Cases for mobile phones with pearls, delicate bird nests and embroidered handkerchiefs – these are natural and historical objects that extract untold stories, and they are exhibited in Alakkaajut (“Many things are on display”), the opening show at Nordic Lab inside Ottawa’s SAW Gallery.
Nordic Lab is a locally run by native people designed to showcase and nurture works by artists from the northern regions of the globe. It offers housing, workshops and exhibitions as a way to connect original artists, who often live in remote areas.
The opening of the gallery and workshop, 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 native art to the forefront of exhibitions and art production.
“My focus is really on bringing together indigenous artists from all over the circumpolar north … with a focus on indigenous-led collaboration,” Partridge said. “In a way where native voices are not tokenized or just commodified to make things a little interesting.”
For years, Iñupiaq and Athabascan artist Sonya Kelliher-Combs collected on delicately embroidered handkerchiefs and scarves. In her installation “A Million Tears”, she imagines these hankies as a storage place for decades of grief and sorrow.
“I feel like people keep things inside a lot,” Kelliher-Combs said. “And one of the ways they let them go is through that kind of cleansing and crying and mourning.”
Kelliher-Combs says that healing begins when people are given the opportunity to open up and talk about their pain.
SE | Northern artists find new space in Ottawa’s Nordic Lab
“I call those secrets, these are the things we carry,” said the artist, who leads workshops in making handmade amulets, which are small bags where painful secrets can be kept while the wearer is protected.
“It’s like a little skull shape that you hide things away and hide away … I call them portable secrets.”
Participating in an exhibition composed by a native curator in a space dedicated to the original expression has a special significance for the artist.
“It’s important for us to be a part of every level in a museum situation because it can really be our voice that is heard and it is not edited,” she said.
More than 100 used mobile phone cases are hung from the ceiling by fishing line in Inuvialuk artist Maureen Gruben’s installation “Big Hello.” The pit inserted pearl strips from old moccasins in the cases to mark the vital function of telephones and radios, enabling residents of the Canadian Arctic to stay in touch.
“Maureen’s piece is really about being connected,” Partridge said.
“Even now, the Internet is not the best in many communities, and people still have the radio on all the time, and people will call in to communicate various things such as ‘Happy Birthday’ or ‘Merry Christmas’ or condolences to family members or, you by hearing older people tell stories on the radio. “
Rework of history
Sami artist Sissel M. Bergh was worried about sending her art installation to Ottawa from Norway, so she packed the materials, including a fragile bird’s nest, pieces of driftwood and electrical cables, into her suitcase and brought them here herself.
“We were worried that when she came to the border because there are different materials, natural materials being used, we were worried that she would not get through the border. So we crossed fingers.” said the partridge.
“And then she texted that she had come through the border and the customs agent had said, ‘Congratulations, it’s so wonderful. You have a show in Canada.'”
Bergh says her work is “a counter-spell” or a way to regain the original Sami history as part of the history of Norway, which has long emphasized the country’s Viking heritage.
Alakkaajut (Many Things Appear) runs at Nordic Lab until 5 March 2022.