Quniqjuk, Qunbuq, Quabaa
Quniqjuk: indistinct horizon, hazy
Qunbuq: brightness on horizon indicating presence of ice on ocean
Quabaa: split things that are frozen together
Surround yourself with snow and a horizon, and I think most of us would shrug our shoulders and trot off—to where, I’m not sure. One of my favourite anecdotes is from the author and traveller Bruce Chatwin, who, in the early stages of his career as an art appraiser of Impressionist paintings at Sotheby’s in London, suddenly found himself half-blind. When Chatwin’s world went unexpectedly dark, his doctor prescribed the best medicine, in one simple word—horizon.
In the Inuit language, there is a word, “quniqjuk,” that means “indistinct, hazy horizon.” Zacharias Kunuk, standing in the snow amid just such a horizon, says in his soft-spoken yet blunt way that “the Inuit are the only people to go from the Stone Age to the digital age in a single generation.”
What happens in one generation? What happens when “The System,” as Kunuk calls it, makes its appearance at the proverbial ice edge? A once seminomadic tribe is now subsumed by the light of the global future—cell phones, televisions, iPads—as my subjects are here. This new digital light has come to replace the ageless light of the seal-oil lamps by which the American filmmaker Robert J. Flaherty took photographs of the Inuit in the 1920s.
What is this new Inuit reality? “Qunbuq” means “the brightness on the horizon that indicates the presence of ice on the ocean.” The ice means the possible presence of life between the frozen land and the open, dangerous sea. It is the reality.
No one knows how many words the Inuit have for snow—some say more than 300. These isolated, once itinerant people also have 25 words for travel, including travel with no real goal in mind, where one seeks “to split, separate, loosen things frozen or otherwise fused together.” The word for this is “quabaa.” It is another reality.
* This work was commissioned by Canadian Art for “Ideas North,” Fall 2011.
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Carbon 14: Climate is Culture, at the Royal Ontario Museum, Toronto, October 19, 2013 – February 2, 2014.