New $5 silver coin will feature the image of an Inuit mother and child

Ulaayu Pilurtuut’s artwork has long been celebrated across Nunavik, but today the Kuujuaq-based artist has her own reason to celebrate – the immortalization of her art on the face of a newly minted collector’s $5 silver coin.

The coin, which is the first in a new series that will feature contemporary Aboriginal art, will be launched on June 11. The image, entitled, “Mother ice fishing”, depicts an Inuit mother celebrating her catch with her baby in her amautik.

Pilurtuut was the guest of honour at the coin’s unveiling ceremony in Old Montreal on May 27. “I was very honoured when the Royal Canadian Mint (RCM) asked me to design the artwork for the coin,” she said. “I try to keep my culture strong through my art, and to have it recognized in this way is a joy that I could only describe properly in Inuktitut.”

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Considering the coin to be her greatest artistic achievement, Pilurtuut says that the journey to have her work recognized outside of the North was a challenge. After first showing her work at the 11 Nations exhibit in Montreal in 2012 with other Aboriginal artists, her success has only continued to grow. Pilurtuut says her connections with the 11 Nations group remain as strong as they have ever been, having donated a portion of her earnings from the coin design to the not-for-profit artistic collective. The group unveiled the coin alongside the Mint, following the ceremony with a launch event for their new urban cooperative marketing platform for Aboriginal artists. Based at Marche Bonsecours in Old Montreal, 11 Nations Cultural Space will aim to connect Aboriginal artists with the contemporary art market.

“Ulaayu’s story is very inspiring to emerging Aboriginal artists,” said Nadine St-Louis, Executive Director of 11 Nations. “We want to show the artists that there is support and infrastructure for them to break into the art market. We want these artists to be seen and heard so that they can sell their work and be viable.”

St-Louis’ vision for the next three years is to develop the space into an artist-run centre that will be dedicated to the development of emerging Aboriginal artists through education, workshops and exhibition. The space currently showcases the work of 20 visual artists from Quebec’s 11 Nations, including Tim Whiskeychan of Waskaganish. St-Louis says that she and the Cree Native Arts and Crafts Association (CNACA) are working together to build artistic bridges between Eeyou Istchee and Montreal.

“This space in Montreal is a platform that people will visit and say ‘I want to learn about Cree culture’ and visit the North,” said St-Louis. “So there is a whole scope of positive social impact when we help our artists. Successful artists develop a healthy cultural identity for a community.”

Although established artists like Pilurtuut and Whiskeychan have seen their success grow with their exposure at the 11 Nations Cultural Space, the enterprise has also helped young artists gain a foothold in the industry. For Gage John Lazare of Kahnawake, working with the group has been a life-changing experience.

“I didn’t think I was an artist until she (St-Louis) came into my apartment, took all my art off of the walls and sold it that week,” said Lazare, who plans on hitting Paris to showcase his art later this year. “This is literally bringing nations together through art, and no one is doing that. Artists like Ulaayu are going down in history through the work that is being done here.”

For Pilurtuut, going down in history is a humbling experience; one that she thanks 11 Nations and the RCM for aiding her to achieve, and one that she hopes will inspire young Aboriginal artists across Quebec to express their heritage and environment through art. Her coin will be available in limited quantities from the RCM this month, and Ulaayu will design a second coin before the end of the year.