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Laakkuluk Williamson Bathory finds the light in performance

Laakkuluk Williamson Bathory's given name was preordained and, it should come as no surprise, it embodies artistry.

Greenlandic mask dancing has been "a very big part of my life from early on," says Laakkuluk Williamson Bathory. The Iqaluit multi-disciplinary artist – the first Kenojuak Ashevak Memorial Award winner – is planning a collaborative project that will incorporate light into on-stage performance using modern technology.
Vincent Desrosiers photo

Laakkuluk was plucked from a lullaby. Her Greenlandic mother was six months pregnant when she got married Williamson Bathory's father in Greenland. He was English but fluent in Inuktitut, and didn't know the words to the Greenlandic speeches, songs and poetry recited during their wedding ceremony.

"He decided to sing that lullaby at (their) wedding... everybody loved the song so much that at their wedding reception they decided to name me Laakkuluk, whether I was a boy or a girl," Williamson Bathory says, laughing with delight as she recounts the story. "A lot of older Inuit sing my lullaby song to me when they see me."

Williamson Bathory was born and raised in Saskatoon – an "unlikely place for such a strong Greenlandic family," she acknowledges.

Her mother and another Greenlander taught her how to mask dance at age 13.

"That's been a very big part of my life from early on," she says of the art, which involves a base of black face paint, embellished expressions and elaborate movements, sometimes well within others' "personal space."

In university, Williamson Bathory took courses like cultural psychiatry and political science but she continued to exhibit her creative flair through writing and performance arts. While students, she and her spouse, who's from Calgary, agreed that moving to the Arctic was in their plans. They made that a reality in 2005.

"It's an important part of who I am to be able to work with Inuit and for Inuit," she says. "In Iqaluit, we have a lot of very good friends who have been involved in the arts for a very long time."

The 38-year-old uses her art as an outlet to express her feminism.

"We live in a society that, through both its colonization and through patriarchy, it's doing an awful lot to silence and diminish women's power. I know that so much healing and so much reciprocity exists in allowing feminists to come to the forefront," she says.

Promoting Inuit culture, individually and collectively, is another of her objectives.

"Even though we have such a strong, united culture and language, (we) are able to express ourselves as individuals. It's a very big part of who we are as Inuit, she says. "Our culture is big on allowing individual spirits to shine, and I love that."

Williamson Bathory is able to convey her artistry via a multitude of media and talents: writing, dancing, music, acting and curating the art of others.

"To be versatile, to be able to do these different things, means that you've got ways of thinking that are fresh and rejuvenating for each realm," she says.

Her accomplishments in those various disciplines led to her being selected as the winner of the first Kenojuak Ashevak Memorial Award in June.

Although Williamson Bathory values individual expression, she still thrives on collaboration. The $10,000 prize that accompanies the award will be used for an improvisational group project that incorporates light via modern technology.

"We'll figure out how to draw light around performance – the colour, the shapes – with basically a stylus and an iPad. (It's) not so much as an enhancement to what happens on stage in our performance, because there's so much happening already, but as a complement," she explains.

The reaction to that future presentation may leave an indelible mark on spectators, as it might with Williamson Bathory. Performance artistry can bring magical moments, a special connection with audience members. Williamson Bathory recalls one such instance last year during the inaugural run of a play that she co-wrote: Kiinalik. There were some young boys from Cape Dorset among the audience members and they were clearly intimidated by her Greenlandic mask dancing, she says.

"As I approached them, you could see them writhing in their seats," she recalls.

But she was able to quickly transform their fear into comfort through humour.

"It's like in that one moment of being completely petrified they switched over to having all of this jocular confidence... it was incredible," she says.