Commitment to Diversity on Display
It’s hard to tell where the blues in the painting end and where the multitude of other hues (purples and greys and hints of aqua, among others) starts. The 26-and-a-half-ft. mural by Inuk multimedia artist Niap, which adorns a central hallway in Northeastern University’s downtown Toronto campus, is incredibly striking. With its abstract nature, the artwork’s watercolours draw you in. After a while, you may even begin to see a wintry landscape form before your eyes. But the art’s layered beauty only tells a portion of its story — and what it represents at Northeastern University’s Toronto campus. Simply titled Composition 2020, Niap’s piece serves as a visual reminder of the University’s deeply-rooted commitment to, and celebration of, diversity.
Artistic Expression of Diversity
“You sort of get lost in it, and I loved the story of how the materials and water [the artist used] were tied to her home and became a method of connecting with her family during COVID,” says Thomas Vannatter, Northeastern University’s Public Art Manager, of the piece — for which Niap sourced from her hometown, Kuujjuaq, and other communities across Nunavik Region in Quebec’s northernmost area. “We presented a few different artists to the Dean but Niap’s work really stood out — not just as something that would work well in the space but something that has depth and impact — and it all felt very timely. With everything that we’ve all been through, and are still going through, it felt important that the work have a connection to the land and to family and to the idea of home.”
When the idea of using art to celebrate the diversity of the peoples of Turtle Island (present day Canada) was first proposed at Northeastern, Vannatter reached out to an artist friend for guidance. Vannatter’s friend mentioned that at Art Toronto, almost half of the galleries featured First People artists. Niap was one of them. After seeing her art, Vannatter immediately recognized how well Niap’s work would translate to reproduction in vinyl. Niap’s strong commitment to, and advocacy for, her community and culture also made her work an ideal fit for the commission.
“Growing up Inuk in Kuujjuaq and then moving to the south, I had to deal with a lot of ignorance from schoolmates, teachers, and other adults, and it brought this shame to my identity,” Niap says. “It was a really hard time. I didn’t want to be seen as Inuk, or related to it. Then, I met Inuit from Nunavut, and they had such pride. I realized how strong and proud our culture and history is. I started to focus on cultural representation, and I realized how little people know about Inuit culture. I’m first an educator, a teacher of culture, and my medium is art. I draw people in with art and then hit them with the knowledge of how to be an ally.”
Working across multiple media, Niap creates by drawing, painting, photography, sculpture and carving, traditional Inuit throat singing, and acting. Through this multidisciplinary approach, Niap reaffirms her culture by incorporating elements that represent her identity as an Inuk woman. The artistic expression has also garnered Niap much acclaim since she launched her full-time arts career in 2015.
In the last seven years, Niap has completed residencies around in locations like Paris and Finland; won prestigious scholarships from institutions such as the Inuit Art Foundation; saw her art acquired by museums such as the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts; exhibited her work in Vancouver, Winnipeg, Ottawa, and Montreal; and has been busy with mural contracts across various communities, including ones in Nunavik. Throughout it all, Niap’s art has continued to respond to issues surrounding cultural identity and heritage.
“I can’t produce as fast as ideas come in,” says Niap. “They always come in a specific media and I can see, in my head, the tools I’ll need and how I’m going to do it. For the piece displayed at Northeastern University – Toronto, I felt like the water chose the colours. I’d choose red sometimes, for example, and it wouldn’t show up. I felt the water I collected beared witness to the memories attached to when I was collecting the water, like fishing with my brothers, for example. I think that is what makes the series magical.
“Displaying them at the University continues to help put Nunavik on the map. It encourages people to research and maybe discover who we are as modern people because many know us as past peoples. But we’re still here, sharing our stories.”
Building a Global Village
Beyond art installations, Northeastern University’s diversity efforts are all-encompassing. They range from hiring practices (at the Toronto campus, women make up more than 50 percent of the leadership team and Northeastern University’s enrollment rates have also nearly achieved gender parity) to actionable steps built into the institution’s strategic plan.
As Northeastern University – Toronto’s Global Learner Support Specialist, Deniz Toker is familiar with the school’s diversity efforts. In fact, he leads one himself. With more than a decade of experience teaching English at all levels, Deniz has transferred his skills to his unique role at the University. To help global learners (international students) with both academic and cultural transitions, Deniz and his team host various events, workshops, social programming, and tutoring services. They also collaborate with other departments, such as Career Services, to further strengthen programming.
“Diversity is a mindset, and, from top to bottom, everybody on our campus has adopted that mindset,” says Deniz, who is originally from Turkey. “Because I feel I belong here, I can help students feel the same in all events I host. That’s why diversity is the fabric of our campus and a catalyst for building perspective and inclusiveness.”
One of Deniz’s most popular initiatives grew out of reflections on his experience as a graduate student in the U.S., where he found himself seeking a feeling of belonging and community involvement. Knowing how challenging it can be to leave home for an education abroad and to try to connect with others outside of class, Deniz wanted to create a safe space for students to do so. At the same time, he saw the benefit of students learning about the cultures that make up the Northeastern Toronto campus’s student body. Global Village was born.
“I want students to own it. I tell them, ‘This is your village, you should build it with me,’” says Deniz of the bi-weekly gatherings, during which students candidly speak about their cultures, answer questions, and discuss relevant topics in groups. “We are in Toronto, one of the most diverse cities in the world, I want to ensure that is reflected on our campus. Intercultural communication is a key part of that diversity. So, I hope students who participate in Global Village challenge themselves, and their own stereotypes, and truly see others and feel seen. This is the most essential part of the human experience.”
Deniz’s efforts are resonating with students, whose feedback about Global Village has been positive. He is also inspiring similar initiatives across Northeastern’s global campus network. Deniz is working with his counterparts at other campus locations to launch Global Village across the University.