“A Living Knowledge”: Picturing Relationships and Respect in Qavavau Manumie’s Birds Holding World, Moon
by Zoe Weldon-Yochim
Department of the History of Art and Visual Culture
University of California, Santa Cruz
In this essay, I trace the ways in which Birds Holding World, Moon gives prominence to concepts of interconnectivity. To support my claims, I draw not only from Manumie’s image, but also from contrasting modes of visualizing the Earth, such as widely circulated National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) photographs of the whole Earth, pictured as a single object floating unaccompanied and isolated in the vastness of outer space (fig. 2). I demonstrate that Birds Holding World, Moon both incorporates whole Earth imagery and responds to the limitations of previous, totalizing representations of the planet. In comparing whole Earth imagery to the drawing, I suggest that ecological thinking informed by Indigenous knowledge, particularly Inuit Qaujimajatuqangit (IQ), provides an alternative, less objectifying means of engaging with the world.
Qavavau Manumie was born in Brandon, Manitoba and moved to Kinngait (Cape Dorset), Nunavut as a small child. He is an expert printmaker, first working in lithography and later turning to stone cut printing. He has worked in the Cape Dorset print studios since the early 1990s, assisting in printing the annual Cape Dorset Print Collection.[i] His artworks are found in
[i] “Qavavau Manumie,” Inuit Art Foundation, 2017, https://iad.inuitartfoundation.org/artist/Qavavau-Manumie/achievements.
The two birds in Birds Holding World, Moon resemble red-throated Loons. While their bodies are small, their migrations are vast. Red-throated Loons travel yearly across Canada between the Arctic Circle and the Great Lakes, inhabiting the lands between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans.[ii] Manumie renders the bird tasked with delicately carrying the world through the soft layering of crayon in shades of dark green and brown. The black of its eye is highlighted with a dot of orange-red, suggesting that the bird’s gaze is trained on the sizable responsibility before it: the Earth. Its outstretched wings gently stabilize the Earth. Its plumage is brightly colored in white, yellow, and orange, with individual feathers meticulously outlined with ink, a technique also seen on its tail. Its highly-detailed, webbed feet are positioned as if to suggest an eventual landing.
Manumie presents the world and Moon in dynamic motion, with the birds and globes working in tandem. The second bird, rendered in a blue-green tone with red and white feathers, holds the Moon on top of its back. Its webbed feet are angled backward in flight, and its left wing curves to embrace the spherical outline of the celestial body, mimicking the Moon’s form. While the bird gingerly holding the world works to keep the planet afloat, the bird supporting the Moon glides around the Earth, alluding to the constant orbit of the natural satellite. The two birds and the two globes move through space and exist in partnership; the arrangement is neither static nor fixed.
[i] See University of Delaware University Gallery, Land of Ice, Hearts of Fire: Inuit Art and Culture (Newark, DE: University Gallery, University of Delaware, 2003).
[ii] Mark L. Mallory, Common Birds of Nunavut (Iqaluit, Nunavut: Inhabit Media, 2013), 32–7.
Birds Holding World, Moon uses scale to emphasize the relational bond between the world and the life it sustains. Conventionally pictured as a small creature, the bird holding the world is larger than the planet, while the other bird is comparable to the size of the Moon. The rescaling of the birds in relation to the celestial bodies suggests that even those life forms considered “small” are actually of great importance. The birds are assigned to keep planetary and lunar motion operating. Their presence in such an authoritative position runs counter to an anthropocentric view of the Earth, which typically grants humans supremacy over other forms of life and matter. This is not to assert, however, that humans have no role within the world pictured in the drawing. The birds interact with the spheres through touch, inviting viewers to feel up-close and connected to something as immense as the Earth or the Moon.
The tactility of the interaction between the birds and celestial bodies accentuates the sense of being present in the world. This relational closeness evoked in Birds Holding World, Moon is a product of Inuit Qaujimajatuqangit, described by Inuk art historian Heather Igloliorte as “a living knowledge” that includes “Inuit environmental knowledge, societal values, cosmology, worldviews, and language.”[i] She continues “[A]t the center of this philosophy is respect for relationships: the relation with the land; the relationship with Arctic flora and fauna; and, especially, the relationship between family members and community members as to their responsibilities to each other.”[ii] In this relational world, family and community members can also include plants and animals.[iii] As Inuk writer Rachel Attituq Qitsualik elaborates, all living things are connected through the breath of life, a concept called sila in Inuktitut.[iv] As a component of IQ, understandings of sila specify that climate and environments are alive, and have a past, present, and future.[v] IQ emphasizes human relationships of respect and reciprocity with all other aspects of the environment.
[i] Heather Igloliorte, “Curating Inuit Qaujimajatuqangit: Inuit Knowledge in the Qallunaat Art Museum,” Art Journal 76, no. 2 (April 3, 2017): 102–3, doi:10.1080/00043249.2017.1367196.
[ii] Ibid., 103.
[iii] Heather Igloliorte, “The Inuit of Our Imagination,” in Inuit Modern: The Samuel and Esther Sarick Collection, ed. Gerald McMaster, Ingo Hessel, and Dorothy Eber (Toronto: Art Gallery of Ontario, 2010), 45.
[iv] Rachel Attituq Qitsualik, “Word and Will- Part Two: Words and the Substance of Life,” Nunatsiaq News, November 12, 1998.
[v] Ibid.; Heather Igloliorte, “Arctic Culture/ Global Indigeneity,” in Negotiations in a Vacant Lot: Studying the Visual in Canada, ed. Lynda Jessup, Erin Morton, and Kirsty Robertson (Montreal: McGill-Queens University Press, 2014), 151.
human beings are not the only constituent believed to embody spirit or agency… humans held certain obligations to the land, animals, plants, and lakes in much the same way we have obligations to other people. And if these obligations were met, then the land, animals, plants and lakes would reciprocate and meet their obligations to humans, thus ensuring the survival and well-being of all over time.[i]
Manumie’s drawing references this system of obligations, not only through its imagery but also through a citation of the Inuit story of the creation of the Sun and the Moon, which identifies them as sister and brother, respectively. The widely known epic narrative addresses a variety of concerns including sustenance, renewal, and social and cosmic order.[ii] The story has variations but is always a moral tale about transgressions. In one version, the brother and sister murder their mother and then commit incest. The pair’s wrongdoings force them to ascend to the sky, where they cease to be human.[iii] While the Sun is not present in Manumie’s drawing, the artist is surely aware of the interplanetary, familial relations and responsibilities among celestial bodies outlined in this Inuit story. Manumie may be positioning the Earth as yet another member of the community and family, and is perhaps alluding to the many human social and environmental transgressions altering the planet.
Additionally, birds appear in many Inuit narratives that tell of beneficial relationships and detrimental misunderstandings between two or more species. Manumie does not seem to be referencing one particular bird-related narrative in this work. Instead, he pulls broadly from a legacy of storytelling that is considerate of ethical relationships among many beings. In the drawing, the birds are visualized as custodians of the world and Moon, keep life-sustaining cycles and systems in motion. If any component is treated poorly, without reverence and care,
[i] Glen Coulthard, “From Wards of the State to Subjects of Recognition? Marx, Indigenous Peoples, and the Politics of Dispossession in Denendeh,” in Theorizing Native Studies, ed. Audra Simpson and Andrea Smith (Durham: Duke University Press, 2014), 70.
[ii] John MacDonald, The Arctic Sky: Inuit Astronomy, Star Lore, and Legend (Toronto: Royal Ontario Museum/Nunavut Research Institute, 1998), 97–99.
the survival and well-being of all are compromised. This conceptualization of sustained respect extends from the pair of birds present in Manumie’s drawing to all beings, which exist in conversation. The artwork emphasizes environmental reciprocity and acknowledges the relational bonds between living beings, the planet, and the cosmos.
In light of this recognition, it is significant that Manumie’s world and Moon do not replicate satellite imagery and do not correspond to any map. Specifically, the earthly landmasses do not align with conventional world maps that tend to position the Arctic at a northern, remote peak. To better understand the unconventional view of the planet in Birds Holding World, Moon, it is useful to compare it to the many photographs of the Earth from outer space generated by NASA and international space agencies.[i] I focus my analysis on the first full-color photograph of the Earth, captured on November 10, 1967 by the Applications Technology Satellite (ATS-3).[ii] The planet appears as an orb of blue and brown hazily patterned by abstract cloud cover, floating in the vast darkness of outer space. With no Moon present, the Earth appears isolated. It does not look like a place of immense life and diversity, but is instead presented as unmoored and objectified. The photo flattens the physicality of the globe as well as its complexity.
The photograph also leaves viewers ungrounded in space, much like Birds Holding World, Moon. Yet because the Earth is captured alone in the ATS-3 photograph, the result is a sense of alienation. The camera provides a totalizing view, offering command over the terrain and rendering the globe as an object available for possession.[iii] The objectification of the planet reinforces an understanding of the physical world as a system of divisible and quantifiable resources available for consumption. The photograph implies a false sense of wholeness; the image cannot register the intricacy of intertwined life, and actively divorces the visual representation of the Earth from the distinct experience of living upon it.[iv]
The contrast I am drawing between images has powerful political effects, notably shaping how we understand the ethical responsibilities related to global climate change. The many dimensions of climate change are dramatically altering the Arctic that Manumie calls home. The plethora of celestial imagery in the 1968 NASA book “Exploring Space with a Camera,” compiled and edited by NASA engineer Edgar M. Cortright, features many close-up and composite images of the planet and its neighboring Moon, annotated with grids, points of interest, and text.[v] This publication of outer space photos marks an important development in global mapping techniques that rely on the union of satellites and photography. Since its inception, satellite imagery of the whole Earth has been used to analyze, assess, and register the physical changes wrought by global climate change. While helpful in visualizing change, satellite images that seek to record ecological shifts are subject to the limitations of technical monitoring. The “before” and “after” comparison images tend to mask climate complexity as it is directly and unevenly experienced by humans, animals, plants, waters, and lands.
Positioned within the Arctic, on the frontlines of climate change, Manumie’s drawing assumes an added political urgency. As melting ice and warming temperatures make Arctic lands and waters more accessible, new sources of fossil fuels are exposed. The geopolitical wars for petroleum and gas are waged in boardrooms and on Arctic seas, yet the toxicity issues created by these operations will most immediately affect Inuit in proximity to such activities. Changes in climate transform lands and waters, destabilizing plant and animal populations. Inuit knowledge, however, is resilient—able to bend and flex but not break.[vi] Settler-colonialism has shaped Inuit lifeways but has not eliminated Inuit narratives, beliefs, and practices. As detailed above, IQ contrasts with a problematic view of the planet as a singular, isolated object, packed with raw materials capable of being abstracted into sellable resources. In Birds Holding World, Moon, Manumie offers a visual and intellectual alternative to the very system responsible for generating climate change.
In an article titled “Imagine That: What the Warming World Needs Now is Art, Sweet Art,” environmental author Bill McKibben notes that 1960s NASA photographs of earth from outer space are “already… not the world we inhabit; its poles are melting, its oceans rising. We can register what is happening with satellites and scientific instruments, but can we register it in our imaginations, the most sensitive of all our devices?”[vii] Pulling from McKibben’s final question, I propose that Birds Holding World, Moon encourages the engagement not of passive viewers but of active thinkers, as the drawing invites imagination of the many interconnected relationships that compose life. Rather than precisely mapping and measuring the continents and waters to prepare their contents for sale on global markets, Manumie’s world entails interconnectivity and mutual respect. By invoking tactility as well as visual stimulation, Birds Holding World, Moon urges an intimate interaction with the Earth, yet also accentuates the multiple, global links that keep life operating. The drawing, unlike satellite imagery of the whole Earth, suggests that nothing exists in isolation. Birds Holding World, Moon stresses that all entities are connected through relational bonds that deserve awareness and respect.
[i] See Edgar M. Cortright, Exploring Space with a Camera (Washington, D.C.: Scientific and Technical Information Division: National Aeronautics and Space Administration, 1968).
[ii] Ibid., 3.
[iii] Yates McKee, “Art and the Ends of Environmentalism: From Biosphere to the Right to Survival,” in Nongovernmental Politics, ed. Michel Feher (New York: Zone Books, 2007), 550.
[iv] James Nisbet, Ecologies, Environments, and Energy Systems in Art of the 1960s and 1970s (Cambridge: The MIT Press, 2014), 80.
[v] Cortright, Exploring Space with a Camera, ii.
[vi] Igloliorte, “The Inuit of Our Imagination,” 44–45.
[vii] Bill McKibben, “What the Warming World Needs Now Is Art, Sweet Art,” Grist, April 22, 2015, https://grist.org/article/mckibben-imagine/.
By Ansgar Walk (Own work)
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