Teaching Art, Race, and Resistance in the Arctic

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

In the fall of 2021, I co-taught a seminar in art history entitled “Art, Race, and Resistance in the Arctic” with Mathias Danbolt at the University of Copenhagen. We conceived of the course in conversation with the reality that 2021 marked three-hundred years of colonial relations between Denmark and Kalaallit Nunaat (Greenland). Since the course was an elective for a mix of graduate and advanced undergraduate students, we queried why students chose to enroll. The answer was almost unanimous: students wanted to learn about Indigenous histories and cultural expression—particularly across Sápmi and Kalaallit Nunaat—because they were ashamed of their colonial ignorance.

Most of the students were Scandinavian. None of them identified as Indigenous. For them, “colonial ignorance” was a shorthand term to signify the structures that erased colonial history from public education and public consciousness in the Nordic countries, especially Sámi and Inuit histories. Teaching and expanding access to these colonial (art) histories was a critical goal for Mathias and myself, partially indebted to our shared work in the multi-year international research collective he headed, “The Art of Nordic Colonialism: Writing Transcultural Art Histories.”

Photograph of vitrine juxtaposing opposite sides of the Arctic through Sámi and Chukchi arts at the National Museum of Denmark, Copenhagen. Photo: Bart Pushaw.

Though the course focused largely on art and visual expression by Indigenous makers, the course also introduced the multiple and often conflicting visions of the Arctic by outsiders. A key factor in teaching Arctic art and history was the abundance of resources available in the city of Copenhagen. Meetings at the Arctic Institute introduced students to the bevy of primary source materials and archives that Copenhagen has accumulated through its centuries as an imperial center. Nearby, the North Atlantic House (Nordatlantens Brygge) granted the opportunity to meet on the historical grounds of the city’s colonial harbor, now refashioned as an exhibition space and cultural venue, where we could debate the possibilities and pitfalls of the institution’s exclusive focus on the Faroe Islands, Iceland, and Kalaallit Nunaat. Denmark’s National Museum houses one of the world’s largest collections of Indigenous material and expressive culture from diverse communities throughout the Circumpolar North. Direct access to the museum fostered critical discussion with the class about the discomfort of enduring racist language in museum didactics, colonial structure inherent to European encyclopedic museums, the violence of the ethnographic vitrine, and questions about the current status of rematriation/repatriation campaigns—one, the return of a seventeenth-century Sámi goavddis from Copenhagen to Kárášjohka, was taking place at the same time as our course.

The timing of the course in the fall of 2021 was auspicious for other reasons. It coincided with a retrospective of the Kalaaleq-Danish artist Pia Arke (1958-2007) at Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, just under an hour north of Copenhagen. Though curatorial choices in the exhibition left much to be desired—I agree with Nivi Christensen’s discomfort and frustration that the museum projected Arke’s famous video work Arctic Hysteria (1997) onto the floor—the programming ushered in a series of optimal resources for the course. The sponsoring of the conference “Fast Forward! Women in European Art since 1970s” at Louisiana brought brilliant Sámi speakers to Denmark, the artist Carola Grahn and the duojar and museologist Liisa-Rávná Finbog. Their generosity in deciding to participate created an opportunity for our students to learn directly from Sámi scholars, rather than discussing texts in the abstract space of the classroom discussion.

Ingeborg Høvik lectures in “Art, Race, Resistance in the Arctic” at the University of Copenhagen in October 2021. Photo: Bart Pushaw.

The decision to cede space in the classroom to other voices was a central tenet that informed the construction of the course. We invited the art historian Ingeborg Høvik, professor at the University of Tromsø in Sápmi, to share her expertise on nineteenth-century Arctic visual culture. Sharing her latest research on drawings by Qalaherriaq (Inughuaq), Høvik modeled an impressive methodology of how art historians who study the Arctic might consider moving from “images of” studies—limiting in their facture by outsiders—to “images by”—centering instead Arctic imagery by Arctic artists. She demonstrated how students could confront the limitations of art history’s latent Eurocentrism, a necessity not least for European students, but particularly for understanding the trans-national and trans-cultural environs of the Circumpolar North.

Later in the semester, when professional commitments required Mathias and I to be in Nuuk, we took advantage of the virtual classroom, and welcomed Nivi Christensen to our class. Students had the opportunity to read an interview with Christensen about her experience as Director of the Nuuk Art Museum, and learn of the changes she has ushered in throughout her already transformative tenure there. With this preparation, students were able to ask more incisive, probing questions to Christensen, and could compare the vast differences in how care and consideration facilitates the curation of Inuit art in Nuuk, as opposed to the ethnographic lens in Copenhagen. At that same time, the museum was in the process of installing Atlantikumi, a show that prompted how the Atlantic Ocean was a liminal space with manifold meanings in the Arctic. Juxtaposing the work of Pia Arke, Jessie Kleemann, and Jeanette Ehlers, the exhibit explored how waterways created (colonial) correspondences between Kalaallit Nunaat, the Black Atlantic, and Denmark.

Nivi Christensen delivers a talk “Greenlandic Art: Who, what, and where?” at the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, Humlebæk, Denmark. Photo: Bart Pushaw.

For our students, this preview of a brand new exhibition in Nuuk created ideal conditions to welcome Nina Cramer when we had all returned to Copenhagen. She screened her video essay, “Call of the Cold,” co-created with Temi Odumosu. The video featured three Black narrations of the Arctic by Olaudah Equiano, Matthew Henson, and Tété-Michel Kpomassie. “Call of the Cold” was also a demonstration of how research can assume diverse forms beyond the paper. As the video contested the racialization of Arctic geographies, it created space for the classroom to consider the complex nuances of identities and experiences of the region. Upon reflection of this course, I am struck at how little “Art, Race, and Resistance in the Arctic” explicitly dealt with environmental histories and ecocriticism. Surprising as it may sound, the course rarely discussed climate change, nor the myriad of contemporary artworks—or exciting readings of historical artworks—through an ecocritical lens. But this did not mean we did not talk about environments and more-than-human relationships. The course’s emphasis on Indigenous makers meant that reading and learning about Sámi duodji was also learning about Sámi epistemologies of kinship and reciprocity with the surrounding world. Discussing a nineteenth-century tobacco pouch made in sealskin by a Kalaaleq maker brought to the fore common questions about resource extraction. In doing so, students became familiar with and attentive towards the destructive ways colonial economies and occupation disrupt the imperative for humans to act with humility, gratitude, and care for their land, ice, water, and skies. By the end of the semester, students could no longer claim colonial ignorance.

Feature image: Detail from photograph of vitrine juxtaposing opposite sides of the Arctic through Sámi and Chukchi arts at the National Museum of Denmark, Copenhagen. Photo: Bart Pushaw.
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I am an art historian of the colonial Americas, focusing on the Circumpolar North and Central America between 1700 and 1950. Based at the University of Copenhagen, I emphasize the global entanglements of material and visual culture of the Indigenous Arctic, especially when it coincides with the Black Atlantic and Pacific.

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