Zorga Qaunaq

Northern Art in the National Capital Region: Zorga Qaunaq Explores Identity Through Art in the City

She left a good job for something better… believing in herself as an artist. Zorga Qaunaq is from Igloolik, Nunavut but moved to Ottawa as a child over twenty years ago. She is a full-time artist. For a decade she worked at Nunavut Sivuniksavut as an administrator and facilitator. She loved being around her people and helping them find their way but had no time for her art. She enjoys traditional hand poke tattooing, making earrings, block printing, drawing, and painting, and she’s also interested in writing and filmmaking. On the side, she’s looking to start a podcast.    

Her mother was a nurse who moved to Nunavut and married an Inuk man. They had four kids before splitting up. Her mom moved to Ottawa with three of the kids so they could receive a good academic education. While travelling to her home community is expensive, she got up to Iqaluit through an art project and she hopes to return more often in the future. 

For a long time, travel felt out of reach but she’s found that with her skills and abilities, it is possible. “There are barriers, especially if you're Indigenous, but there's also lots of doors there too. You just might need to work harder, but the opportunities are there,” Qauaq explains. 

Shifting to full-time artistry was scary financially but she planned to make it work. Counting down the days to quitting, she realized her fear of commitment. She did therapy, went on mental health leave for other reasons and was on medication to manage her blood pressure. 

"I don’t know where my money’s going to come from, but I can do whatever I want."

Instead of returning to work, she started her art career early. It was a hard decision because her job was good and the people were nice but she wanted to pursue her dreams. She’s still working out where she wants to put her efforts in some respects. She’s working with her brother on some projects because he carves and she works with fur. Qaunaq is also working with a business partner on a jewelry business and considering graphic products, too. 

Growing up, she went to an arts high school because her mom moved them into the catchment area. She took as many classes as she could and learned media arts, filmmaking, visual arts, dance, and theatre. From there, she went to the University of Ottawa for Indigenous Studies, hoping to become a lawyer or a professor and have a stable job that paid well. 

She didn’t think she could make a living as an artist or that she was talented enough. At the same time, she loved Indigenous studies classes, her classmates and classroom discussions. Completing assignments was hard and with family challenges, she struggled in school until she gave herself permission to quit. 

Resisting initially, she saw her education as a path to a secure, high-paying job but she already had one without her degree. She felt the degree was a statement about her worthiness and that turned out not to be true either. 

Illustration by Shaikara David

Without the pressure of school, she found time to make art.  The art she did initially was disconnected from her and seemed random but in time it improved with her connection to herself and her cultural identity. “As I learned more about myself, I felt like my art had a lot more meaning to it because I knew who I was,” she recalls.  

To manage her motivation, Qaunaq assesses herself and practices self-compassion, self-love and kindness. She accepts when she makes mistakes or doesn’t reach her goals and plans to breathe inspiration into her practice with biweekly art field trips and professional development. “Art is identity and connection. You don't just have to produce all the time to be an artist,” she reminds herself. Consuming and promoting the work of others are also artistic practices and she hypes herself up to keep going. 

When it comes to self-care, she tries to take time for her hair and nails, listening to audiobooks and journaling. When she stopped working as a lifeguard and wasn’t being evaluated for physical fitness, she let herself go. A blood pressure scare and a desire to prepare her body for motherhood helps her prioritize self-care. 

The more she takes care of herself, the better she feels so she keeps trying. When she’s out for walks, she finds clarity, particularly out by the water. Moving her body helps her move past self-imposed pressure and mental blocks holding her back. 

Thinking of her hopes for the future, Qaunaq can’t wait to get started on all she hopes to achieve, knowing she’s about to do a lot of great, fun things. “For Indigenous people, we're riding a wave right now, of non-Indigenous people being very aware of us and our realities. I know that a lot of amazing things are going to come out of that,” she reflects. With the booming film and art industries, she predicts Inuit people will benefit. “Art always helps everybody, but I'm hoping it'll help lift us Indigenous people even higher, because people are valuing us more and valuing our stories,” she continues. 

To inspire Indigenous youth, Qaunaq recommends reflecting on their choices and asking themselves if they are choosing out of fear or out of joy, love and excitement. “Life's gonna push you around no matter what choices you make. You might as well be doing the stuff you love to do because there's gonna be bumps along the road no matter which way you take, right? So really ask yourself, am I enjoying this? Is this really what my passion is?” she suggests. 

Acknowledging people need to work for a living, Quanaq urges youth to remember that work is to make money but it shouldn’t be your only life. She also suggests not being afraid of making the wrong choices. “Mistakes aren't mistakes, they're lessons. Putting yourself first and your choices first is not selfish. When you're happy, and you're living your best life, you're a ball of glowing light, and everyone around you is in awe and then they turn into a ball of glowing light. So live your best life,” she concludes. 

She left a good job for something better… believing in herself as an artist. Zorga Qaunaq has learned the technical skills to remain competitive in the marketplace and the mindset she needed to take the leap. Trusting and loving herself, she’s found her inner beauty and strength as she creates art for the outside world.  

Thanks to Alison Tedford Seaweed for authoring this article.

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Key Parts

  • Career
  • Identity
  • Province/Territory
  • Date
    May 27, 2024
  • Post Secondary Institutions
    No PSI found.
  • Discussion Guide
    create to learn discuss

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