Great Northern Arts Festival celebrates 25 years

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The most prolific arts festival in the North turns a milestone this week as it blows out the candles on its 25th birthday cake.

The Great Northern Arts Festival (GNAF) kicked off its annual 10-day celebration of Inuit, Inuvialuit, Gwich’in, Dene, Métis as well as many non-Aboriginal artists and artisans on Friday in the decked-out community hall at the Midnight Sun Complex in Inuvik.

Drumming groups from Inuvik and Fort Good Hope ushered in the opening ceremonies with steady beats and dancing.

Due to extremely high winds last week, which washed out ferry transportation along the Dempster, the Aklavik drumming group was unable to join the festivities.

Following the drumming performances, the Fort Good Hope group ceremonially drummed the festival’s iconic whalebone, the “symbol representing the gallery and spirit of sharing,” said Marnie Hilash, GNAF’s executive director.

The drummers then led the audience out of the community hall and into the curling rink where the gallery is set up, featuring work from over 50 artists from across the NWT, Yukon and Nunavut.

The whalebone was placed on its stand and Charlene Alexander and Sue Rose, who founded GNAF in 1989, declared the festival officially open.

“It’s an amazing achievement to have this continuity in a festival, especially with so many changes in the North since it began,” Hilash said. “It was started just as an effort to do something more for Northern artists and it expanded infinitely because of the type of funding that was available if they made it a bigger event.”

Standout events during the festival include a traditional Inuit Northern games demonstration, an “old tyme” dance and jigging contest with James Rogers and the Delta Goodtimes Band on Friday, and an Arctic fashion show on Saturday.

Throughout the week, dozens of workshops with Northern artists will also be held, including beginner’s printmaking, sealskin mitt making, soapstone carving, drop spinning and jewellery making, among others.

Hilash said she especially looks forward to Inuk throat singer Tanya Tagaq’s performance on the evening of July 16.

“I was there for her very first appearance at GNAF, which was kind of like her debut and part of the way she was discovered,” Hilash said. “It was an open jam session and it was just electrifying, one of the most amazing things I’ve ever seen. I’m hoping some of that magic is there again and I’m sure it will be.”

As a solo artist originally from Cambridge Bay, Tagaq has released two critically-acclaimed albums with her band Sinaa and Auk/Blood. Both were nominated for Juno Awards – Best Aboriginal Recording and Best Instrumental Recording.

The energy that wafts through the gallery during the 10 days is invigorating, Hilash said.

“You can feel it. There is so much to learn and so many people to meet. Your tongue gets sore from talking.”

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