Internationally-acclaimed Canadian Inuk vocalist and musical artist Tanya Tagaq performed alongside Robert Flaherty’s controversial 1922 movie, “Nanook of the North,” in Pickard Theater on Sunday, adding completely improvised sound and voice inspired by her own experiences to the film’s Arctic landscapes.

The original ethnographic work depicts the everyday experiences of an Inuk man named Nanook and his family in early 20th-century Northern Quebec. It has long been criticized for exaggerating scenes of the group’s ignorance toward modern ideas and practices in order to make Inuit peoples appear to be confined to premodernity.

Tagaq is known for combining traditional Inuit throat-singing with jazz, electronic and other contemporary influences. Her most recent album, “Animism,” won the 2014 Polaris Music Prize.

Tagaq draws on her time growing up in Nunavut’s Victoria Island in the Canadian Arctic as a counterpoint to these misrepresentations of Inuit life. She feels that the struggles the Inuit had to undergo in such a harsh environment were brushed aside in Flaherty’s film and replaced with the image of a “happy Eskimo.”

“I love breaking that down,” she said. “I love being able to perform the soundtrack for the film as a modern day Inuk person.”

“Part of our mission is to educate people about the Arctic,” said curator of the Peary-MacMillan Arctic Museum Genevieve LeMoine. “To have a renowned, Inuit contemporary performer come to campus is an excellent way to do that.” 

Tagaq’s visceral performance added depth not just to the the images, but also to the racial, environmental, postcolonial and cultural implications of the film. Preceding the performance, Tagaq spoke about her own personal narrative and how it relates to the issues that are important to her.

“I feel very fortunate to have been born and raised there because I got to live very close to the land,” said Tagaq. “Because of where I grew up I have a different outlook on humanity and its impact on the Earth.”

She advocated for the need to rethink the relationship between humans and the environment, reminding the audience of the importance of respecting the land.

“I want to make sure that people understand that our lives mean something,” she added.
Tying the performance into Bowdoin’s academic sphere, Visiting Assistant Professor of Cinema Studies Sarah Childress incorporated the event into her class, “Film as a Subversive Art.” She feels it is important for her students to see Tagaq “reclaim” the film and work against its reductive nature.

“I wanted the students to have that opportunity to have the representations within the film critiqued, and seeing someone actually talking back to a work of art that attempts to represent their cultural group,” said Childress. “That seemed particularly subversive to me.”

“The music added a first-person experience to the video,” said Jacqueline Colao ’17. “Her interpretation of [the film] really gave you an insight into what these people were actually going through.”

Childress’ film class also engaged in a discussion with Tagaq following the event.

“Through her music, [Tagaq] has a platform for sharing not only her first-personal experiences, but also the experiences of her community,” said Childress.

The Peary-MacMillan Arctic Museum and Arctic Studies Center, The Blythe Bickel Edwards Fund, the Department of Sociology and Anthropology, Student Activities, the Department of Music, the Department of Cinema Studies and the President’s Office Wabanaki Initiative all sponsored the event.