Circumpolar Artists – Portraying life through art

    Antler earrings, sterling silver, by Inuit artist Mathew Nuqingaq.

    There is something powerful about gathering a group of artists from across the circumpolar regions — not just for those who get to witness, but for the artists themselves.

    Cultural preservation, language, the environment, and politics become profoundly meaningful when expressed through stories, film, dance and through the arts and crafts inspired by, or made from the land from which these artists come.

    For five days in Reykjavik, Iceland, last October, the spotlight was on the Circumpolar Arctic. The Circum-Arctic Art Show presented over 30 visual and performing artists from across the Circumpolar regions to an audience of tourists, residents and, most profoundly, attendees of the Arctic Circle Assembly, the largest global assembly on the Arctic, held at the Harpa Concert Hall.

    This was the first Circum-Arctic Art Show, and although it was held independently from the events at Harpa, the exhibit opened the door to a different way of viewing the issues that face our circumpolar regions.

    Martha Cerny, a well-known and respected Canadian-Swiss curator and collector travelled to Iceland to take part in the events. Cerny believes that high profile national and international events are an integral way to address and identify these important common issues.

    Performer and educator Johnny Issaluk drums on the streets of Reykjavik to welcome people to the Circum-Arctic Art Show at the Gamla Bio. © Christopher Porter
    Performer and educator Johnny Issaluk drums on the streets of Reykjavik to welcome people to the Circum-Arctic Art Show at the Gamla Bio. © Christopher Porter

    Cerny recently curated the exhibition “LINKED: When contemporary art raises awareness about climate change,” at the Musee Oceano graphique de Monaco, in Monaco. The exhibit, which ran from November 2015 to February 2016, strategically opened to join the discussion at the climate conference in Paris, had well over 50,000 visitors.

    “When we are looking for pieces, we’re finding works that speak to a range of issues such as climate change, addiction and social change. The work is out there, particularly in Canada, and it’s coming from the artists, not the market.”

    The visual art spoke volumes on the gallery floor. Sculptures created from materials from the land, such as mammoth ivory, showed a wide range of subject matter. Textiles, paintings, clothing, jewellery and hand forged knifes with intricately carved handles and hand tooled leather cases all portrayed a life rich with respect for the land, traditions, family, beauty, and hardship.

    Mary Ann Penashue, an Innu artist from Sheshatshiu, Labrador, attended the Circum-Arctic Art show in Reykjavik, something she never would have dreamed of years ago. And, indeed, it may not have been possible.

    “Remote communities have evolved so much. The Internet and roads have helped us stay connected and visit other places. Because of this, I had the courage to take my art to another level, and attend art school outside my community. I wish I had the courage to do this 20 years ago.”

    Penashue has been painting for over 20 years, but it wasn’t until recently that she fully committed herself to her art.

    “I lived on the land with my grandparents until I was 16 — my emotional tie to them is what brought me to express my culture in the way I paint. It’s natural for me to show traditional people doing traditional things and to show the aboriginal faces in my paintings. I want to preserve our ways of life as they continue to change.”

    The road to creating, marketing, selling and exhibiting works on an international scale is already an arduous one for northern artists. Cerny, who collects art from around the circumpolar regions, remarks on the import/export issues that northern artists face. “The use of some traditional materials, such as ivory and seal skin, can limit their possibilities to exhibit internationally, and to be part of the international art scene, especially in Europe.”

    It’s not just export laws that restrict artists; often, it can be finding the materials to work with.

    Penashue remembers when caribou used to come from the north, around the Churchill Falls area, when people used to take their families and go hunting, but that’s not happening now.

    “In my region, the caribou herd doesn’t come anymore — my personal feeling is because of the activities happening further north, the herd changed their route and have gone somewhere else instead of following their usual route to Labrador. I paint caribou — it’s the main resource for aboriginal people; one caribou provides everything we need. So my art is my way of preserving my culture and expressing myself — and for people to see the importance and history of aboriginal people.”

    Penashue is not alone in her thoughts. “In Iceland, meeting the other artists, I was able to visualize what was happening in their world. Because they brought their art and their stories with them, I could see we share the same challenges. I was just amazed. I have all this knowledge that I came back with that I shared with my husband and my children.

    Even though these cultures are so far away, we are so similar and it pushes me to want to learn more. I want to see how the Saamis catch their reindeer and how they prepare their meat, and make their clothing.”

    Artists also graced the stage to share extraordinary sounds and stories, traditions and ceremonies, giving audiences a rare glimpse into their culture, leaving them utterly in awe of what they experienced and proving there is much to learn from the polar peoples.

    As a performer and educator based in Iqaluit, Nunavut, Johnny Issaluk speaks regularly about culture, traditions, and climate change. “Our art, our stories, they will last forever. When I do my presentations, I talk about the games I demonstrate; they have been around for thousands of years.”

    Issaluk took the stage several times during the Circum-Arctic Art show, but it was at Harpa, during the Arctic Circle Assembly that he had a targeted and focused audience, ready to receive the important message he was delivering through his demonstrations and teachings.

    Artists L to R: Nenets Evgeniy Salinder, Inuit Mathew Nuqingaq, Nenets Inne Yadne, Nenets Victor Yadne, and Komi Vladimir Chuprov. © Christopher Porter
    Artists L to R: Nenets Evgeniy Salinder, Inuit Mathew Nuqingaq, Nenets Inne Yadne, Nenets Victor Yadne, and Komi Vladimir Chuprov. © Christopher Porter

    Overall, the experience for Issaluk was incredible. “The issues we all face are the same, and I felt hopeful that we could be in unison, to work to preserve a way of life that is authentic to us.” The stories and traditions keep our ancestors alive. It keeps who we are alive.”

    Lynn Feasey, of Points North Creative, promotes and presents northern arts and culture through national and international exhibitions, installations and events. She is most known for her work as Creative Director for Canada’s Northern House at the Vancouver 2010 Olympics, and worked with the Circum-Arctic Art Show to bring the Canadian artists to Reykjavik.