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May we suggest

Reviews / October 16, 2017

Thinking beyond the White Frontier

The recent Glenbow Museum exhibition “North of Ordinary” typecast Inuit as relics. The result was a harmful misrepresentation
Visitors during Community Day at the Glenbow Museum consider the exhibition “North of Ordinary.” Photo: Elyse Bouvier. Visitors during Community Day at the Glenbow Museum consider the exhibition “North of Ordinary.” Photo: Elyse Bouvier.

The Glenbow Museum’s exhibition “North of Ordinary,” curated by Susan Kooyman with a run of February 18 to August 27, 2017, was a clichéd assemblage of artifacts typecasting Inuit as relics. Presented as a celebration of the photographs by Toronto-born British settler Geraldine Moodie and Scottish-born settler Douglas Moodie, taken during their time living in Canada’s north from 1903 to 1909 in the territory now known as Nunavut, “North of Ordinary” only further reified uneven colonial relationships between settlers and Inuit—the latter a community that has been vying for sovereign agency and autonomy since contact.

The strained and hierarchical relationship between the museum and Indigenous bodies was dramatically highlighted throughout “North of Ordinary.” In particular, the curatorial writing throughout “North of Ordinary ” framed the exhibition as an ethnographic review supported by excerpts from the Moodie’s diary entries. A diary entry by Geraldine Moodie from March 10th, 1905, that accompanied a photo titled Nanowk of the Kinepetoo tribe, Fullerton Harbour, Hudson Bay (1904–05), referred to Inuit as “splendid subjects,” rather than as agential models or sitters. These problematic diary entries are presented as an authority on Inuit life from 1903 until 1909, and the Glenbow did not amend them to consider modern relations between settler institutions and Inuk bodies. Rather, the Moodies’ journal entries reinforced racial biases that objectify and favour a colonial lens on Indigenous representation. Furthermore, these entries were presented by the Glenbow free of critique towards language that exoticizes and others Inuit culture.

The entrance to “North of Ordinary” featured a didactic panel that overtly established a tone of tolerance towards the injustices Inuit incurred in their relations with settlers during the time these photographs were captured. The panel stated that “this exhibition celebrates the couple’s photographic legacy of their years spent in the arctic.” Missing from this dialogue around the Moodies’ legacies were critical narratives of exploration and colonization, under which Inuit faced introduction of disease from European explorers and whalers, the depletion of natural resources due to overharvesting from European whaling crews, and Catholic and Protestant missionaries assimilating Inuit by disrupting their traditional belief systems. From 1941 to the 1978, the Canadian government implemented the disc identification system, essentially reducing Inuit to numbers for administrative ease, and Inuit were required to attend residential schools. In 1953 and 1955, Inuit families living in Inukjuak were forced to relocate about 2,000 kilometres to Grise Fiord and Resolute as a means for the Canadian government to secure land in the high arctic. None of the aforementioned atrocities are thoughtfully or sympathetically addressed by Kooyman.

The didactics for “North of Ordinary” failed to mention Inuit living in Fullerton Harbour—Qatiktalik in Inuktitut—who were photographed by the Moodies, and who were misrepresented and consumed to aid the Moodies’ career trajectories. At the same time, the didactics continually applauded Geraldine as western Canada’s first female professional photographer. The Moodies’ photographs of Inuit created a visual language of dominance and coloniality, and Douglas himself adamantly upheld colonial efforts, purportedly arguing that he was strengthening Canadian sovereignty with his work to establish a police presence as a
member of the North-West Mounted Police.

“North of Ordinary” contained a section with a combination of striking northern landscapes and portraits of Inuit displayed as large-format photographs. The didactic panels accompanying this section predominantly included diary excerpts from either Douglas or Geraldine. An image titled Dominion Government Steamer Neptune, decorated for Dominion Day, Fullerton Harbour, Hudson Bay, July 1, 1904 is accompanied by the following text: “One of the missions of the Neptune expedition, and specifically of Douglas Moodie, was to assert Canadian sovereignty in the North, in light of the increasing presence of foreign whalers, traders and explorers in the region. What better way to symbolically demonstrate Canada’s claims than by the celebration of Canada’s national holiday? Here the American whaling schooner Era is framed by the decorated Neptune and the Mounted Police post established by Moodie on the far shore.”

Depicted in in the forefront of the accompanying photograph is the Neptune steamship decorated with more than twenty flags strung from each of its three masts to celebrate Canadian nationalism on Dominion Day (now known as Canada Day). The Neptune is a visual marker of dominance, settler-colonial power and authority—not only to the inhabitants of Qatiktalik, but to other settlers in the area such as whalers, traders and explorers. Curator Susan Kooyman presented this didactic celebrating Canada and colonialism without critique. The triumph of colonial narratives was propped up by a radio silence on Inuit perspectives within the exhibition.

Overall, Kooyman’s curation of “North of Ordinary” praised the settler colonial imaginary in the Moodies’ photographs of Inuit, leaning on the age-old trope of hailing settlers for “conquering” the extreme conditions, cultures and climates of the north. Though innocently coded, from the perspective of a contemporary Inuk such as myself, the Glenbow here removed Inuit from their own agency and sovereign autonomy. The Glenbow’s painting of Inuit as objects was not only incredibly dehumanizing; it also set a precedent for many visitors to the Glenbow, who no doubt came to understand Inuit culture as existing in the past—an erasure of the numerous ways Inuit culture has been revitalized though the arts with festivals and curatorial projects like “iNuit blanche” (2016) and “Tillutarniit” (2016–2017).

This exhibition highlighted the disparity between articulating calls to action and putting these calls into effect. In accordance with White Goose Flying: A Report to Calgary City Council on the Indian Residential School Truth and Reconciliation, Calls to Action 2016, the Calgary Aboriginal Urban Affairs Committee has recommended that Calgary City Council support public awareness programming in libraries, museums and archives about residential schools and the intergenerational trauma that followed, as well as Indigenous issues at large. The report highlights museums as a space for educating the public about Indigenous issues, arguing that “libraries and museums are among the most highly utilized and trusted public ‘gathering spaces’ in the city, therefore their reach is substantial.” Decolonizing curatorial methods, reconciliation recommendations and critical museology scholarship from Indigenous academics is widely available to curators and educators in Canada; yet the Glenbow facilitated an insidious apologist attitude towards colonial violence throughout “North of Ordinary.”

As one of the largest museums in Western Canada and an institution that contains a significant amount of First Nations, Inuit and Métis content, the Glenbow has a responsibility to the Indigenous peoples on whose territories it resides. The Glenbow, as an important cultural institution in Calgary’s artistic landscape that is frequented by the greater public of Calgary and beyond, has a responsibility to the original peoples of this territory to represent us Inuit as more than historic artifacts, or as passive subjects of a colonialist lens. It is incredibly disheartening and damaging to me, as a contemporary Inuk living in an urban centre, that the only representation of my culture there of late was over a century old, and had tenuous correlations to modern culture. By portraying Inuit as of the past, “North of Ordinary” erased our vibrant contemporary cultures.

Within my own art practice, I use humour as a coping mechanism to address diaspora and mental illness. The two are delicately intertwined. Being disconnected from my culture as well as dealing with intergenerational trauma has done irreparable damage to my connection with my Inuvialuit heritage. My art and social practice help me resurge and claim space while navigating institutions. In applying a decolonizing methodology to my interactions with Westernized institutions such as the Glenbow Museum, colleges and other galleries, I’ve become critical of representations of Inuit like those in “North of Ordinary,” which frame Inuit life and culture as a non-living commodity, and which favour the colonial efforts of colonizers at the expense of authentic Indigenous representation. This destroys much of the work that Inuit have done to reclaim agency over our culture and our bodies.

Jade Nasogaluak Carpenter is an Inuvialuk artist and curator based in Calgary/Banff, born in Yellowknife and raised in Edmonton. She currently holds the Indigenous Curatorial Research Practicum at the Banff Centre.