Tanya Tagaq’s 'Sulfur' Targets Tar Sands

Inuit throat singer Tanya Tagaq Gillis has been awarded the Order of Canada by Governor General David Johnston "for her contributions to Canadian culture."

It’s a stark, deathly-looking series of images: Angry drills pierce the ground relentlessly; muck flows into and through rivers and streams; poisoned ponds sit under burning sun, and oil-coated birds flap and flop futilely. But renowned throat singer Tanya Tagaq Gillis has never been about pleasant portrayals, and her video from the song “Sulfur,” which is on her latest album Retribution, is no exception. She links the scourges of industrialization firmly with the ravages of colonization in her art and life’s purpose.

In fact the song's very name references the byproduct of extracting crude from the oil sands of Alberta, Canada.

“I'm not into happy, pretty, sweet art that I can eat with a spoon," she told the Canadian Press upon being awarded the Order of Canada, the nation’s highest civilian honor, on December 30.

Her goal, she said, is to open minds and lead to change.

"A lot of people are unwilling to accept that as an authentic, indigenous form of art," she told the Canadian Press, referring to the hate mail she gets as her art breaks with tradition. "But I'm not trying to make something that is pretty or palatable. It's a commentary. And while it's not 'comfortable,' it's through discomfort that change happens."

Tagaq Gillis, of Cambridge Bay, Nunavut, was among 100 people named to the Order of Canada at the end of 2016 by Governor General David Johnston for “her contributions to Canadian culture through her avant-garde Inuit throat singing,” he said in a release.

Also named were several indigenous people from Canada, including another artist from Nunavut, Mathew Nuqingaq of Iqaluit, for “his artistic contributions as a jewelry designer and drum dancer, and for his leadership in Nunavut’s arts community.”

Tagaq Gillis’s latest album, Retribution, has been named among the best albums of 2016 by Slate magazine, BBC Radio 3, National Public Radio’s World Café and Rolling Stone, according to the Nunatsiaq News. Below is a video of the single “Sulfur” from that album, which National Public Radio recommends people listen to once “with eyes closed, given over wholly to the experience of a dense, immersive collection of sounds unlike any sounds on any other albums in your collection,” and then “with eyes open, standing in front of a mirror, with one hand on your throat.”