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Tanya Tagaq at TBA

Tanya Tagaq, an Inuit throat singer, performed at the Portland Institute for Contemporary Art’s (PICA) Time Based Art (TBA) festival two months ago, in mid-September, with the heat of summer still lingering in the air outside Lincoln Hall.

I went because I’m interested in contemporary native artists whose work often contends with appropriation, misrepresentation and the false perception that contemporary native people are not art and culture makers. I was also drawn to this piece because PICA’s Performing Arts Program Director Erin Boberg Doughton has a great track record of bringing intriguing contemporary performances to Portland for TBA.

According to National Geographic, a traditional Inuit practice includes “a mixture of husky chanting and low growling, throat singing is a competition in which the first person to laugh, stop, or run out of breath loses.” Typically two women face each other, close enough to touch, and in the videos I’ve watched online, the women look like they are having fun.


At TBA, Tagaq stood barefoot on stage in the athletic stance of a modern dancer. She was flanked by drummer Jean Martin and violinist Jesse Zubot. Behind her hung an enormous blank movie screen. Her pre-show patter seemed casual, cordial, borderline sweet. She sounded like a teenager when she said “Thank you guys for coming!” but a premonition arrived; I thought of Kali, the Hindu deity who both creates and destroys.

In my recollection, Tagaq’s singing, the music (Derek Charke’s original film score), and film Nanook of the North all began at the same moment. Yet to me Tagaq seemed very much alone on stage, her solo voice an alternating soundtrack of protest and lamentation as well as pleasure and joy as the ice and snow-filled film played on the screen behind her.

Also known as Nanook of the North: A Story Of Life and Love In the Actual Arctic, the 1922 silent film directed by Robert J. Flaherty is controversial. Billed originally as a documentary about life for the Inuit in the Canadian Artic, it’s more accurately a docudrama (due to the many manipulated and staged scenes) and can be viewed as an example of colonialist exploitation.

“Nanook’s” real name was Allakariallak; the gun with which he normally used to hunt was replaced with traditional hunting and fishing techniques; a moment of “exposure” to a gramophone, where “Nanook” expresses childish delight, are


entirely fake.

Tagaq’s voice wrestled with these complexities as strenuously as the characters in the film contended with the arctic elements: fishing through a hole in the ice, hunting walruses, corralling sled dogs, building igloos with a large knife repeatedly licked to form a slick of ice to better cut through snow. The sounds Tagaq made seemed to come from deep within, and were only rarely recognizable as words, as during scenes with the gramophone, when in a guttural voice she repeated colonizer, colonizer, colonizer.

In his review of the performance for Willamette Week, critic Matthew Korfhage called Tagaq’s performance “a tidal version of what it is to be human, with the audience at an Oregon-style beach head—cold, unforgiving, rough, wracked by wind….” I agree with his impression, and also experienced Tagaq’s performance as much more internal—as an experience happening as deeply for her as much as it was experienced by the audience.

In this way her performance at TBA, and in other performances of hers I’ve since watched online, remind me of what it felt like to give birth to my sons— a primal mesh of forces: physicality, breath, anguish, exhilaration, exaltation— sexuality with purpose and drive, the sense that when it was all over, it in fact it had just begun.

Stay Backwords,

Mary Rechner


Mary is the author of the story collection Nine Simple Patterns for Complicated Women. New stories are forthcoming from Shebooks and the Gettysburg Review.

Video of Tanya Tagaq in Concert with

Nanook of the North :

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