What Arctic Char Means to Inuit Nunangat
Inuit Art Foundation | November 15, 2021
Exploring the Global Affairs Canada Visual Art Collection
There is something grounding about being close to your food soon after harvest, especially in a world where our food has likely travelled many miles and changed hands many times before arriving at our kitchens. To process our food is to engage in a means of transformation, one in which a living being becomes a sustainer of life.
This proximity to sustenance and food systems is illustrated in glorious black and white in Nain Arctic Char 3 (2019) by Jennie Williams of Nain, Nunatsiavut, NL. The third in a photography series representing the harvesting, processing and eating of char, Williams offers us a glimpse into the tender affair that is filleting and cleaning a fresh catch of fish. A sharp knife slides deftly under the skin, cutting through flesh as though it were butter. We as the viewer are shown nothing of the one preparing the fish and are left to imagine them as possibly a parent, aunt or uncle who we observe closely at eye level.
The intimacy of the shot captures only a fleeting moment in the life of this one fish, and it is likely one of many more that would have been cleaned and prepared the day this image was taken. The flesh of the fish will soon be cut into sections on the skin and then hung and dried into a delicious treat that can be peeled or eaten directly off the skin. The next photo in the series, Nain Arctic Char 4 (2019), illustrates this for us, as a little girl eagerly bites into her portion of the delicious dried char, representing the very final act in the story of a catch.
While Inuit art famously depicts hunting, fishing and harvesting practices, Williams employs her medium of photography to capture this way of life and sustenance in real time. Food represents a cultural cornerstone for Inuit across Inuit Nunangat, with much of the traditional year revolving around what foods can be harvested and when. Food sharing also represents the foundation of family and community gathering, with most social events taking place over a meal—often a meal that comes directly from the land and sea.
This series is a reflection of continuity. Not only do these images represent the cycle of harvest, preparation and eating, but they represent a relationship to fish that has existed for millennia and continues into this day. The harvest and drying of char has continued well into the present, even through a year as challenging and unpredictable as 2020, during which many activities had to come to a standstill. For years to come, char will still come to Nain, and families will continue to catch them and feed them to their community and children, who will eagerly eat the dried cubes of flesh right from the skin.
—Emily Laurent Henderson is a Kalaaleq (Greenlandic) and settler writer and arts administrator based in Toronto, ON. Her work also encompasses grassroots community programming in food sovereignty and advocacy for Indigenous safety and well-being.