Nordic Lab celebrates Indigenous artists of the North

·3 min read
'Big Hello,' a mobile of hand-beaded cellphone cases from Inuk textile artist Maureen Gruben from Tuktoyaktuk, N.W.T.  (Sandra Abma/CBC - image credit)
'Big Hello,' a mobile of hand-beaded cellphone cases from Inuk textile artist Maureen Gruben from Tuktoyaktuk, N.W.T. (Sandra Abma/CBC - image credit)

Beaded cellphone cases, delicate bird's nests and embroidered handkerchiefs — these are natural and historical objects that mine untold stories and they are on display in Alakkaajut ("Many Things Appear"), the inaugural show at the Nordic Lab inside Ottawa's SAW Gallery.

Nordic Lab is an Indigenous-run space designed to showcase and nurture work by artists hailing from the Northern regions of the globe. It offers residencies, workshops and exhibitions as a way to connect Indigenous artists who often live in remote areas.

The opening of the gallery and workshop space, which is run by Inuk artist and curator Taqralik Partridge, was long delayed by the pandemic.

For her first show she invited artists from Canada, Norway and Alaska and she wants to bring Indigenous art to the forefront of exhibitions and art-making.

Francis Ferland/CBC
Francis Ferland/CBC

"My focus is really on bringing together Indigenous artists from across the circumpolar north ... with a focus on Indigenous-led collaboration," said Partridge. "In a way where Indigenous voices are not tokenized or just commodified to make things a little bit interesting."

Portable secrets

Francis Ferland/CBC
Francis Ferland/CBC

For years Iñupiaq and Athabascan artist Sonya Kelliher-Combs collected delicately embroidered handkerchiefs and scarves. In her installation "A Million Tears," she imagines those hankies as a repository for decades of sorrow and grief.

"I feel like people hold things inside a lot," said Kelliher-Combs. "And one of the ways that they let them go is through these kinds of purging and crying and grieving."

Kelliher-Combs says healing begins when people are given the opportunity to open up and talk about their pain.

WATCH | Northern artists find new space at Ottawa's Nordic Lab

"I call those secrets, those are the things we carry," said the artist, who leads workshops in crafting handmade amulets, which are small pouches where painful secrets can be stored while the wearer is protected.

"It's like a little husk form that you tuck things away and hide away ... I call them portable secrets."

Taking part in an exhibition put together by an Indigenous curator, in a space that is dedicated to Indigenous expression, has a special significance for the artist.

"It's important for us to be part of every level of a museum situation because it can truly be our voice that is heard, and it's not edited," she said.

Big Hello

Sandra Abma/CBC
Sandra Abma/CBC

More than 100 used cellphone cases are suspended from the ceiling by fishing line in Inuvialuk artist Maureen Gruben's installation "Big Hello." Gruben inserted beadwork from old moccasins into the cases to signify the vital function of phones and the radio in allowing residents of the Canadian Arctic to stay in touch.

"Maureen's piece is really about being connected," said Partridge.

"Even the now, Internet is not the best in a lot of communities, and people still have the radio on all the time and people will call in to communicate different things such as 'Happy Birthday' or 'Merry Christmas' or condolences to family members or, you know, hearing elders tell stories on the radio."

Recasting history

Sandra Abma/CBC
Sandra Abma/CBC

Sámi artist Sissel M. Bergh was concerned about shipping her art installation to Ottawa from Norway, so she packed up the materials including a fragile bird's nest, pieces of drift wood and electrical cables into her suitcase and brought them here herself.

"We were worried that when she got to the border, because there are various materials, natural materials being used, we were worried that she wouldn't get through the border. So we had all our fingers crossed." said Partridge.

Francis Ferland/CBC
Francis Ferland/CBC

"And then she texted that she had got through the border and the customs agent had said, 'Congratulations, that's so wonderful. You have a show in Canada.'"

Bergh says her work is "a counter spell" or a way to reclaim Indigenous Sámi history as part of the the story of Norway, which has long emphasized the country's Viking heritage.

Alakkaajut (Many Things Appear) runs at Nordic Lab until March 5, 2022.

Francis Ferland/CBC
Francis Ferland/CBC
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