy and delightfully mischievous character, both on stage and during intimate gatherings. Laakkuluk often collaborates with multi-award-winning Inuk throat-singer Tanya Tagaq, together they create extraordinary, kinetic performances. She is a living, breathing example of the resurrection of our culture and language. Everything she does is done with purpose.
Listening to Laakkuluk speak about her life, her art, her everything, I remember why I cried after seeing the interdisciplinary theatre performance Kiviuq Returns back in 2018. Sitting in a mixed crowd of Inuit and non-Inuit in Ottawa, I distinctly remember the intensely visceral, almost supernatural atmosphere that enveloped the crowd as the lights dimmed and the deep, guttural sounds of throat singing began to wash over us. I kept getting goose- bumps; I felt them ripple across my skin, over and over. I felt electricity run through my body. It was as though a portal had been opened to another time, an ancient and sacred space where only Inuktitut is spoken. A place where no need for translation exists, for it is the only language, and we are the only people. Here, for a beautiful, brief moment, our mother tongue is no longer gagged by government, our tarniit (soul) no longer repressed by religion or caught in the chokehold of colonialism.
Like everything Laakkuluk does, the decision to offer no English translation, except for a few paragraphs in the program, is done with razor-sharp intent. In not- so-ancient times, the qaggiq was a spectacularly large iglu built with the intention of celebration. It was a place where we came together to perform and compete, a place to both showcase and hone our skills, a safe space to face our innermost fears — all with the intent of going out in the world to put what we had learned in the qaggiq to use.
“Language is very, very important. I am in a special position despite having been born in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan; I grew up speaking my language to my mother in the middle of the prairies in the 1980s.” And this is in the face of the tremendous language loss across Canada that still continues. This “loss” was set into motion by the government of Canada, then carried out by religious institutions and schools, a fact that many non-indigenous people are now beginning to realize.
Even in Iqaluit, a place where no two children can be found speaking Inuktitut together in the playground, and where there is a French school but no Inuktitut school, much of the responsibility for keeping our language alive falls onto parents and caregivers. In this, Laakkuluk is also a beacon of hope. She shared a story with me about how her young son often speaks to her in Inuktitut at bedtime saying things like, “Anaana, suli kaattunga” — “Mother, I am still hungry.” As a mother attempting to pass on Inuktitut to my own son, in a world inundated by English, I know how difficult this can be. “I know exactly how possible it is to keep a language alive because I speak the language that my mother taught me to my children as well,” explains Laakkuluk.
Laakkuluk’s resilience and the sheer force of her artistic output is testament to the depth of her roots, in uaajeerneq and in her connection to our language and the land. For Laakkuluk, art and life are inextricably linked. A performance artist, method actor, curator, spoken word poet and mother of three, she is a profoundly and intensely articulate storyteller who also acts as the artistic director of Qaggiavut, a collective that’s working on building the first performing arts centre in Nunavut. Laakkuluk dreams of building a modern qaggiq to give Nunavummiut artists a place to create what they need to create. “Not as a pantomime, not as cultural representation, but as themselves,” she says.
For Laakkuluk, art and life are undeniably connected. Oscar Wilde said, “Man is least himself when he talks in his own person. Give him a mask, and he will tell you the truth.” With Laakkuluk, there is no way to separate the mask from the woman. Her resilience and the sheer force of her artistic output is testament to the depth of her roots, in uaajeerneq and in her connection to our language and the land. “All of these connections to ancestors, to ancestral homes, to the practices, to points of land, to the taste of things, it is all captured within the language,” Laakkuluk says. “To think of all these little tremendous things that were taken away from your mother in residential school, and that were taken away from my mother in residential school too, is overwhelming at times. But then I have the capacity within myself to keep saying these words — and growing them and growing them — so that not just myself and my children but everybody around me can come to understand the concepts that are within these words.”
Laakkuluk is proof of the power of the qaggiq. She oozes an Inukness that is intensely familiar and immediately comforting. She embodies the spirit of turnganarniq (to make people feel welcome) that is one of the corner-stones of Inuit Qaujimatuqngit (traditional knowledge). The insistence on being on the land is the recognition of the power of being on the land, the power we as Inuit get from the nuna (land), the sila (air), the siku (ice) — how the cold teaches us and empowers us. Laakkuluk is a living, breathing example of the power of our artistic traditions, our culture and language resurrected.
Laakkuluk is also a beacon