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UMS Artist in Residence Update: Tanya Tagaq and the Poetry of Ecojustice

By Russell Brakefield

Editor’s note: Russell Brakefield is a poet and one of our 2015-2016 artists in residence. As part of this program, artists in residence attend UMS performances to inspire new thinking and creative work within their own art forms. Russell attended UMS Night School: Constructing Identity, featuring Taylor Mac and Tanya Tagaq, as well as Tanya Tagaq’s performance with Nanook of the North. Below is his response to the class and performance:

In her conversation as part of the UMS Night School’s series Constructing Identity it became apparent to me that Tanya Tagaq, in addition to being a well-renowned Inuk throat singer, is also a poet. Her work, she said, is interested in better representing the intense relationship her people share with the land. “The land eats us the way the city eats you,” she said. “Even our thread comes from sinew. We have a diet of souls.” What language, I thought. What voice! What purpose!

UMS Night School Session 3

Pictured from Left to Right: Clare Croft, Taylor Mac, Tanya Tagaq, Jim Leija at UMS Night School.

The first issue of Poetry Magazine in 2016 carries with it the enigmatic theme of Ecojustice. In the introduction to the issue Melissa Tuckey writes that Ecojustice poetry “lives at the intersection of culture, social justice, and the environment. Aligned with environmental justice activism and thought, Ecojustice poetry defines environment as the place in which we work, live, play, and worship.  It is poetry born of deep cultural attachment to the land and poetry born of crisis. It is poetry of interconnection.” This then—it seems to me—is the poetry of now, art that is essential, art that is necessary. Or perhaps this is the poetry of the perpetual now, evoked over and again in the ever-changing rush of violations against the environment, against marginalized peoples, the coupled plague there.

No matter the exact definition or the flourish of devastations that necessitates a genre such as Ecojustice, I’d like to place Tanya Tagaq and her breathtaking Nanook of the North performance squarely under this distinction. And her performance clarifies something else that I believe is crucial for art using this term—this performance was not only important but also transformative. It asked of its audience to feel as much as it asked of its audience to know. During her conversation for the UMS Night School Tagaq discussed her interest in inviting her audience to breathe, to leave the theater breathing in the experience of her people. She discussed her hope that this bodily reaction to her work would juxtapose with what the audience saw on the screen and disrupt what they knew already about the film Nanook of the North.

Tanya Tagaq 5 by Pedro UsabiagaPhoto: Tanya Tagaq. Photo courtesy of the artist.

The 1922 documentary is a spectacular work of art on its own, but it is also deeply afflicted with the stereotypes of its time. The film follows an Inuk man through his daily life in the Canadian Arctic. Often thought of as the first full-length documentary, the film was the source of an influx of dramatic ethnographic documentaries in the twentieth century. A New York Times review of the film from the year of its release praises filmmaker Robert J. Flaherty’s skill and innovation, which allows Nanook’s life to be “filled out, humanized, touched with the humor and other high points of a recognizably human existence. Thus there is body, as well as dramatic vitality, to Nanook’s story.”

But despite these groundbreaking cinematic achievements, this film also serves as a lasting reminder of the sneaky hand of history, the way people and places were routinely misrepresented or exploited in the name of art and entertainment by a dominating class of public artists. As a lasting and widely disseminated piece of art, the film perpetuates cultural insensitivity in the way that much popular culture of certain time periods does. Even as an effort of recording the practices of a people on the edge of displacement, the film raises questions for the artist and the archivist that harken back to the earliest conflicts with anthropological involvement.

Tanya Tagaq’s performance responds to both the positive impressions of the film and the negative. She embrace’s Nanook of the North for its representation of the hardships of life for her people. She draws connections between the landscape that is depicted so vividly in the film and the rich heritage and power of her people. But she also calls attention to the way the movie wrongly depicts Inuit culture, the stereotypes represented there, the omissions made out on the ice.

Her Nanook of the North performance combines traditional throat singing with other vocal textures, breath work, and movement. Tagaq’s performance is visceral, athletic, and jarring. And the performance does something the film cannot do by itself. She is not simply saying, look at this thing that is both beautiful and deeply flawed. She provides, in her accompaniment, a filter that accounts for cultural context. She provides a filter for our renewed sense of duty towards people, landscapes, and the relationships between the two. She makes art that ruptures the intellectual response to colonial fallout and instead invites audiences to re-read and re-feel the film. She invites us to breathe.

tanya tagaqPhoto: Tanya Tagaq. Photo courtesy of the artist.

I’m drawn to the idea of Ecojustice in part because it attempts to collapse the gulf between intellectual and emotional response. It also attempts to collapse the gap between social issues and issues of ecology. It is about connectivity. Somewhere amidst the heartbeat of Tagaq’s performance— drummer Jean Martin and violinist Jesse Zubot add a wild soundscape to the piece—I found my attention divided between the music and the film. I was drawn back and forth between the film and Tagaq’s winding, dramatic performance. I felt myself giving over to her incredible vocal work and at times needed to close my eyes. Tagaq was representing everything at once— the beauty and hardship of her people, the injustices there, the wreck of the land, her own place in the history of all this.

This performance made me thankful for the poets I read in my youth, poets like Wendell Berry and, more recently, poets like C.D. Wright. These poets, like Tagaq, showed me the potential of art to speak to the mistakes of history and the troubles of now. This type of work offers artists an opportunity to reclaim the past and unwind it, unfold it.

All art is a form of translation and all translation is a form of theft. And yet here Tanya Tagaq translates the miswritten story of the past and reaches into future, into the violent landscape of possibility we call innovation.

Interested in more? Follow the adventures and process of other UMS Artists in Residence.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Russell Brakefield received his MFA in poetry from the University of Michigan’s Helen Zell Writers’ Program. He lives in Ann Arbor where he teaches writing at the University of Michigan and works as a bookseller and as the managing editor for Canarium Books. His most recent work appears in The Southern Indiana Review, Hobart, and Language Lessons: An Anthology by Third Man Records.

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