An Introduction to Visual Cultures of the Circumpolar North – Part II

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Editor’s Note: This is the introductory post to Part II of the Visual Cultures of the Circumpolar North series edited by Isabelle Gapp and Mark A. Cheetham .

In the introduction to Part One of the Visual Cultures of the Circumpolar North series, which ran through August and September 2022, we wrote:

Images – whether it’s an old photograph or a contemporary data manifestation – do not speak for themselves. We must self-consciously speak and write about them, though not for them. Neither can pictures’ worth be measured in terms of 1000 words, as the cliché goes. Instead, images have a beguiling way of thwarting our complete understanding or translation.

To introduce the second installment of this collaborative JHI-NiCHE series, we want to take this opportunity to reflect on the eight essays that formed the first part of the series as well as look forward to the essays that will be published over the next seven weeks. Our goal is to articulate lessons learned from the first series as starting points for the further reflections that follow in the next two months.

Paul Schmidt, Rear view of Okak Station, with views of the Harmony in the Bay with an iceberg (1907). Image: Memorial University of Newfoundland – Digital Archives Initiative.

Our first post was by Jonathan Westaway, who shared a haunting study of the Moravian Mission ship, the Harmony, in Nunatsiavut and its role in bringing the devastating 1918 influenza pandemic to the shores of what settlers called Labrador. Focusing on early 1900s archival photographs, Westaway suggests that “Memory is a cargo, carried by communities and these archival photographs both enable the work of memory and also open up the possibility of conversations across time.” Underlining the presentness of the Arctic, Pat Naldi showed and reflected on her own photographic practice during a recent visit to the Arctic. She writes, “To look at these photographs now, is to see the death of glacial ice; the end of reference; and indicator of climate change; the death of our planet and all of us in it.” Humans as a creative and destructive force across the Arctic serves as an (unintentional) theme throughout the series.

Iceberg floating in the sea with range of snowy mountains in the background
Blue glacial Iceberg calved from Julibreen glacier floating away in Fjortende Julibukta Bay.

Sarah Pickman untangled the heroic, colonial, chauvinist, and racial narratives of polar exploration in the nineteenth-century illustrated periodical Puck. “The Puck cartoons don’t critique specific, particularly disastrous expeditions,” writes Pickman. “Instead, [they] lambasted the entire notion of Arctic exploration.” Elaborating another theme that emerged from Part One, in “Fugitive Ivories, or, Enslavement and the Walrus,” Bart Pushaw probed the entangled worlds of the Black and Indigenous Arctic, and the materiality of our more-than-human kin, through a close reading of a pair of painted walrus tusks. He asks, “What is at stake in considering the Arctic as a landscape connected to Black enslavement?” From print media to walrus ivory, the Arctic as a site of heroic, masculine, and colonial narratives is probed, questioned, and slowly disentangled.

Unidentified artist, Painted Ivories, ca. 1830-1860, walrus tusk, pigment, mounted on wooden base. Image Courtesy of Eldred’s Auction House.

A student visiting St John’s, Newfoundland, Yandong Li elaborated his experiences of the atmospheric distortions of light through pollution around the city’s harbour. By asking “to whom does the glare belong?,” Li argues that despite the unfortunate artificial light perpetually illuminating the harbour, the city also relies on the energy company A. Harvey for light and warmth. Our complex relationships with the extractive processes of oil and energy are contrasted in Matthew Farish’s essay on Operation Franklin, a Geological Survey of Canada endeavour that took place in 1955, related in name to the British explorer who disappeared in 1845 while searching for the fabled Northwest Passage. Centred around a single photograph of a helicopter, a tripod mounted camera, and three men somewhere in the Arctic, Farish identifies how the image was an “object in one sense but more a collection of objects, along with an objective.” This and other government exercises triggered increased interest in resource exploration and extraction in the Canadian Arctic.

A Large Soviet Propaganda Porcelain Vase, designed by Lyudmila Protopopova, State Porcelain Factory, Leningrad (1938). Image: Christie’s. Source.

Mixing science, culture, and society, during the 1930s, the Soviet Union incorporated what Sasha Shestakova calls in her essay the “iconography of colonial conquest” into “Soviet propaganda porcelain.” Soviet-led Arctic expeditions were pictured as referential motifs in so-called propaganda porcelain, while Indigenous peoples were reduced to patterns on vases and tea-services, many of which have been sold at western auctions. Emma Rath concluded Part One of our series with a reading of the Canadian Coast Guard’s photographic archive of Arctic voyaging. As Rath argues, fragmented, blurred, and distorted photographs, such as those taken in 1986 to record ice conditions, offer “the viewer an intuitive understanding of water, blurring the boundaries between scientific and abstract documentation.”

Polaroid #4a found in the Ice Impact Log of Martha L. Black, Hull 108, 1986, Box 17, Binder 1. Author Unknown from the Canadian Coast Guard Photographic Archive Ottawa, Ontario.

As the disparate but also related images and examples in these posts and the forthcoming second part of the series attest, how we have thought about and conceive of the circumpolar north is an ongoing and intricate visual/textual process. Visual and material cultures seen through archival and auction records, and alongside science, environment, and politics, reveal the complexities of continuing to critically engage with the circumpolar north.

The authors of Part Two continue to expand the breadth, scope, and increasing importance of thinking visually about the circumpolar north. As you look forward to these essays, we encourage you to read or re-read the first part of the series.  

Feature image: John Savio. Vågekallen, Lofoten (n.d.). Image: Saviomusea/Saviomuseet.

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Isabelle Gapp and Mark A. Cheetham

Isabelle Gapp and Mark Cheetham are the co-editors of the Visual Cultures of the Circumpolar North series. Alongside Matt Farish and Ivana Dizdar (and formerly Mark), Isabelle is the co-lead of the Jackman Humanities Institute Working Group Visual Cultures of the Circumpolar North at the University of Toronto. Mark is a Professor of Art History at UofT and Isabelle is an Interdisciplinary Research Fellow at the University of Aberdeen.

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