Words: Mehanaz Yakub
Art Courtesy: Niap
Cover image: Elasuk Pauyungie by Niap

It’s been five years since Nancy Saunders threw caution to the wind and decided to pursue a full-time art career. Professionally, she goes by Niap and jokingly said she feels like an imposter when introducing herself as an artist. But even in such a short time, and despite systemic barriers, her talent and work have been gaining traction.

In 2017, Niap was chosen in a nation-wide competition to create a mural that spanned seven walls at the Canadian Museum of Nature’s Canada Goose Arctic Gallery as part of Canada’s 150th anniversary. The design titled Ilurqusivut used an optical illusion technique to make her realistic depictions of Inuit hunters and wildlife look three-dimensional on a two-dimensional surface. Niap said she was asked to submit her portfolio for the competition without really knowing what it was for. It was only after winning and heading to Ottawa to create the piece, did Niap find herself thinking what a huge deal it was.

After enrolling at Concordia University in Studio Arts, Niap found herself being inspired by the themes presented to her in her courses and creating what she believes is her best work to date.

She was awarded in a unanimous vote the Virginia J. Watt scholarship, an award given to an Inuit artist studying in arts and culture by the Inuit Art Foundation (IAF). The Foundation focuses on the promotion of Inuit artists and their artworks.

“We’ve been big fans of Niap for quite some time. She’s a very unique artist with a singular perspective. She is equally amazing at doing realistic portraits as she is doing very minimal pieces, painting, stitching — she’s really multi-talented,” said Alysa Procida, Executive Director of IAF.

With the $2,500 reward, Niap used the funds to create an installation piece for the Oboro Gallery, located in Montreal.

“That piece was a special project. When I was working on it, I was thinking, ‘I hope this finds a good home.’ I just wished it and it happened,” Niap said.

What happened next was like a game of telephone – someone told someone who told someone else who told a curator from the Museum of Fine Arts to see her exhibition. But unlike the beloved children’s game, the message did not get distorted along the way – the piece entitled, ᑲᑕᔾᔭᐅᓯᕙᓪᓛᑦ Katajjausivallaat, le rythme bercé was unique. The museum bought the installation from Niap and will be exhibited in the museum by 2020.

“It was a big step for her in her career,” Procida said. “She is the first Inuk artist to have a conceptual work acquired by Montreal Museum of Fine Arts and it broke down their barrier with their collection practices.”

Katajjausivallaat, le rythme bercé (Courtesy of Niap) was acquired by the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts in Fall 2018. The installation piece is of three suspended stone sculptures, accompanied with audio of traditional throat singing.

Uncertain Beginnings

Niap hails from Kuujjuaq, a village in Nunavik, Quebec. She came to Montreal nine years ago with hopes of becoming an elementary school teacher.

“I’ve always been artistic and I’ve always had a need for expressing [myself] in artistic ways,” Niap said, but she lacked the confidence in her work and the ability to recognize that she could pursue art as a “real career.”

As she was watching the opportunities that other Inuit artists were getting from the sidelines, Niap was faced with the loss of a close family member that was around her age.

“I decided to stop putting things on hold and do what I wanted to do now rather than leave it for later just in case,” she said.

Incorporating her heritage in her art, Niap used the river water in Kuujjuaq from different seasons to paint Ukiatsak. (Courtesy Niap)

Growing up in Kuujjuaq, there weren’t a lot of art-based extracurricular activities available. She tried to teach herself contemporary dance by imitating dancers on TV but quit because she had no real teacher. She also wanted to become a pianist after listening to one on the radio and seeing a grand piano on the television, but again, there was no one to teach her and no piano to play.

“What I did have that was accessible to me was pencil and paper. So, I would take my pad and paper and do observation drawings,” she said.

Since then, Niap has experimented with different mediums such as painting and carving. She is also interested in ceramics and combining paint with photography.

But what is represented in all her art is a confluence of both her Inuit culture and her urban influences from Montreal.

“I’ve lived half of my life feeling ashamed for being Inuk because of bullying in high school or discrimination. But today I see myself as a role model for my people. Because I realized all of this bullying and discrimination comes from ignorance,” Niap said.

Niap’s first solo exhibition will be at the Feheley Fine Arts Gallery in Toronto, from May 18 until June 8. She will be teaching people about traditional Inuit tattoos and will be creating different tattoo designs using needle and thread to mark-make on paper. She also has ideas for a potential series with beadwork and another with pastels.

Tattoos and Stitches (Courtesy Niap)

She has said that if she were to die tomorrow, ultimately, she would want to hand over her book with all her ideas to an artist and ask them to bring her ideas to life.

“Because my art is a motor geared towards a message. Rather than being a politician or a spokesperson or a teacher, this is my way of promoting Inuit culture and staying away from all these prejudices and stereotypes that we have. I’m trying to break the mould and I’m doing it my own way,” she said.