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Inuit artist Becky Qilavvaq melds clothing and culture

April 21, 2017

Inuit artist, educator and designer Becky Qilavvaq uses innovative clothing designs to make traditional Inuit culture accessible to modern audiences. One of her pieces is currently on display in a new exhibit, “Threads of Change: Arctic Clothing and Identity in the North,” in the Peary MacMillan Arctic Museum. The exhibit, which will be open for two years, focuses on the changes in Arctic clothing over the last century.

Qilavvaq marked the opening of the new exhibit at the Arctic Museum with a lecture on Wednesday evening titled “Inuit Clothing and Identity in the Modern World” in which she spoke on the importance of clothing to the Inuit culture.

“[I]n the Arctic there has been lots of changes in the last 100 years and clothes have changed along with it. But there are interesting ways in which people incorporate new materials into traditional clothing—industrial materials replacing or being used in addition to traditional materials like seal skin. Also, people now use traditional design for modern clothings,” said Curator of the Peary MacMillan Arctic Museum Genevieve LeMoine.

LeMoine believes that Qilavvaq’s artistic vision aligns well with the exhibit, as it captures the interaction between traditional and modern forms of Inuit clothing and culture.

“We want people to come away knowing that there are people up North involved in traditional things and there are modern people who have cell phones and design dresses. We want to communicate that it is a live and dynamic culture,” said LeMoine.

Qilavvaq has dedicated her work to teaching and celebrating Inuit culture. She works as the Youth Programs Coordinator for the Qikiqtani Inuit Association in Iqaluit, where she leads workshops for students on Inuit history and culture.

Qilavvaq’s career has not been limited to clothing. She has explored different artistic mediums, such as photography, throat singing, films and drum dancing, to capture and share Inuit culture.

“I have passion for my Inuit culture and I have passion for beauty and I see so much beauty in my culture that not many of my peers see in themselves. I like to find different mediums and use different ways to have the world see what I see through my eyes,” said Qilavvaq.

In the past year, Qilavvaq developed a passion for clothing design. After noticing how the younger Inuit generation was distancing from the traditions of their ancestors, Qilavvaq decided to use fashion as a method of bridging this divide.

Qilavvaq has designed dresses, leggings, skirts and more that use traditional images such as Inuit tools or song lyrics on modern clothing items to bring Inuit culture into daily, modern life.

“It’s very important for young people to be able to walk around and see parts of who they are in modern clothing,” said Qilavvaq in her lecture. “It connects youth to clothing in a totally new way where they’re able to wear it to a dance, to school.”

She hopes that her clothing brand will spark global interest in the Inuit culture.

“I’ve used the arts to introduce to the world who Inuit are in a way that can be penetrable,” said Qilavvaq. “What I do is I make it relatable.”

Qilavvaq attributes her ability to stay rooted in her culture while serving also as a cultural ambassador, to her diverse background. After growing up in a traditional Inuit community, she later traveled the world, allowing her to have both local and global experiences.

“I realized that I have rare gifts not only in the arts—I have foot in both worlds. One foot in the traditional world, I’m very rooted culturally and my other foot traveling in the world for several years since I was a kid,” she said.

In the future, Qilavvaq hopes to develop her clothing line and reach wider audiences in generations to come.

“Inuit are very resilient. We’re famous around the world for being so adaptable. Our struggle now isn’t against the elements. Our struggle now is very internal, trying to hang on to our culture. I’m happy that I’m helping to lead young people to work through that and keep our culture strong.”

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