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Throat Singer Tanya Tagaq Loudly Combats Indigenous Stereotypes

Tanya Tagaq primary 2
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Tanya Tagaq phot by Nadya Kwandibens
Tanya Tagaq.  |  Photo: Nadya Kwandibens.

Tanya Tagaq -- celebrated Inuit throat singer, recording artist, and Inuk advocate -- loudly confronts Indigenous stereotypes and erasure. This is particularly audible in “Nanook of the North,” her bold re-working of Robert Flaherty’s 1922 film of the same name. In a wry artistic twist, Tagaq uses as her springboard a film that contains and conveys stereotypes of indigeneity and portrays indigenous people as silent relics of the past. “In America and in Canada, people see indigenous culture as a dead one: the brave dead Indian with the headdress, the happy-go-lucky Eskimo. But we’re still here,” she says. This message will ring through Los Angeles when Tagaq brings “Nanook” to The Broad this fall. This piece -- much like Kara Walker’s beautiful and disturbing silhouettes on permanent display inside the museum -- artfully recalls the turbulent past and present of race relations on this continent. Enticing, unnerving, and utterly compelling, Tagaq’s music consistently delivers. 

The text that opens the original 1922 film “Nanook of the North” promises to tell the story of a “kindly, brave, simple Eskimo.” Flaherty alternates between lengthy landscape sequences, close-ups on actors’ still faces that evoke portraiture, and dramatic scenes of ice fishing, dogsledding, and spear hunting of walrus and seals. But never does Nanook speak. Technology dictates that the silent black-and-white film used projected text instead of recorded sound; Flaherty uses this device to describe his composite character Nanook as well as Nyla and other members of the made-for-film family. Throughout the 79-minute film, the characters are described in the third person, never offering their own first-hand narration of their experiences.

"Nanook of the North" movie poster
"Nanook of the North" movie poster.

Film critics have written disparagingly of the liberties taken in this purportedly documentary movie: at the director’s behest, actors re-staged scenes and hunted with harpoons instead of their typical guns. In a particularly absurd scene, Nanook listens to a gramophone played by a white trader, and then, showing total disconnection from contemporary technology, he takes hold of the record and bites it. Flaherty claims in the projected text that he will provide “a story of life and love in the actual arctic,” yet the main character’s name in real life was Allakariallak, not Nanook, and the woman playing Nyla was not really his wife. 

So why would Tagaq, a successful Inuk musician and contemporary artist, perform a piece that is based around this contested film?

While Tagaq is quick to say that “there’s quite a lot of stereotypical nonsense” in the film, “Nanook” conveys a sense of living with the landscape that she builds upon. 

In Southern California, where “up north” can mean the Bay Area, the idea of a north beyond the Arctic Circle may seem particularly difficult to imagine. Explaining what “north” meant to her, Tagaq says, “Nunavut is just a stunning, stunning place. ...The year is like one long day, I suppose. There’s this night and there’s day and it goes in a 365 rotation. …I love it up here. I wish I could give that experience to people. That’s kind of what happens with “Nanook.” 

Tagaq grew up in Nunavut on Victoria Island in the town of Cambridge Bay (Iqaluktuutiaq), which is about 2,350 miles due north of Albuquerque, NM. For perspective, this is further than the air distance from Los Angeles to Washington, D.C. The artist attended the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design, and she has traveled professionally around the world. Because contact between settlers and indigenous groups came much later in the central arctic than other areas of North America, Tagaq’s parents’ generation grew up knowing how to hunt and survive on the land before they were relocated by the Canadian government. Her mother, who has earned a university degree, is well-versed in multiple kinds of knowledge. Tagaq says that the film conveys some aspects of what life used to be like in the arctic, as “there’s a glimpse into what this land is and how you survive on it.” Even more compelling, however, is the way that Tagaq’s performance design provides an opportunity for the contemporary artist to put an Inuk voice and perspective back into the film, shaping the way audiences receive it.

Tanya Tagaq in New York Jan 2015 photo by Shelagh Howard
Tanya Tagaq performing in New York, January 2015. | Photo: Shelagh Howard.

Commissioned by the Toronto International Film Festival in 2012, Tagaq created the soundscape for “Nanook of the North” with percussionist Jean Martin and violinist Jesse Zubot and a sample-laden backing track she commissioned from composer Derek Charke. Tagaq, Martin, and Zubot have toured internationally with this performance, but each show is unique. Scenes in the film, such as one of a hunt, serve as landmarks for the three artists, but there is opportunity for the artists to “let the music take us away as we want to,” as Tagaq puts it. 

Largely improvisatory, “Nanook” engages the audience in the performance space. “I love the audience because when you’re doing improvising, the audience is like another band member without them even realizing,” Tagaq says. “They contribute to the energy in the room. It’s almost like they’re driving the music as well.” Martin controls the backing track, bringing it in and out of the performance, Zubot uses live electronics as he plays his violin, and Tagaq performs her unique style of singing. 

Inuit throat singing, like other kinds of throat singing common in circumpolar regions, involves using careful breath control to make a wide range of sounds with the breath, including voiced sounds, unvoiced sounds, and overtones. Singers mimic sounds from nature, such as winds, calling birds, or boiling water. Inuit throat singing is traditionally practiced by women in pairs. Singers stand face to face, responding to each other musically in interlocking patterns. When played as a game, singers try to make each other laugh, and the first to laugh loses.

Tagaq did not learn traditional Inuit throat singing in her home far above the tree line. The practice drastically receded after contact with non-Inuit peoples, in the form of boarding schools, missionaries, and increasing commerce. Instead, Tagaq first learned to sing from recordings when she was away at art school. Tagaq explains: “I was self-taught for years, and then later on was taught the traditional songs by a bunch of traditional throat singers.” By this time, she had developed her own style of singing, a solo style that incorporates circular breathing. 

The artist’s unique style has been featured in collaborations with artists as diverse as Bjork and the Kronos Quartet. The Juno Award-winning musician has released four albums, “Sinaa” (2005), “Auk/Blood” (2008), “Anuraaqutug” (2011), and “Animism” (2014), with a new release scheduled for this fall. Tagaq’s singing on these albums stretches the limits of vocalization. On her most recent release, for which she won the prestigious Polaris Prize, Tagaq artistically weaves together breath sounds, screams, howls, and mimicry.

On social media, in the press, and in public performances, Tagaq has repeatedly proven herself to be outspoken, critical, and engaged. One concern for which the singer has used her public platform is the issue of missing and murdered indigenous women. Indigenous women and girls are disproportionately likely to be victims of violent crime in Canada, a situation of crisis proportions which Amnesty International attributes to inadequate police protection, racism, and even perpetrators’ beliefs that they may escape prosecution because of indifference towards indigenous women’s well-being. While consistently active, Tagaq does not quite consider her work activist, as “when you live it, when it’s your life every day, it’s not being an activist, it’s just being a human being in the day to day.” Reflecting on the violence, which is also a concern in the United States, Tagaq says, “My daughters and I are four times more likely to be murdered; especially in Nunavut. As a result of the postcolonial fallout, there’s just been a huge upheaval. And a lot of the negative traits that came out of residential school are lingering here.” Contemporary art aficionados may be increasingly used to seeing the word “decolonial” sprinkled throughout descriptions of art works. In Tagaq’s upcoming presentation, audiences can listen to what the process of decolonization can sound like in practice. 

Tagaq’s show at The Broad will be the fifth in the feminist storytelling performance series “Tip of Her Tongue.” Presented by guest curator Jennifer Doyle, the series has included Karen Finley, Xandra Ibarra, Cassils, Martine Syms, and Jibz Cameron. For “Nanook,” Tagaq explains, “There’s a wide breadth to the performance. And its cultural significance is well-rooted.”

A self-described feminist, Tagaq identifies that “every culture had a different idea of what femininity is.” She recalls, “Up here, I used to pack caribou on my shoulders. Like whole, we’d skin it and I’d be able to carry it when I was 18.” Explaining that her culture was matriarchal before colonization, Tagaq continues, “Women have to be really, really strong up here to be respected. ...My aunt can go out on her own and kill a polar bear with a bow and arrow -- by herself with a dog team. And that to me is very feminine; it’s a beautiful example of femininity.” 

Identifying bigger picture and smaller picture goals for feminism, she explains, “I want women to be able to lead and I want women to be able to follow and I want women to be able to be whatever they want to be in safety… That’s the larger picture... In the smaller picture what I’d really like is to see women being able to accept themselves on any level of what is considered feminine or masculine. ...We are so strong.”

In this performance of “Nanook,” expect to hear what Tagaq has delivered in show after show during her long career. Yes, the singer reminds audiences that Inuit people are “still here.” But this is much more than a continuation. Tagaq promises to present her own artistic voice, informed by ongoing Inuit expressive practices, in a performance that is eminently modern.

Tanya Tagaq will perform “Nanook of the North” on Saturday, October 1 at 8 p.m. at the Zipper Hall at the Colburn School, across the street from The Broad.

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