Bryggen Art - North Altantic Art -   
North Atlantic House
Nordatlantic Culture
Greenlandic art
Greenlandic artists
Faroese art
Faroese artists
Icelandic art
Icelandic artists
All artists
Photo Galleri
Address & Info
Site map
Contact info

Change Language to Danish - Danish flag Change Language
Greenlandic art
by Kirsten Thisted

Greenlandic pictorial art began in the middle of the 19th century, when Greenlanders also layed the groundwork for their modern written literature. Greenland had been a Danish colony since Hans Egede arrived in 1721 and took possession of the land in the name of the Danish king. The colonial era lasted until 1953 when Greenland officially received equal status to the rest of the kingdom. In 1979 Greenland got Home Rule - meaning self-government in all internal affairs, but not in foreign policy - and the rights to the subsoil. The Home Rule Act is currently being renegotiated due to a Greenlandic wish for an "equal partnership" without any traces of the colonial era.

Many Danish priests, administrators etc. in nineteen-century Greenland were inspired by National Romanticism and passed on to Greenlanders the idea of a natural and spontaneous connection between land, people, language, traditions, and history. The Greenlandic national movement has its beginning in the 19th century and really takes on a momentum in the beginning of the 20th century.

Greenland nature

Aron of Kangeq (1822-1869) is considered to be the father of Greenlandic pictorial art. Aron is internationally famous for the watercolour paintings and woodcuts illustrating the Greenlandic narrative tradition, which was also written down by him and several other Greenlanders for Dr. H.J. Rink (1819-1893) from 1858 to 1868. Aron had presumably been taught the art of drawing by Samuel Kleinschmith (1814-1886), the Herrnhut missionary who standardized the written Greenlandic language. Kleinschmidt himself produced very exact maps and sketches of landscapes and settlements. Aron's early drawings are studies of similar style in compliance with the European linear perspective.

Before the arrival of the Europeans the Eskimos' - or Inuit ("people" as they called themselves) - artistic disposition was expressed in their tools and garments loaded with symbolic meanings from the spiritual world of ideas. A harpoon was thus not just a physical tool, but could also be seen as a stylized bird acting as a helping spirit when it was hurled from the sealer's arm and headed for its goal. And the garments reflected the animals that delivered the materials and secured the survival of man. Amulets and masks were also considered to be objects of art - drawings and paintings on the other hand were introduced with the European materials.

Thus the form to Aron's illustrations derived from European pictorial art which was well-known among Greenlanders at this time, especially from Bible illustrations. But Aron assimilated this foreign form and made it his own by filling it with motives from his own tradition. And he maintained and continued his ancestors' knowledge and insight in his elaborate rendering of costumes and tools both in his sketches and in the hundreds of illustrations he made to traditional myths - illustrations that today stand as magnificent miniature paintings.

A similar respect is displayed by the contemporary artists, who often let the tools of the past figure as basic forms or ornaments in their own arts, for instance the female knife shaped as a half-moon or the harpoon head.

Greenlandic art has very much served as a medium for negotiating identity. New generations have had to find their place between tradition and modernity, between the heritage from the Inuit past and from Europe, which is no longer something foreign and strange, but has become a part of the Greenlanders' own history. Still the Eskimo past and sealer culture is the marker separating the Greenlander from the Dane, who does not have this double belonging when it comes to nationality and culture.

Greenland nature

More than anything else Nature has been the factor on which the individual has built his or her identity as a Greenlander - right from the Romantic paintings of nature from the first half of the 20th century to conscious artists of the Home-Rule generation, who see the connection between nature and man as evidence of Greenlanders' ownership of the land. Similarly many modern artists have been inspired by the Shamanite worldview and its connection between nature and man which also has a strong appeal to modern (city) people.

The left-wing political consciousness of the late 60s, and the social and ecological commitment that followed in its wake, was very influential. In this period the Western world "rediscovered" aboriginal people. From being downrated as "primitives" they were suddenly given the role of last guarantors for the "true" humanity that the Western world had left behind long ago. In this period Greenlanders again began to call themselves Inuit, partly to demonstrate the belonging to their kinsmen in Canada, Alaska and Siberia, and partly to live up to the picture of Greenlanders as an original people. It is a continuing myth that Greenland is called "The Land of the People" in Greenlandic. But in fact Greenland is not called Inuit nunaat, but Kalaallit nunaat, which means "The Land of Greenlanders" (from kalaaleq = Greenlander).

Sometimes the name "The Land of the People" is still being used to mark "the aboriginal identity" embraced by many Greenlandic artists. However other artists have strongly rejected being carriers of such a pre-definition, which they consider to be a product of Western imagination rather than Greenlandic. "The Greenlandic identity" is thus not one and like other nationalities it can not be put in the definite singular form.

From the end of the 1960s women finally manifested themselves in the cultural life in Greenland. In the traditional society women had been highly esteemed both as narrators and drummers. The poetic inspiration was seen as an outside influence coming to people irrespective of sex and social position. Consequently a poor, marginalised, old woman could step into the centre of society the moment she started singing with her drums. Women were also taught to read and write, and they were often employed to help school children. Nevertheless men - and only men - received further education in the colonial society. The accepted position was clearly that artistic creativity was reserved for men.

During the first half of the century the country's pictorial artists were also the country's writers: the educated, artistically gifted men tested their talents in both directions. Hans Lynge (1906-1988) is a good example of this. Being one of Greenland's major writers, Lynge still devoted more and more time to pictorial art. He has had a tremendous importance, both with his own pictures and with the establishment of the Graphic Workshop in 1972, later the School of Art in Nuuk. More recently Kristian Olsen aaju (b. 1942) and Jessie Kleemann (b. 1959) have been working as both authors and painters, but today it is more common that you specialize in one area. Few are able to make a living from their art alone, and many of the practising artists are also teachers, consultants, etc. This is true of among others Thue Kristiansen (b. 1940), who has painted the Greenlandic flag (1985).

Among the pictorial artists born after World War II the artist who has achieved the greatest international recognition and attention is without a doubt Aka Høegh (b. 1947). Her most famous project is probably "Stone and Man". Starting in 1993 and assisted by other Scandinavian artists Aka Høegh has transformed her hometown of Qaqortoq in the South of Greenland into a permanent outdoor exhibition with sculptures carved in rocks and stones. Already before the project "Stone and Man" Aka Høegh was famous and appreciated both in Greenland and Denmark.

A single unified identity does not fit the female artists in Greenland either. Although most of them would accept being called "female Greenlandic artists", their definition of the title would vary. Arnannguaq Høegh (b. 1958), the present director of the School of Art in Nuuk, was very preoccupied with the identity of "a modern inuk" in her early career, but in recent years her focus has changed to abstract painting. Her paintings still have a local tinge: For instance the strong colours of the old colonial neighbourhood surrounding the School of Art in Nuuk. Icelandic and Faroese landscapes also characterise her paintings, but Anannguaq Høegh does not put this influence down to kinship, but rather to received scholarships to other Nordic countries. If she receives a scholarship to Nepal, the inspiration from there would, in her opinion, soon be reflected in her pictures - in the same way as Hans Lynge's travels to the Middle East inspired his art.

Greenland nature

While Aka Høegh's pictures are loaded with symbols and seek a spiritual experience, Buuti Pedersen (b. 1955) has specialized in a more concrete reproduction of animals in the arctic nature. Buuti Pedersen is a distinguished successor to Jens Rosing (b. 1925) who spent a lifetime capturing animal life with his light strokes, and who made Greenlandic stamps an international collector's item. Anne-Birthe Hove (b. 1951), on the other hand, builds her pictures up with several transparent layers, like in the series Homage a Aron from the beginning of the 1990s, in which she composed a continuation to Aron's famous woodcuts. However, Aron's woodcut is not cut by himself, but by the carpenter Marcus from Nuuk from a drawing made by Aron. Several artists' contribution thus melt together in Anne-Birthe Hove's workmanship. In other pictures she is simultaneously commenting on models from archaeological findings from the Dorset culture and paintings by contemporary art colleagues. Hove rarely approaches the past and nature directly, but does it through icons like the returning deer hunter, the women's boat, the tent (but also the modern apartment blocks). In a new series the mountain Sermitsiaq - the symbol of Nuuk and the artist's daily view - is repeated in a series of variations, some in combination with statements like Look! or Listen! accompanied by an attached ear or eye or palimpsest fragments of something that could have been a school paper about a field trip writing its way under or above the picture of the mountain. Hove is more interested in the reflection of the experience of nature than in the experience itself.

While the use of Greenlandic motives and materials is used by some artists to maintain a Greenlandic identity, others - mainly young artists - have used a mixing of genres and materials to explore the modern or "post-modern", where all genres and materials seem to exist in the same time and space, and identities are something you put on, take off and play with. This is true of artists like Isle (Lise) Hessner (b. 1962), who mixes organic materials and forms (fx whale bones and seal skin) with industrially produced constructions of metal and wood and creates something new and indefinable out of this - even though you at first think that you recognise for instance a seal skin tied to a drying frame. But on closer inspection the old form has opened up new meanings. The same applies to Miki Jacobsen (b. 1965), who deliberately plays with allusions to European modernism (fx Cubism's use of exotic masks and patterns) that appears to be an unavoidable filter through which we in the present view these "primordial forms". By reproducing masks, amulets etc. inspired by many different "aboriginal" populations, not just Inuits, an ultramodern, hybrid and ambiguous space of meaning, where the viewer is forced into a dialogue with the object of art and all its complexity of references.

Greenland nature image

In a country where language has become the major identity marker, pictorial art is also a place of refuge, where artists who do not fully master the Greenlandic language can come to terms with their Greenlandic identity without feeling inferior. A number of young Greenlanders do not have Greenlandic as their first language, even though their mothers (or fathers) are Greenlandic. One of the parents might be Danish or they might have been brought up in Denmark because their parents were studying there. During the colonial era Danish was the language of power, and it is still difficult to get an education without mastering the Danish language.

Not surprisingly this group of artists is also preoccupied with the theme of hybridization as a fundamental condition in modern society. The focus is on life in the border areas, the cultural meetings, the grey areas. All the cracks and flaws that contradict the idea of fixed and unambiguous identities. Nevertheless the Greenlandic language often still appears in the titles of the pictures, and sometimes sentences or whole texts can enter the picture surface itself as symbols of the language of belonging or longing. While the words have a concrete linguistic meaning to the spectators who understand Greenlandic, they become an unfathomable mystery to those who don't, they become ornaments rather than language. The individual spectator's interpreting potential is thus being challenged, at the same time as the familiar borders between "us" and "them" are both maintained and transgressed.

The Danish-Greenlandic Pia Arke (b. 1958), who lives in Copenhagen, is one of the artists dealing with the canonized connection between land, language and identity. Inspired by post-colonial theory - which is normally attached to literary readings - she explores the historic development which has made a specific geographical area "Greenland" and a people "Greenlanders". Her focus is colonial history. While Aka Høegh's human portraits are either stepping out of or disappearing into the rocks, Pia Arke's portraits - usually photographies of one or several real people caught in a real moment - are attached on to European maps where nature is caught from a perspective high above the bird's, without any form of human imprint. Her art is about colonial history and the balance of power between the coloniser and the colonised, the explorer and the explored - always uncovered through concrete, personal histories.

The search for the basic and universal and the curiosity and analytical interest in historic peculiarities and particularities stand as each other's complentary explorations - and sometimes the two cross and we see the universal in the particular and vice versa.

Greenland nature

Greenlandic art includes plenty more artists than those mentioned here. At the time of writing the final decision on who will participate in the present exhibition has not been made. In any case the exhibitors do not primarily represent "Greenland", but themselves. Nor does the selection of artists, no matter how the group is made up, give a collected and unambiguous picture of "contemporary Greenlandic art", which comes in as many complex and differentiated variations as there are practicing artists.

Arke, Pia: Etnoæstetik. Kunsttidsskriftet ARK, 1995.
Kaalund, Bodil: Grønlands kunst. Politikens Forlag, Copenhagen 1979.
Revised and extended reprint.1990.
Lynge, Aqqaluk: Livets gæst. Aka Høegh's univers.
(Text in Greenlandic, Danish and English).
Atuakkiorfik, Nuuk 1998.
Olsen, Inooraq: At forblive grønlandsk. Kunstneren Thue Christiansen.
(Text in Greenlandic, Danish and English). Atuakkiorfik, Nuuk 2001.
Rosing, Jens: "Fortællinger om Inua". Tidsskriftet Grønland nr. 5 1998: 153-174.
Thisted, Kirsten: Således skriver jeg, Aron. I-II. Atuakkiorfik, Nuuk 1999.
Trondhjem, Jørgen Ellegård: Moderne grønlandsk kunst og identitetsudvikling.
Thesis, not publ. Institut for Eskimologi, København 2002.

> Back to top

       About Bryggen Art | Where are we | Site map | Links | Contact us           © Bryggen Art & Raffar Sp/f