It sadly looks as though I won’t be able to visit Nordatlantens Brygge to see Aka Høegh’s exhibition Ved Havet (By the Sea) (even though I keep getting SMS’s from SAS saying I can now check in on a flight from Aarhus to Copenhagen…every day). It closes on Sunday.
Though I am am not a fan of all of her work and find - in her early and mid-career - it often played into Western stereotypes of Inuit art, some of the art in this exhibition looks very beautiful. Like the driftwood umiak above, called Himmelrejse (Journey to the Sky).
I have been thinking a lot about Inuit photographers and photography lately in connection to my various projects. Thought I would share these two meta-photographic works, examining the methods and motives of one Inuit medium (because as we all know any medium used by an Inuk is an Inuit medium) through the lenses of two more recognizable Inuit media, namely the graphic arts and ivory carving.
Image 1: Kananginak Pootoogook’s famous image The First Tourist, 1992
Image 2: Bob Kussy of Ashoona Studios, Inuit Photographer (Peter Pitseolak)
Twitter is gross. The end. Man [with giant stereo] by Kelly Qimirpik to make all our days better.
Another challenging work by Erica Lord: Quartered, Quantified and Classified: My Blood Quantum Cabinet.
This work focuses in on the immediate fact of indigeneity; how are citizenship, membership, ‘authenticity’ and ‘belonging’ defined by nations and communities that have had many of the formal, concrete structures and symbols used to define nationhood diluted or stripped away? Interestingly - though not unexpectedly - in the US and Canada, the regulations for determining indigeneity often draw directly from the white bureaucracy and ideology that put tribal/national membership in such a precarious situation in the first place.
As Lord writes, the cabinet contains “The approximate amount of my body’s amount of blood, ~4.5 quarts, divided into 16 equal parts and preserved in glass canning jars.” Interestingly it does not contain only a certain amount, that would qualify an individual for enrollment in any particular nation. It is the blood of a whole person, because an indigenous person is wholly native. How would one pick apart the non-native blood? Certainly no one, indigenous or not, would survive if only their ‘pure’ blood (however that is defined) were kept and the rest expelled. And so Lord states that the fact of indigeneity can perhaps not be defined by anything so solidly and clinically in the physical world. But it is no less a fact, when it is defined by one’s community involvement, one’s language and one’s beliefs.
So while Lord clearly rejects the use of blood quantum to define such an abstract, personal and communal thing as indigeneity, cleverly, she provides no alternative. It is as fascinating to examine the arguments about how to regulate enrollment within indigenous communities, as it is to question why no better and more community-specific and -centered methods have been developed. And perhaps the answer to the latter lies with the former.
I certainly am not qualified to speak about the complexity of tribal enrollment in North America. But I think that Lord’s work is also pertinent to indigenous communities outside of the New World, particularly ones without this confusion. Because even if a nation is entirely in control of its membership and has systems in place to defend it, this work asks the viewer to consider the fact of indigeneity as a fusion of experience, heritage, community and the individual, and reminds the viewer that the obsession of measurement of indigeneity was once (and often still is) considered measurement of personhood.
Erica Lord, Artifact Piece, Revisited, performed in 2008 at the National Museum of the American Indian. Lord is Athabascan and Iñupiaq.
This performance reflects the ever-present theme of the exhibition of peoples and lived materials, that is such a conflict in indigenous aesthetic issues. For centuries Western bodies of academia meticulously “collected”, “gathered” (to use the conspicuous terms) materials for exhibition of the many “exotic” and “primitive” nations of the world. Such collections then added prestige to the visual rhetoric that the non-Native used/s to define and confine “Native”, for it is hard to imagine white collectors not having the colourful, popular picture of “Native” in mind.
It is hard enough for objects that are defined by their use and by their makers - clothing, ceremonial garb, baskets, boats - to convey a people when they are not being lived in. But this work also shines a light on the more insidious topic in the exhibiting of peoples - the active collection and exhibition of human remains. The constant fight to repatriate human remains in museum and university collections around the world has often ignited opposition from the scientific community, that I can’t speak to (other than to say how can any individual or body, regardless of their purpose, claim to have rights to a person).
But let’s look at this from a curatorial perspective, for the vast majority of these remains are not actively studied. What, could exhibiting, collecting, hoarding away these stolen people seek to accomplish beside upholding the idea of indigenous cultures as stagnating at best, more often dead, and so the pretext of white superiority, because it lives on? Beside exciting an attraction to the macabre, that keeps alive both the myth of indigenous peoples as bloodthirsty, and especially the role of Native Americans as enemy, by conjuring up images of gore and warfare? And what does it say that this is the theme most highlighted in exhibition placards, the story of war, and not that in North America, orders were sent out by courts that Native Americans should be killed and their bodies taken, for extermination, and implicitly, for sport? That is the real bloodthirst.
And in this and any academic rhetoric, is lost the fact that the exhibited material was a person, with a life entirely their own. In such exhibition design, the assertion is that - whether the material is human remains or lived objects - a fractional artifact from a single life can be made into an easily digestible visual, and expanded and held up as a representative first for a whole community, then a whole nation, then for all that falls under “Native American” then again for all that falls under “Native.” And so Lord places among the traditional clothing and jewelry, childhood photos, and in an entirely separate display are photos and objects that could in no way, visually, be called “Native” except that they belong to a Native person. But through ownership they are as native as the anorak and the body lying beside them. And the body one confronts is neither dusty and withered nor battle-torn, but warmly lit, healthy and peaceful. And still as a viewer one can’t know her by seeing her, though of course, one knows she is alive. She is still reduced to “exhibited material” and if she exists as a person it is to reject one’s “viewing”, to separate viewing from knowing. So when an exhibited person is as present as they possibly could be, and still one can not know them by viewing them, how can a withered piece of a person from another time be expected to speak for a multitude of living nations?
Related: Inuik at the 2nd Nordic Fashion Biennale in Seattle, Pia Arke at the permanent Greenlandic exhibition in the National Museum in Copenhagen.
Her work is most interesting to me, because of its added element to the traditional vs. fine art discussion as a context imposed by the Western preconception of indigenous art, just one of its many levels. As Sonya is Inupiat, the material is “traditional” - sealskin, bladders and intestines from whale and walrus - but the form is not. “Traditional” is almost entirely inclined to what the West would identify as “craft”, functional objects first and so lacking artistic value. And so it upholds an element of the cultural structure that devalues indigenous art, by saying that the true indigenous creation is “humble” and “utilitarian” - to use the Western connotations of “craft”, which contribute to the “noble savage” picture of indigenous peoples as creatures of relative intelligence dedicating effort and patience just to survive. Any other incarnation of art made by indigenous artists cannot, in the Western art world, be called indigenous, least of all “traditional.”
The form denies the other half of “traditional”, by abstracting the “traditional” material (abstract art as the “purest” or most arty form of visual art in the Western sense, as it takes in no references but itself). So the artist articulates the flexibility of the “traditional” materials and the continuity of indigenous heritage; the picture of “traditional art” is defined (by the West) as an unbroken aesthetic continuation, which is why in exhibitions of indigenous art, contemporary objects are often placed alongside ones centuries old. And so this work taps into a deeper notion of pure, aesthetic beauty that all art aspires to, certainly including indigenous art whether or not it looks like “craft”, but which the Western pretext denies of any art that self-identifies as indigenous.
Bently Spang (Northern Cheyenne)
War Shirt #2, Modern War series 2003
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
Ariel Schlesinger. So all of these works have their basis in the sort of Felix Gonzalez-Torres harmony and duality, everyday objects imbued with emotions and roles in their interactions with one another. And by examining the delicate play between these objects we see poetry in the slightness yet precision of their relationships. This then informs how we view human interaction, from its most basic and unknowing to the most long-standing intimate bonds.
I might like this kind of thing too much and so whenever I see well-articulated varieties of it I get excited. But what distinguishes these, and really builds on Gonzales-Torres, is the proximity of danger. Especially in the last work, A Car Full of Gas, an actual installation with a miniature burner attached to a car with gas tanks inside. Of course we can not ‘really’ know if the presence of danger exists, if they are full of gas. If for no other reason than - if they are, and by us disturbing the stasis it is in - the risk to us is enormous, not to mention the artwork and its harmony. We even see the reflection of the flame on the other side, threatening us if we interrupt its stability. Similarly in the sculpture above anyone walking by too quickly could blow the papers off their pedestal into disorder. These works show how volatile and potentially destructive the very fragility of these small or large moments of intimacy is, the same thing that gives them poetry.