HARSTAD, Norway – When you hear the words “Arctic art,” chances are that what initially comes to mind aren’t the performances of Allison Warden. The Inupiaq woman, who goes by the name Aku Matu, is wearing what looks like a cross between a traditional anorak and a raver’s costume. The fabric is fluorescent green and red, and instead of a fur trim, her hood is festooned with long, Day-Glo plastic strips. She is performing hip-hop at a gallery that also features film, photography and a chandelier in the shape of several reindeer carcasses.
This scene unfolded during the Arctic Arts Summit recently held in Harstad, Norway. The event was billed as the the first cultural gathering of its kind involving the participation of all eight Arctic countries. A total of 250 people, representing 80 cultural institutions, took part.
Reflecting on the summit, which ran from June 24 to July 1, it seems that Warden is an ideal person to explain just what Arctic art is. The way she sees it, Indigenous artists don’t see a contradiction between old traditions and new approaches.
“Something that Indigenous artists face is this construct of Indigenous versus modern, or traditional versus modern, or traditional versus contemporary,” she says. “But when I speak to my Indigenous peers who are making art today, we don’t see a divide.”
Ask someone else what Arctic art is, however, and you are likely to get an entirely different answer. As one attendee explained, she knows what it is when she sees it, but she is at a loss to say just what it is.
As for the Norwegian hosts of the summit, they came up with a bullet-point description that boiled down to “if it’s made in the Arctic, by someone from the Arctic and for the benefit of people in the Arctic, then it’s probably Arctic art.”
Few of those people who were present in Harstad would argue that art should be created simply for art’s sake. But what it should be used for depended, again, on who you asked.
Among the artists and those who control the purse strings, there was an understanding that culture is a means to various political ends. In the Canadian case, for example, Ottawa views the arts as a way to help along the reconciliation process with Indigenous groups. In Greenland, it is just the opposite: arts help define how Greenland is different from Denmark and contribute to the independence movement.
The arts also have a role to play internationally, according to Luba Kuzovnikova, artistic director of Pikene pa Broen, a collective based in Kirkenes, Norway. This, she said, was due in particular to their ability to operate independently of political interests.
“In times of tension, art is a safe ground,” Kuzovnikova said.
One obvious sign that the importance of the arts goes beyond those people who are active in the sphere was that each of the eight Arctic states – Canada, Denmark (including Greenland and the Faroe Islands), Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russia, Sweden and the United States – was represented in an official capacity at the summit. Greenland, however, missed much of the event because it clashed with Ullortuneq, the country’s national day, and an important cultural celebration. Staying at home and living their culture was vastly more relevant for many Greenlanders than traveling to Norway to talk about it.
In addition to national officials, representatives from Saami, Inuit, Inupiaq and Russian Arctic Indigenous groups were also on hand. Many were directly involved in the arts, but others were recognizable political figures, including Okalik Eegeesiak, chair of the Inuit Circumpolar Council, and Vibeke Larsen, president of the Saami Parliament in Norway.
From their perspective, the arts are a valuable tool for strengthening northern communities and establishing a sense of common identity. Eegeesiak suggests that arts make communities themselves more viable by building people’s self-esteem and strengthening their ties to the place where they live. This, she argues, makes it less likely they will move away.
A perhaps more tangible benefit is the economic contribution the arts make to communities. On the most basic level, they provide employment. For some – like Koomatuk Curley, an Inuk artist who sells his stone carvings to visitors in his native Nunavut and to collectors in southern Canada – being an artist means being able to make a living from their heritage.
“Carving was a skill I learned from my community in Cape Dorset – from my grandparents, my family and my friends. I find it rewarding that I can get paid for that,” he says.
The arts, according to Ethan Berkowitz, the mayor of Anchorage, Alaska, give local leaders a way to differentiate themselves as they compete with other cities and towns to attract travelers and businesses.
“Art,” he says, “makes our city cool.”
For those looking to promote Arctic art, that is, perhaps, the kindest definition of them all.
The organizers of the Arctic Arts Summit paid for the author’s travel and lodgings in Harstad.