So it’s time I talk about the most publicly sponsored and widely exhibited Greenlandic artist: Aka Høegh. She has participated in big multi-artist international projects and is responsible for some of the most iconic Greenlandic public artworks, a beach park in Aarhus and the Stone and Man project in Qaqortoq, a small detail of which seen above. If you sense a bit of skepticism in this description you are correct.
Aka Høegh is touted as Greenland’s “best” artist by the government and cultural offices, and she is applauded for bringing “traditional Greenlandic art” to a higher level. I do not deny that some of her projects are ‘cool’, especially the massive iceberg painting above which is 2 x 5 meters. However there is little about her work that articulates the intricacies and ‘spirit’ (for lack of a better word) of Greenlandic “traditional” art, and reveals little about today’s Greenlandic psyche. Her work draws more from a language of vaguely “traditional” images (the face of stone) and of Greenland’s nature, reliant upon refined skills in Western media (oil painting and massive public sculpture) - in other words, the same images and means white artists have been using to depict Greenland without penetrating to the actual people and meanings behind the face. I will say the park in Qaqortoq is important for bringing art into the public sphere, and in the case of the her illustrated children’s book of the story of the Mother of the Sea for keeping story alive, and in Qaqortoq for bringing artists from many nations to collaborate in Greenland. But as art they do not offer nearly as much as the conceptual work of Pia Arke, Inuk Silis-Høegh, Jessie Kleemann and Julie Edel Hardenberg that I have discussed in the past. And it is not because she chooses a path more “traditional” than them - because it really isn’t.
“Traditional” Greenlandic art celebrates pointed details within the smallest object, self-referencing humour and especially usefulness or the sense that it can be directly interacted with in different ways, something living and lived with. They have a sense of both smallness and largeness, regardless of the actual size, which this by Inuk Silis-Høegh and this by Miki Jacobsen both illustrate. This is something that anyone looking at a work intent on seeing it foremost as “Greenlandic” or “indigenous” or “ethnographic” will miss because what comes first in that field of vision is the difference in aesthetics to preferred Western styles. Clearly Aka employs this perspective to make her works more comfortable on an international level. Still she is quite significant for being one of the first Greenlandic artists to bring Greenlandic art to the international stage and to work on a very large scale. But as far as the social and creative commentary, formal exploration and interactive ability that I believe art needs to have, she does not shine compared to others.
This massive sculpture by the former statesman Thue Christiansen, Treeroot with Tupilaat, and the enlarged carved ‘mask’ below by Miki Jacobsen are, I think, perfect examples for how Greenlandic art can be both “traditional-looking” - and so reflective of the historic art forms - and massive in scale, while still being engaging, critical and formally unique. And very importantly, they are not large just for the sake of being large, which is the sense I get from much of Aka’s work in all media. Thue’s sculpture incorporates faces in the style of a tupilaq - sculptures or totems carved to protect or to harm an enemy. But they are carved into a massive treeroot - which are fairly nonexistent in Greenland - and so immediately call up questions of who are the tupilaat created against, which is really a question of how internationalism challenges Greenlandic culture today; also the root being the life-giving part of the tree, drawing most of its nutrients, as opposed to the more common media for making tupilaat - driftwood (which would have traveled so long to Greenland they are very distant from any life), bone (which comes with many other things from a hunt) and ivory (which is literally dead). Is it something living that has been killed, or a foreign living thing transformed into a Greenlandic symbol?
Likewise Miki’s ‘mask’ almost seems to mock the ethnographic collectible mask, the more serious the better for anthropologists. It can certainly not be worn so the discussions of dance and ritual are removed and it demands to be looked at specifically as an object in itself, it is so large it seems to challenge the viewer like a peer, instead of sitting quietly on a pedestal or wall. Yet this connects it even more to the ideas informing mask dance - the nature of which is that the dancer is transformed into something else, human but not, and which is humorously critical of its viewers.
But humour and denial of the Western vision of ethnographic objects is no way to win favours among Western critics, who do not like their views immediately and entirely cast down. Which is why it is understandable that Aka, whose career largely began in the ’80s and ’90s when art centres were just opening up in Greenland and few Greenlandic artists ever exhibited abroad, would employ these concepts of Greenlandic art in her work. It may have felt like the only way to get attention for a small indigenous nation, and certainly was the only way to get state promotion, when the country’s whole tourist promotions rely on both nature and “traditional life”. And historically - namely with Aron from Kangeq, or the writer Thomas Frederiksen - there is a celebration within and outside of Greenland of “self-taught artists” which perhaps results in a distrust of artists with some formal training (like Julie and Inuk) when often (but certainly not always) training and the many perspectives one can experience through it has the potential to give artists an extra push to think deeper. But slowly this is beginning to extend into all areas of Greenlandic life anyway. Things are opening up, and more and more Greenlanders are finding ways to discuss Greenlandic life on their own terms.
Aka Høegh, Stone and Man, friend’s photo
Aka Høegh, The Ice, Bryggen Art
Thue Christiansen, Tree Root with Tupilaat, Nordens Institut i Grønland
Miki Jacobsen, Untitled, own photo