REVIEW: The Power Family Program for Inuit Art: Tillirnanngittuq

A wise man once said, “Water Tribe” as he proudly flicked his wrists in a dramatic exit following his younger sister. This wise man was a young man named Sokka, from the Avatar: the Last Airbender. Now I know what you’re thinking — I promise, I’ll get to the actual exhibition in a second — what do fictional animated characters like Sokka and Katara and the “Water Tribe” have to do with Inuit art?

Before I answer this seemingly pointless question, let’s talk about the Tillirnanngittuq exhibition! First, a quote from the UMMA website:

Tillirnanngittuq, pronounced “tid-ee-nang-ee-took,” means ‘unexpected’ in the Inuktitut language. Mame Jackson, curator for this exhibition explains: “Tillirnanngittuq refers to the astonishing outpouring of Inuit art since the 1950s—a truly amazing story! Neither the Inuit artists nor those who worked with them in the early years could have foreseen the worldwide acclaim Inuit art would achieve.”


The Power Family Program for Inuit Art: Tillirnanngittuq exhibition showcases 58 works of art from the collection of Philip and Kathy Power. Most of these works are from the 1950s and 60s—the earliest years in the development of carvings and prints by the Inuit of the Canadian Arctic. The entire Power Collection of Inuit Art, gifted to UMMA in 2018, includes more than 200 sculptures and prints.

Visitors will discover innovative stonecut and stencil prints, and exquisite stone, bone, and ivory sculptures of arctic animals based on the artists’ life experience as traditional hunters, attentive in their observation and understanding of the animals in their environment. Slightly abstracted, this art possesses great character and vitality, elegance of line and form. The artists illustrate not only reality from nature such as how polar animals move, but also inventive design choices as they multiply, overlap, and interweave natural forms.

I felt very honored and privileged to witness the beauty of Inuit art, learning about their cultural history through their carved ivory and stone, their etched drawings, and their deceptively “simple” prints. The guided tour and mini history lessons provided commentary and contextualized each piece, talking about the Inuit peoples’ works of art catering to a more globalized economy.

Among the intriguing Inuit things I’ve learned at the gallery, I learned their value of family, some of their past day-to-day practices and customs, such as the importance of sharing stories with one another and their deep connection with nature, coexisting and living together in harmony, and I learned that in times of industrialization, the Inuit have had to switch business practices, as their usual nomadic lifestyle and hunting methods were no longer sustainable in the fast-paced, industrialized world. According to the art historian and curator, one of the things the Inuit turned to as a solution, was their art.

Now, back to my original question: what do fictional animated characters like Sokka and Katara and the “Water Tribe” have to do with Inuit art?

For me, they have everything to do with it.

As a child, I was completely unaware of indigenous peoples and their cultures, with the exception of some minor obligatory history lessons in high school. I’ll admit, I was probably a bit luckier than others in my younger days, because my Michigan elementary school field trips often considered Native American history and culture, where my classmates and I were each given tiny stone arrowheads and cute little pamphlets to take home and share with our families. It was never anything I took seriously, I took everything for granted in my childhood. But then, I started watching Avatar: the Last Airbender.

Now, forgive me for fangirl-ing, but this kids’ animated TV show continues to exist as an absolutely incredible, sophisticated, enlightening, and alarmingly impactful story to me! I’ll spare you the excruciating details, but it handles the multifaceted ideas of ethnicity and indigenous peoples, in tandem with the benefits and drawbacks of colonization and industrialization, discussing crucial topics related to the environment, spirituality, morality, and pacifism in times of war and hardship. It’s definitely a timeless classic for my generation, and for little kid me, it was a pretty big game-changer, without me even realizing it.

Now, as a (somewhat) full-fledged adult, I’m aggressively cognizant of anything to do with marginalized ethnic groups, the “colonizers” and the “colonized,” and basically anything to do with that often rocky relationship. It’s important to understand that these people exist, and representation in this day and age is unbelievably crucial to raise awareness and bring our attention to their history and culture.

Avatar: the Last Airbender might have used the world of fiction to send positive and powerful messages, but the creators themselves admitted to drawing inspiration from the Inuit for the Water Tribe people. As a child, being exposed to people who looked Inuit, even if they were calling themselves “Water Tribe” in the show, ultimately had a lasting effect on me. To be completely honest, I was excited to see the Tillirnanngittuq exhibition partly because of my fondness for the “Water Tribe.” That somehow, what I saw in the exhibition was related to my childhood fascination with the Avatar world and the four nations, particularly the “Water Tribe” and their arctic homes. And I think this just goes to show, the younger and more impressionable audiences, need to be exposed to different cultures and people. It’s extremely important, not only for the sake of diversity but for everyone to understand that the world doesn’t revolve around a singular group of people.

My history classes, K-12 and now at U-M, has taught me that the way history is shaped, the “world” really feels American and Euro-centric. I massively appreciate the Tillirnanngittuq exhibition at the UMMA because it is an opportunity not just to appreciate Inuit art, but ultimately to learn about Inuit history and culture in a society that has long disregarded and erased the cultural histories of these indigenous peoples.

Did I use this post as an excuse to fangirl about Avatar: the Last Airbender? Maybe. Did I use this post to rant about post-colonialism and the importance of racial/ethnic diversity representation in media? I sure hope so. Did I learn anything about the actual Inuit people in writing about the Tillirnanngittuq exhibition itself? Definitely. And am I about to tell you to go see the Tillirnanngittuq exhibition while it’s still at the UMMA? Absolutely.

The Tillirnanngittuq exhibition will be there until October 6, 2019. I hope that everyone will make the effort to go see the beautiful and inspiring Inuit art and learn about their history and culture. I hope that instead of focusing on traditional European paintings and Asian Buddhist statues, everyone will take a look at Inuit ivory and stone carvings, etchings, and prints and walk away knowing that there are so many marginalized groups out there that deserve recognition, representation, and most importantly, respect.

REVIEW: Sexual and Gender-Based Misconduct Awareness and Prevention in the Performing Arts

Immediately following a panel discussion on sexual and gender-based misconduct awareness and prevention in the performing arts, Strength & Sensitivity and Carla Dirlikov Canales of The Canales Project presented a truly fascinating performance.


Strength and Sensitivity is “a multimedia concert experience that blends contemporary music, poetry readings, and audience interaction to catalyze dialogue on themes of gender Dynamics, intersectional feminism, and empathy,” and their performance expounded on the themes discussed during the panel. One of the most thought-provoking works was Improvisation by Colleen Bernstein on piano. As she relayed to the audience, in the aftermath of one of the Michigan Daily articles concerning sexual misconduct and people associated with the School of Music, Theatre & Dance, Colleen Bernstein sat down at the piano, opened a voice memo on her phone, and improvised at the piano to try to make sense of what she was feeling. This recording was played through the sound system in Hankinson Rehearsal Hall on Tuesday night. For the duration of Improvisation, interactive questions appeared on a screen behind the stage, and audience members could text responses to a given number. Question included “What does this community need to do to make progress towards gender equality?” and “Describe how you feel right now in one word.” As I sat and watched the responses fill the screen, changing in size according to how many people had submitted that same word, I could hear hope, grief, and a sense of tranquility permeating the music. I especially appreciated that even the performance was continuing the dialogue that had been started.


The second part of the performance was presented by Carla Dirlikov Canales of The Canales Project. An SMTD graduate and acclaimed opera singer, Ms. Canales started Hear Her Song as an initiative that honors “distinguished women leaders through new songs inspired by their words, written by leading female songwriters and composers.” The project has commissioned over 40 songs to date. Ms. Canales’s performance was, without question, my favorite of the evening. My only disappointment was that due to time constraints, she was able to perform only three of the five programmed songs (how I would have loved to hear “This is What” in honor of Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, or “What Greatness is Possible” for Jennie Boelkens!). She sang “Foster Love,” a song honoring Lynn Price, who has dedicated her life to reuniting siblings separated by foster care, and “Mercy,” honoring Sister Marilyn Lacey, founder of Mercy Beyond Borders. She then closed with the organization’s theme song, “Hear Our Song” by Katie Pfaffl. Although the audience at that point had dwindled to only about 30 people, the energy was palpable as Ms. Canales’s voice soared to the hummable, empowering anthem. In fact, she will perform that song later this month at the United Nations in celebration of International Women’s Day, which is March 8. It was an uplifting conclusion to an evening of hard conversation.


Tuesday’s performance on the theme “Sexual and Gender-Based Misconduct Awareness and Prevention in the Performing Arts” has given me hope that together, we can address the issues that need to be addressed.

REVIEW: Pioneers: First Women Filmmakers

Despite the passing of decades, our sense of humor has not changed so much since the silent film era. The fundamentals of what elicits laughter have stayed the same despite social, economical, and cultural change. The exaggerated facial expressions and body movements that are characteristic of silent film, theater, and modern movies and television work as well then as they do now. While the lack of sound is much of what necessitates the overacting, the introduction of audio later on did not make this style obsolete.

The six films presented Tuesday evening were a good mix of lighthearted comedy, poignant drama, and exciting action. While the ones that leaned heavily toward the comedy side (Mixed Pets, Mabel’s Blunder, That Ice Ticket) were at times a bit lacking in greater substance, they were well balanced by the others, forming a cohesive set of films.

I found A Fool and His Money somewhat problematic. Though it broke new ground in being the first film to feature an all-Black cast, in some aspects the characters were caricaturish. Also, though created by a woman (Alice Guy Blanche), the female lead was made out to be a flighty gold-digger with no additional substance.

Behind the scenes: the filming of A Fool and His Money (1912)

Perhaps it is due to my romanticization of the wild, wild west (despite my having never been to the western half of the United States, save for California) that my favorite of the bunch was A Daughter of ‘The Law’, made by Grace Cunard. It featured a smart, charming police chief with a plan to bust a ring of whiskey makers (as Prohibition was in effect at the time) living in a remote mountain community. Disguising herself as a wandering artist, she snoops around for clues. She uncovers the group of troublemakers, but in the process she falls in love with their leader! After her true identity is discovered, the townspeople set out to kill her, but her beau proves to be handy as a getaway driver. She doesn’t report him, and he sees the error of his ways, and leaves behind his life of crime. Though the themes of male saviorism and putting romance ahead of all else (here, major career success) are a little unsavory, the fact that the ex-whiskeyman is influenced by a strong female lead still places the movie ahead of its time.

Image result for grace cunard a daughter of the law

And of course, the show would not have been possible without our resident organist Andrew Rogers accompanying the films. For about two hours straight he played, creating the mood of each scene, adding drama, suspense, surprise. His timing remained impeccable, a crescendo growing just as the peak of the action hit, a cheerful staccato bouncing as a comedic scene arose. Rogers absolutely made the night!

If you are interested in seeing more features of women filmmakers, check out the lineup at the State Theater. On Tuesdays in March, they will be screening a great movie made by a female visionary. The schedule is posted at Don’t miss it!

REVIEW: she was here, once

Monday night the Institute for Research on Women and Gender welcomed Nastassja Swift and her exhibit she was here, once as part of their Narrating Black Girls’ Lives Conference series. Over three days they hosted speakers and other events, including a wool art workshop, focusing on the stories of Black women’s lives. The opening of the she was here, once exhibit took place in the Lane Hall entrance, utilizing the space as an unconventional gallery. The exhibit was not large, it featured a half dozen photos down two hallways, short films looping on two screens, and three large masks hanging above our heads. The exhibit opening was small; everyone who was there knew someone there and was clearly comfortable in the space.
This art exhibit is based on a performance art piece. The performance was a journey of three and a half miles for eight African women in Richmond, Virginia. These women traveled from the port on the James river, past the old auction blocks, and finally into a majority Black neighborhood. Throughout their journey, the women, ranging in age from teen-aged to mid-40s, stopped along the way to dance and sing. Swift was inspired to create this piece after learning about the historical significance of the city she had spent so much time in.
I looked at the photographs first. I was struck by the last four photos I looked at (below) featuring some of the performers without their masks on, one of the few chances to see their faces. The photographs featured such raw, beautiful emotion and their placement in a quadrant of four panels made it even more striking. Next, I took in the masks. The performers wore larger-than-life, white, wool masks for the majority of their journey. Three of these masks were featured in the exhibit hanging above us as almost caricatures of stereotypical African features. Finally, I watched the two short films documenting the performance art piece and the creative process. As I moved throughout the space the sound of the women singing in the videos was omnipresent, creating an ambiance in the space and a moving experience.

REVIEW: The Exonerated

The American criminal justice system is not perfect. Far from it. In fact, you can even say that the American criminal justice system is not just. The Exonerated tells the story of six wrongfully convicted people on death row using first-hand accounts, as well as court transcripts, letters, and interviews.

We meet Kerry Max Cook, Gary Gauger, Robert Earl Hayes, Sunny Jacobs, David Keaton, and Delbert Tibbs. They start by telling us about their lives, about how things were before their lives changed forever. They take turns sitting in the spotlight and introducing themselves and the nature of the crimes they were accused of, with occasional and brief flashbacks acted out. They narrate what led up to it, about how they weren’t even close to the scene of the crime, yet they were accused and arrested and berated by police officers. They were all convenient victims as suspects for these crimes, tricked into confessing and easily disposable.

Their harrowing experiences in prison, waiting for death row, was painful to hear. Listening to Cook’s account about how his imprisonment affected his older brother particularly stung, reminding us that these people, who aren’t even criminals, are still people, with families and feelings and a life outside of the prison walls even if we forget that. Sunny Jacobs’s gentle and innocent personality especially reminds us of their humanity, something that the justice system robbed them of but they managed to keep, even after the injustices they suffered. Eventually, they tell us how they were exonerated, but only after they paid the price with many years lost and many losses suffered.

Andrew Cekala’s portrayal as Kerry, the fast-talking Texan, was very amicable and easygoing, just as Maddie Eaton gave Sunny a bright and sunny personality. Similarly, Jacob Smith as Gary, Chris Washington as David, and Lee Alexander as Robert all made their characters warm and distinct. Delbert Tibbs, portrayed by Mason Reeves, acted as a powerful narrator and common thread among all the stories, listening to Sunny’s account of her strength at the very end. The entire cast delivered a moving performance through all the nuances of their characters and their situations.

All the characters remained onstage the entire play, sitting in their chairs on the side while listening intensely to the person in the spotlight whose story is being told. The simplicity of the set, with nothing more than a couple boxes and plenty of chairs, let us focus on the stories they were telling. The movement was also simple, the characters moving their chairs and shifting positions throughout the play, sometimes accompanied by the cast’s quiet yet powerful humming. The sound of the gentle rain and the shifting colors of the background gave a sense of growing uneasiness and eerie calmness at the same time.

The stories of these wrongful convictions shows how the justice system fails its people, and it touches on race and the death penalty and how we need to rethink such things. This play is extremely thought-provoking and important to watch and even more important to remember. SMTD’s production of this documentary play reminds us how relevant and timeless this work is. Though the sentences in the play took place during the 20th century, there are plenty of people still waiting to be exonerated today, and we walk away from this play with those people in mind.

REVIEW: Arab Xpressions

The theme for Arab Xpressions this year was “ajyal” which means generations in Arabic. This theme was represented well in the show presented by the Arab Student Association and wider Arab community. While last year’s show was very outwardly political, this show was more subtle and nuanced. From the fashion show to the five dabke troupes we were shown the progression of Arab culture as something that is vibrant and alive, not stagnant. The fashion show was a magnificent representation of this range with some eighty Arab students displaying both old fashioned and modern representations of Arab fashion, from traditional thobes to artfully draped kuffiyehs. The dabke dance troupes showed a similar progression with more traditional dance and costumes to the more modern representations.
A friend of mine danced with one of the co-ed troupes representing modern dabke, dancing in track suits to songs by popular artists like Nancy Ajram; I caught up with her to see what the experience was like for student performers. Maya Chamra is a sophomore in LSA who identifies as Lebanese and Syrian. We talked a little bit about what it meant for her to be performing at Arab Xpressions with a crowd full of friends and family. Maya expressed how special it was for her to connect with a dance so important to her culture and the pride she felt. After watching the show last year from the audience, Maya felt the the need to be more involved with the Arab community on campus so she joined her dabke troupe this last October and had been practicing ever since. One aspect of Arab Xpressions that Maya and I discussed is its role in uniting the Arab community on campus. Maya herself is not particularly active in the larger Arab Student Union but connects with her community through dabke. She perceived this to be a common occurrence for many of her fellow Arab-identifying students participating in the show. Arab Xpressions is always a wonderful way for the University to come together and show support for the Arab student community. The night is always full of laughter, cheers, and often a few tears and Arab Xpressions 2019 was no exception.

Image courtesy of the Arab Xpressions Facebook event page.