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Donald Weber: Quniqjuk, Qunbuq, Quabaa

Middle spread for “Quniqjuk, Qunbuq, Quabaa” by Donald Weber, Canadian Art, Fall 2011, pp 136–43 / photo Donald Weber

In April 2011, Donald Weber joined novelist Timothy Taylor on a trip to Iglooik to visit with acclaimed filmmaker Zacharias Kunuk. While there, Taylor gathered material for his fall-issue feature on the Cannes-celebrated director and Weber created a compelling artist project to run with it. Inspired by the early 20th-century seal-oil lamp photography of Robert Flaherty (director of Nanook of the North) and by Kunuk’s observation that the North has gone “from the stone age to the digital age in a single generation,” Weber decided to create portraits of Iglooik residents as illuminated by their own mobile phones and other digital devices.

Weber writes in the magazine, “In the Arctic language, there is a word, quniqjuk, which means the indistinct horizon of the unknown future,” and he notes that these digital devices, in many ways, emit “the light of the global future.” He also explains that qunbuq means “the brightness on the horizon that indicates the presence of ice on an ocean,” and that quabaa means travel where you have no real goal in mind, where one seeks to “split things that are frozen together.” The result is the second major artist project Weber has created for the magazine—his first, Fall 2010’s Interrogations, recently won a Silver in Best Portrait Photography from the Art and Design Club of Canada.As Weber writes in the magazine:


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.

All portrait photos were taken at Ataguttaaluk High School, Igloolik, Nunavut, April 2011

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