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Q & A with Laakkuluk Williamson Bathory

Laakkuluk Williamson Bathory is an artist that uses uaajeerneq – Greenlandic mask dancing – as the praxis for live performance, an eyehole for writing, and a foundation for her ways of thinking about human beings. An academic, a poet, a dancer, and a mischievous and outspoken advocate for creative spaces for gender equality and indigenous political voice, Laakkuluk lives in Iqaluit with her family. She is a founding member and organizer of Iqaluit’s Qaggiavuut! initiative and currently works there as a Program Manager.

Laakkuluk will perform with experimental vocalist Tanya Tagaq as part of the Chan Centre’s Beyond Words series in the Telus Studio Theatre on March 16 – 18, 2018.

Here, she discusses the basis of her art, what home means for her, and why her collaboration with Tagaq just works.

When did you start learning your art form, uaajeerneq (Greenlandic mask dancing)? Was it always your intention to turn it into a profession?

Laakkuluk Williamson Bathory: I started learning uaajeerneq when I was thirteen, just as I was starting high school. My mother and Maariu Olsen, one of the original recreators of uaajeerneq in the 1970s Greenlandic folk movement, took me aside to teach me how to perform and brought me to various performances they did to apprentice me. I performed with my mother for a number of years and also started performing without her in those early years. By the time I was leaving my teens, my mother stopped performing and “passed the baton” to me.


Uaajeerneq can embody a plethora of emotions, themes, and stories, some of which can be challenging. Are there topics or themes that you are especially committed to tackling through your art form? Why?

LWB: Uaajeerneq plays with four main themes: our humility as human beings in the vastness of the universe and our connection to our ancestors, sex, fear, and hilarity. Each uaajeerneq performer adds their own flavour to these themes, their own method of execution. For me, I find it quite important to touch on all these themes in a performance, sometimes all at once, sometimes moving abruptly between them. Sometimes I dwell on one particular subject at a time. For me, it is all about sharing intimate moments with the audience, about creating wonder and unexpectedness with both individuals and groups. People tell me that I become slightly more terrifying as the years pass, which makes me laugh.


What defines you as an artist? Do you work with other art forms or types of creation?

LWB: Uaajeerneq is definitely the cornerstone of my artistic practice. It makes me both open and brave to try new things, to dig deeper. I write poetry, tell stories, create theatre, performance art, video, and all of it has some sort of aspect of uaajeerneq to it. I also sew, but that is pretty much strictly outdoor clothing and ornamentation for my family. I just recently finished the inaugural run of a play I co-wrote with Evalyn Parry called Kiinalik: These Sharp Tools. It is a story about the difficulty in creating safe and honest space for political, societal and artistic discussions between an Inuk and white woman, both living in contemporary Canada. It’s about how our intimate stories can create understandings about the bigger picture of colonization. Uaajeerneq features largely in the production.


Does your experience as a mother affect your dancing and the stories you tell? Is passing on tradition to your children a big focus for you as both a mother and mask dancer?

LWB: Being a mother centres my identity entirely. My children, my husband and I work very hard together to create a home for our mother tongue – kalaallisut or Greenlandic. We hunt and eat Inuit country food almost daily. We have a cabin that we built ourselves so that our children can learn how to be on the land and sea, to have a family haven away from the bustle of internet and work commitments. All the hard work we do as a family to speak, create, live fully and with awareness informs my artwork. As a dancer, of course motherhood has affected me quite a bit. I have done performances when I have been highly pregnant with all three of my children, which was very hard, but very enjoyable. I have a voluptuous post-pregnancy figure – I think it surprises people that I am so open and proud with my body, that I move it around with pleasure and acknowledgement of what I look like.


You have toured around Canada and many other parts of the world. How do your travels influence your work? Do you find inspiration in places? 

LWB: Collaboration is very near and dear to me: travel allows me to work with other like minded artists. It allows me to see different relationships to the land, different world views. I am always learning more about culture – both my own and others around me.


You have played an integral role in the development of Nunavut’s Qaggiavuut Arts Society and the potential development of a new performing arts centre for Iqaluit. What is the vision of Qaggiavuut? Is there specific programming you are particularly excited about bringing to the community?

LWB: We are planning on building a performing arts centre for 2019. Iqaluit is the only capital city in Canada without a performing arts centre, the only city in the circumpolar world that has no performing arts centre. Inuit performing arts does not have a proper home in Nunavut, in the face of many colonial forces that have tried to take our arts away from us. Inuit artists create so much, make such world class work, such flights of imagination and skill – it’s incredible what we make without a professional and supportive space. I am so excited by the many realms we will explore and create once we have such a space.


Are there other artists (of any genre or form) you are eager to collaborate with?

LWB: I would love to work with other mask makers/dancers from other lands and cultures. I would also love to work with other improvisational performers in music and live performance, especially indigenous peoples.


You have been working with Inuit experimental vocalist Tanya Tagaq, and you will perform together at the Chan Centre in March. How did that partnership originate, and why does it work?

LWB: Tanya and I have known and respected each other for many years. We did not get the opportunity to work together though, until after a terrible mistake made by a composer that worked with the Kronos Quartet: he plagiarized my storytelling for a piece that Tanya performed with the Kronos Quartet. It was not a pleasant experience whatsoever, but in the process of figuring out what had happened, Tanya and I realized how much we have in common. Once we started performing together, we realized how much we sink and fly through the same realms of consciousness to create performance – her through her voice and me through my mask dancing. It is an incredible experience to perform together: we are unique from one another and heighten one another at the same time.


You and Tanya are tackling themes of reconciliation and retribution with this project. How does that inform the art itself and your creative process?

LWB: Tanya and I talk and talk and talk. That’s what informs our creative process together. We talk about our families, our communities, things we’ve seen and felt. We think of solutions. We eat together. That is a powerful thing that we do, and what a lot of Inuit women and other indigenous women do: we build each other up through continuously building relationship.


What do you want audience members to take away from your performance with Tanya? What is the end goal for you as an artist?

LWB: I have always been taught that the storyteller (or the performers in this case) give the story to the audience and it is up to the audience to take away what they have felt and observed. I am grateful that people feel a lot and want to see what we do – I will keep doing it because of that. I don’t have an end goal as an artist. It’s a process; it’s life.



Tue Jan 9, 2018