When he was a kid, Jesse Tungilik’s mom used to sew him hunting clothes out of caribou hide.
The artist based in Iqaluit, Nunavut, in Canada’s eastern Arctic, used to imagine that he was wearing a space suit when he wore those clothes, because they’re bulky and heavy and, he says, it’s a real process to put them on and take them off.
“The whole experience kind of reminded me … of putting on a space suit and going out into space,” said Tungilik, who’s finishing up an artist residency in Montreal. “I had a pretty overactive imagination as a child.”
When the art department at Concordia University in Montreal put out a call for artists to pitch future-themed ideas to create during a residency, Tungilik pitched the idea of sewing a space suit out of sealskin, remembering his childhood daydreams.
“The university got really excited,” Tungilik said.
“I’d never done any sewing or designing before, so it was an adventure to figure everything out,” he said.
But Tungilik had help to figure out how to make the space suit. Glenn Gear, from Nunatsiavut, the Inuit region of Labrador in Atlantic Canada, helped him finalize the pattern and with the sewing. He is also the one who made the beaded patches for the space suit.
His friend Julie Alivaktuk, originally from Pangnirtung, Nunavut, also helped Tungilik design the pattern.
The team effort, “really helped to bridge the gap of the limits of my knowledge and experience,” said Tungilik.
“The whole experience has been a learning experience for me; it’s really helped me to bring my artistic practice to the next level,” he said of the residency.
Wants to keep art practice in Iqaluit
Tungilik is trained as a conceptual sculptor. He recently made a sculpture out of Northmart receipts of an Inuk man butchering a seal for Montreal’s art festival, Nuit Blanche.
The intent of that was to bring attention to food insecurity in the North. Aside from his childhood memories of wearing his caribou hide outfits, Tungilik says he was thinking about the image of an Inuit astronaut as he created the space suit.
“I’m hoping that [the space suit] will encourage Inuit, especially young Inuit, to start looking seriously at really ambitious careers and different life paths,” said Tungilik.
As he sewed the sealskin into a space suit, he was also thinking about an alternate reality where Inuit were left to their own devices, and developed an Inuit space program.
For Tungilik, Montreal is an alien environment.
“It’s kind of fun to imagine that scenario of an Inuit space explorer, exploring alternate worlds,” said Tungilik.
Tungilik’s residency is over. He’ll bring the space suit home with him to Iqaluit where he’ll finish a few details, including making an acrylic helmet, a hood, and some gloves.
In the future, Tungilik wants to be able to work on his ideas in Iqaluit, instead of having to take them down south where he can access the facilities and technicians he needs for his work.
“If I can start doing them back home, that would be ideal for me,” he said. “That’s what I’m working towards.”
He is in discussion with the Winnipeg Art Gallery. Tungilik said they want to include his sealskin space suit in the inaugural exhibition for the Inuit Art Centre that they’re building.
Related stories from around the North:
Canada: Canada Goose unveils parkas created by Inuit designers, CBC News
Finland: New Finnish app tests your astronaut skills, Yle News
United Kingdom: U.K. fashion label apologizes for copied Inuit design, Radio Canada International