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Barbara Akoak

Barbara Akoak

Jeweler, Visual and Performing Artist (Iqaluit, NU)

My name is Barbara Akoak, I am a visual and performing artist based out of Iqaluit, Nunavut. Originally from the Kitikmeot Region, I embrace having an Inuinnaq and Netsilik background while living in the Qikiqtaaluk Region. I received my diploma in Jewellery and Metalwork at Nunavut Arctic College in 2015. I am also a single parent and when I entered college, my daughter was only 6 months old. This felt like such an accomplishment!

My business is mainly goldsmithing. I ensure that most, if not all, of my material are eco-friendly and biodegradable. I mostly work with semi-precious metals, precious metals, whale baleen, ivory from narwhals and walruses, soapstone, muskox horn, caribou antler, bones, sealskins, semi-precious and precious stones. I use my strong belief in protecting the Earth and all life in my work and use motifs that honour the seals and other animals. I love breaking the notion that our eco-zone and the tundra is lifeless.

My work right now is mostly feminine. To me, it is hard to cater to Inuit men because I don’t really know what they like or prefer. Most men still practice not breaking taboos where they cannot talk to other women who are not their wife or girlfriend. Often, they don’t look at me when they walk into the studio or a craft sale. We still live life like our ancestors did, but it is changing. I don’t feel a sense of oppression or disrespect when a person carries out practices from our ancestors, but I do know each generation is different and the world is changing.

What I have learned about the art world is that there are short-cuts and then there are no short-cuts. The visual arts are very much a live and learn experience. I have also noted that through globalization, similarities in art and products among Inuit creates conflict with intellectual property. Our rights as artists under copyright are almost cancelled out in a small global community where your name can quickly tarnish if you do not reciprocate respect of other’s work and the similarities.

If I were to give any advice I would paraphrase advice I got from the late Tim Pitseolak and say, keep creating what you love, no one can tell you it’s wrong because it’s your art. I would also add, make sure you keep your environment creative, find people you enjoy being around, and just have lots of fun! It does not feel like any work when you’re making something from your mind into something tangible.

What I enjoy about using social media to promote my work is having people post selfies of themselves with my work and using my hashtag #inukbarbiedesigns! I also enjoy seeing published news articles of people wearing my work. I am filled with gratitude when I see other’s happy using my work!

I must create my work holistically, I can’t do it any other way. If I’m not putting good energy in my work, what am I doing? I believe abstaining from alcohol makes my work worth much more, not that I am trying to self-eulogize nor am I defaming other’s and their lifestyles. Through practicing sobriety, naturally I am connecting with others and myself. Although I don’t have any addictions, I understand it is a widespread problem traced back to colonialism. Much like traditional amulets that our ancestors used, I like my work to hold lots of positive energy because it can end up healing and protecting the person wearing it.

Now that #decolonization is a hot-button-topic in the indigenous realm worldwide, it is important to me to practice healing. We are holistic beings. It’s not that I’m begging social media for a reaction but it gives me strength knowing I’m not the only one needing healing. Being Inuk is not Pan-Indian. I enjoy other nations recognizing me as Inuk and appreciating my stories and traditions that I carry with being from the Kitikmeot Region while living in the Qikiqtaaluk Region.

The struggles I find in this industry is having to confront people with grace when I feel they are about to exploit me. People and organizations always want to undercut my prices and work. I use my visual arts as an extension of my voice to speak about colonialism, oppression, and taking back our voice as Inuit. No one can define what being an Inuk means, I determine what it means. It’s one thing to create lovely pieces but it’s a big “screw you” to list my human rights on a description box at an exhibition next to my art!