Review: Among All These Tundras at the Leonard & Bina Ellen Art Gallery

Featured Image: We Glow the Way We Choose to Glow by Allison Akootchook Warden, taken by the Leonard and Bina Ellen Art Gallery

There is nearly twelve million square kilometers of tundra in the world, the Circumpolar North being only a sizable piece of it. The northern tundra passes under borders and ocean; it has no interest in the differences between America, Siberia, Canada, and Greenland. It simply spreads like an enormous outwash plain under a green sky, its frozen heart half a million years firm under the thin layer of topsoil. Those facts, however, are changing. The permafrost is thawing, great landmasses are eroding, and the sea ice pushes away from the coast. During these times, the lives of the tundra’s inhabitants become more and more strained into adaptation. The Fall Exhibit at the Leonard & Bina Ellen gallery offered us some depth of vision into the experience of northerners from all over the Circumpolar World, and how they are responding to climate change and decolonization through art, video, sewing & beading, poetry, and performance.

The exhibit began with the word. Walking into the gallery’s foyer, one would have noticed a poem scaling the wall written in Sámi. This is where the exhibit coined its name; a line from the poem My Home is in My Heart by Sámi poet Nils-Aslak Valkeapää. The chosen line in English reads: “How can I explain / that I cannot live in just one place / and still live / when I live / among all these tundras.” However, the poem on display in the foyer intentionally avoided translation. It invited the non-Sámi reader to try out the vowels, let the unfamiliar umlauts wash over our tongues, and ultimately helped us to understand a sense of place through the very sound of its language.

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Tusarsauvungaa (2018) by Taqralik Partridge
Photo credit: Leonard & Bina Ellen Art Gallery

Curated by Amy Prouty, Heather Igloliorte, and Charissa von Harringa, the exhibit featured Indigenous artists ranging from Nunavik to Lapland, Greenland to Alaska. The key to understanding the variations of landscape, language, and peoples is through one knot: the tundra. What—as opposed to where—is the tundra? To some, the tundra may seem like an expanse of treeless earth, the world of Caribou and glaciated delta. To some it is the holy site for western Christmas folklore. The tundra seems to have infiltrated our imaginations, but what is it really like for those who live and create art there? During the gallery’s closing show, one of the exhibit’s curators Heather Igloliorte remarked on the challenge of bringing together art and artists from the Circumpolar World, “it isn’t as simple as contacting someone via email,” she said. She explained that some of these artists are away for weeks at a time, out fishing or hunting, carrying out the necessity of their traditional, often nomadic, lives. This is good context for understanding the source of inspiration for these works: each piece incorporates some essence of land and place, indigeneity to that place, culture, food, and family. There is no separation, every aspect of life is afforded equal importance. During the panel discussion between poet Taqralik Partridge and Heather Igloliorte for the exhibit’s finale event, Partridge commented on the amount of time she puts into her art and how it is always at an equilibrium with the other activities of her life, whether that be nurturing her family, beading, throat singing, fishing, or writing. “Inuit women really love to fish,” they both laughed.

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Still from Inuuteq Storch’s two-channel video piece Old Films of the New Tale (2016)
Photo credit: Leonard & Bina Ellen Art Gallery

The distinction of ‘home’ rather than ‘place’ is also important to note. As with the poem the exhibit took its name from, many of the works have the word ‘home’ in their titles. In Inuuteq Storch’s photo series At Home We Belong, Greenland refuses to be just a ‘place’ in the corner of people’s minds. The photos show darkly comic visions filled with friends and family, either posing in a corset with a gas mask, or popping out of an abandoned couch on the side of a dirt road. They are funny, sweet, familiar, and disturbing—everything a home is. Storch’s home of Greenland has a long colonial history, which he has re-envisioned through edits of vintage footage in a series of short films called Old Films of the New Tale. The films are speaking on history in terms of how Storch feels it to be, and his skill as an artist certainly helps us believe him. In the film entitled As We Forget, We Chase the Beginning, Storch layers footage of a women’s convocation class with the audio of a man singing in Greenlandic (Kalaallisut) accompanied by a drum. Eventually the sound of a church organ chimes in and the two soundtracks clash head on while the women silently carry out their procession into the churchyard. Home, in Inuuteq Storch’s view, is densely layered, with each stratum telling a different side of the story. In the performance of her poem Kuujjuatuqa, Partridge transported us by bush plane to her home in Arctic Quebec. She reminded us of how far we are from the world’s core cities, but how close we are to everything we need at home: “Montreal is as far as Vancouver is as far as California is as far as Australia / The town is the centre.” She scoffs at the idea of isolation and the othering of labels such as ‘remote community.’ The poem soothes us home in repetition, “the town is the centre.”

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Sami Shelters #1-5 (2009) by Joar Nango
Photo credit: Leonard & Bina Ellen Art Gallery

In viewing the exhibit, we cannot be ignorant to the fact that ‘home’ has been disrupted for many Indigenous peoples by the destruction of resources, conquest, and colonial activity. Just last October, Brazil’s newly elected president declared war (and genocide if we want to be honest, and we should) on the Amazon’s Indigenous inhabitants. The saying that ‘history repeats itself’ feels too easily said for this particular moment, but these kinds of dangerous utterances feel familiar. And yet, the tradition of resistance for Indigenous nations is just too embedded to ever really be shaken. No Trespassing, they say. The deadly consequences of ‘no trespassing’ should be familiar to non-Indigenous Canadians and Americans, who seem to take pride in their ability to shoot a stranger on their property, to begin to see the parallel here. Last year, a white farmer named Gerald Stanley shot a young, unarmed Indigenous man named Colton Boushie in his vehicle. He had pulled over with a flat tire onto Stanley’s property, and was apparently asleep in the driver’s seat. When Partridge responded to a question asked during the panel about her feelings towards the acquittal of Stanley, her words rang out like an alarm: “I think about racism every day.” We grew silent. Those of us at the show who had seen the exhibit, especially the white attendants, were sorely reminded of racism’s persistent presence in the minds of Indigenous peoples. However, we were also reminded of the particular tactics of resistance in what the exhibit described as “a collective ecology of care.” Something akin to what Anishinaabe scholar and artist Leanne Betasamosake Simpson calls a kind of “decolonial love.” This is a concept which was strikingly expressed in Allison Akootchook Warden’s two-part performance piece Siku/Siku.

Allison Akootchook Warden performs to revitalize the Iñupiaq language, while also paying homage to those affected by the outbreak of addiction in her home of Fairbanks. In Iñupiaq, ‘Siku’ is one of the several words for ice, but it is also a word used to refer to methamphetamine. This double meaning becomes Allison’s performative character and she undergoes a transcendence, or a translation, from ice to ice. She begins as someone struggling with addiction, then she dons her traditional clothing, colourful and handmade, and begins to speak only in Iñupiaq. She smiles and invites those around her to share in the performance as she writes and revives the living Iñupiaq word on a large, white box. The power she gains over the words of her language ultimately gives her power over her addiction. Allison’s project of decolonial love is profound, and relates many issues faced by Indigenous peoples to the colonial introduction of illicit substances, with the power of language revival as the cure.

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Still from Marja Helander’s film Eatnanvuloš lottit (Birds in the Earth) (2018)
Photo credit: Av-Arrki.fi

For the exhibits finale event, we were treated to a screening of Sámi-Finnish artist Marja Helander’s new film Birds in the Earth. In it, two Sámi prima ballerinas dance through the stark northern landscape. At a certain point, they come to a signpost that reads ‘State Land’ in Finnish. This is the border of Lapland, home to the Sámi. The dancers remove their fringed shawls and toss them over the sign to allow the word ‘Land’ to stand alone as they continue their dance through the tussock and marsh. The way Helander’s dancers use their movement to smother the irony of governmental wording such as ‘State Land’ is such a salient use of altering language that it alters ideas of place. The ballerinas remind us that homeland is hugely important, it gives agency to place and fills it with meaning. Much like in Valkeapää’s poem, places have the emotional potency to become home, even when they are so numerous, they must be carried within the heart.

This exhibit spoke on many themes but made one message especially significant: that art from the Circumpolar North, from Indigenous peoples, is so very alive that it is moving across home and place, even reshaping traditional mediums. In August, Inuk curator and artist Asinnajaq led Tillitaarniit, a Montreal based arts festival which featured visual art, storytelling, and performances from contemporary Inuit artists. The festival’s name Tillitaarniit is translated to read “It is said to happen from time to time,” a traditional way of beginning a story in Inuktitut. Concordia’s Heather Igloliorte is in the midst of developing the Pilimmaksarniq/Pijariuqsarniq Project: Inuit Futures in Arts Leadership, in order to offer space for Indigenous art curation in Canada. Among new events and opportunities like these, contemporary circumpolar art is also making a stage for itself amidst the most recent wave of Indigenous resilience and resistance across the world, the urgency of climate change, the projects of language revival, the autonomy of land agreements and sovereignty rights, the fierce reclamation of women’s voices, and ultimately the path of love in decolonization. This exhibit held onto all of these subjects with a firm bite and brought them back into their source of inspiration: the tundra.

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