After Tanya Tagaq’s appearance with Nanook of the North at the 2015 Fusebox Festival in Austin, I heard from a couple people that it was the sleeper hit of the festival, the piece most people went in to not knowing what to expect and left wowed by. So I was excited to get the opportunity to see it as part of Under the Radar 2016. (It’s worth noting the piece has been performed in New York previously, most recently, I believe, as part of the opening fall 2015 season of National Sawdust.) And indeed, it was surprising and moving and, I think, disturbing in some brilliant ways.
There’s a lot to unpack in the piece, but to begin with, a simple explanation of what to expect. Nanook of the North is an iconic documentary, filmed in 1920-1921 in Northern Quebec by an American named Robert J. Flaherty, following an Inuit family led by a noted hunter, the titular Nanook. Celebrated on its release in 1922, the film earned Flaherty a reputation as the “father of ethnographic film,” and it became, if not the first feature-length documentary, then the first commercially successful documentary, a template followed over subsequent decades by individuals operating in what is known as “salvage ethnography,” essentially an effort to document—primarily through film but also other means—so-called “primitive” tribes and cultures who were increasingly being exposed to elements of modernity, and therefore having their long-time ways radically altered.
While this particular ethnographic impulse has been subject to all matter of criticism over the past several decades (due primarily to its inherently colonialist enterprise), Nanook of the North has been subject to a series of very specific criticisms. For one thing, parts of it were staged, most notably its most iconic and parodied scene, in which Nanook, being shown a phonograph at a trading post, bites the record in an attempt to understand how it works. (In reality, Nanook—whose real name was Allakariallak—was already familiar with phonographs.) Also, Nanook’s wife wasn’t actually his wife, and in the famous walrus hunt scene, they used spears rather than the already typical guns (an admittedly recently introduced tool) at Flaherty’s request.
So Nanook of the North is today recognized as a problematic document. While many have defended Flaherty’s impulse, and contrasted the resultant film and its heroic depiction positively against racist stereotypes of the era, it is also, without a doubt, a document of a white American looking at another culture, and a conscious staging, not of the “authentic Other” but rather of the filmmaker’s own psycho-social construction of who that Other is.
Which brings us to Tagaq. An Inuk artist raised in Cambridge Bay in far northern Canada, Tagaq began exploring traditional Inuit throat singing while studying art in Halifax. After her performances began receiving notice along with her visual art, she wound up receiving an invitation to join Bjork on tour in 2004, which gained her substantial exposure. Since then she’s released four albums blending throat singing with contemporary electronic forms and even, occasionally, hip hop (I particularly dig “Fire – Ikuma,” a collaboration with Faith No More’s Mike Patton).
Tanya Tagaq’s performance of Nanook of the North began in 2012 as a commissioned presentation of the Toronto International Film Festival’s retrospective “First Peoples Cinema: 1500 Nations, One Tradition.” A collaboration with composer Derek Charke, percussionist Jean Martin, and violinist Jesse Zubot, Tagaq’s piece is, essentially, an original and counterpointing musical score performed opposite an end-to-end screening of the silent film. Continue reading