by Kirsten Thisted
A BRIEF HISTORY
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.
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.
ART AND IDENTITY
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
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.
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.
THE POST-MODERN/POST-COLONIAL GREENLAND
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.
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.
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.
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