• Feature

4 Indigenous Circumpolar Land-Based Art Projects

Aug 22, 2023
by Laura Hodgins

Through four land-based art projects spread across the circumpolar North, Laura Hodgins examines how northern artists are pushing back against a South-centred art narrative and are instead choosing to situate their works in nearby landscapes.


Melissa Shaginoff
In Campaign for Acknowledgment (Dust in Palmer) (2020–Present) Digital photograph

Infrastructure has long been a barrier to artists that reside in the circumpolar North, affecting their access to exhibition opportunities, connections and recognition. The stereotype has been that for a northern artist to “make it” in the art world they have to leave their home territory. But artists are pushing back.

As a northerner who had to move South to pursue higher education—there is no university in my territory—I know firsthand how disorienting it can be to travel south in pursuit of a career in the arts. In recent land-based projects created by artists like Maureen Gruben, Bolatta Silis-Høegh, Melissa Shaginoff, Niillas Holmberg, Jenni Laiti and Outi Pieski, I see a resistance to this South-centric narrative, with the artists employing symbolism, signage, humour and poetry to reclaim both art and land on Northern terms. These artists are stepping out of white cube–gallery spaces and instead using the forests, ice and land of their communities as sites of installation, learning and teaching for their creative practices.


Maureen Gruben
Untitled (In process) (installation view) (2022) Broadcloth, two panels 8.5 × 17.1 m each panel

Inuvialuk Maureen Gruben is one Arctic artist who has steadfastly grounded her practice in the North. Her first major land-based art piece, Stitching My Landscape (2017), connected 111 ice holes with red broadcloth. Gruben reuses this cloth in her recent work, Untitled (In process) (2022), salvaging two panels to create a bold red cross—an international symbol of protection and humanitarianism—to bring awareness to the rapidly eroding coast. Tuktuuyaqtuuq (Tuktoyaktuk), Inuit Nunaat (Inuit Nunangat), a hamlet on the shores of the Beaufort Sea, loses approximately a metre of coastline every year as it collapses into the ocean.

“According to scientists and from what we can see with our own eyes of this community, this peninsula will not last that much longer,” says Gruben [1]. “Right now we’re just doing Band-Aid fixes but we eventually will have to relocate.” Untitled (In process) was secured onto the ice for two months, packed tightly with snow. Keeping a close watch on the changes through storms, Gruben returned in June just as the ice was rotting—melting unevenly and no longer trustworthy to travel upon—to retrieve the cloth. In the end a striking pool of water melted into a perfect cross where the fabric had been, an ironic emphasis on the humanitarian aid the Tuktuuyaqtuuq ice is begging for.


Maureen Gruben
Untitled (In process) (installation view) (2022) Broadcloth, two panels 8.5 × 17.1 m each panel

Gruben explains that she chooses to use the ice as the setting for so many of her projects because “it’s a beautiful white landscape, and that’s what you usually have in the white cube. You put art up against that white landscape and there’s no difference.” More than just reclaiming that space, Gruben asserts that framing art on the land adds additional meaning to the piece: “It has so much more . . . I don’t want to say power, but so much more strength because the land carries your work.”


Bolatta Silis-Høegh
Haveforeningen “Sisimiut” Anno 2068 (2009) Mixed media 16 × 16 m

Bolatta Silis-Høegh’s installation Haveforeningen “Sisimiut” Anno 2068 (2009) also illuminates the indeterminate environmental future of her home in Kalaallit Nunaat (Greenland). Silis-Høegh imagined the Arctic 60 years into the future as a grim depiction of a tropical paradise. A sealskin bikini hangs from the laundry line, a qamutiik reclines as a beach chair and a newspaper is strewn on the grass, advertising the Olympic summer games to be hosted by her homeland in the year 2072. Packed with lush plastic plants, Greenland takes on a new meaning. In 2068, an ulu is used to crack open coconuts and the traditional annoraaq is short-sleeved to accommodate for the new climate. 


Bolatta Silis-Høegh
Haveforeningen “Sisimiut” Anno 2068 (2009) Mixed media 16 × 16 m

Despite being staged in a gallery, Silis-Høegh locates codified symbols in the kalaallisut futuristic garden to show that even if the environment changes, arctic cultures will continue to flourish and bloom. “I work much more with the feeling of nature. I embody it,” says Silis-Høegh about her connection to land-based art [2]. By exhibiting this in a gallery as opposed to staging it out on the actual land, Silis-Høegh is emphasizing Haveforeningen “Sisimiut” Anno 2068’s absurdity. Divorcing this garden from the land underscores its plasticity and accentuates her cries to heed the continually warming Earth.


Melissa Shaginoff
In Campaign for Acknowledgment (Love in Anchorage) (2020–Present) Digital photograph

In Campaign for Acknowledgment (2020–Present) takes a more direct approach to warning its audience. This community project, led by Ahtna and Paiute artist Melissa Shaginoff, repurposes scrap wood into land acknowledgments, which are then documented through a series of photos. Carefully hand-painted signs mark Indigenous place names, political statements and lessons in language, held up by their writers in the landscapes they mark. One sign simply reminds, “We are on Indigenous Land.” Another reads, “Sustain Indigenous Knowledge.” 

“We need to learn by remembering the work that took place on this land; the work of Indigenous people,” explains Shaginoff [3]. “It is the key to a sustainable future.”


Melissa Shaginoff
In Campaign for Acknowledgment (Ruth in Anchorage) (2020–Present) Digital photograph

The messages emphasize that Indigenous peoples have long been stewards of the lands they call home. The significance of the signage is directly derived from the landscapes that they mark, reclaiming and respecting the land through poetically scrappy signs that take up space and mark territory in a way that a verbal land acknowledgment could never do.

Rájácummá – Kiss from the Border (2017–18) similarly aims to take up space. This project, created by Sámi artists Niillas Holmberg, Jenni Laiti and Outi Pieski, consists of eight lines of poetry scrawled along the Deatnu River valley, where the border between Finland and Norway lies. This arbitrary border cuts through Sápmi, spanning the colonial borders of Norway, Sweden, Finland and Russia. In Rájácummá, an invisible border line is made visible with poetry markers and juxtaposed by the fluid partition of the Deatnu, or “Great River.”


Niillas Holmberg
, Jenni Laiti and Outi Pieski Rájácummá – Kiss from the Border (only take what’s needed) (2017–18) Digital photograph

Rájácummá – Kiss from the Border

land is the question, the answer is land

scoop the water along the stream,

cut the branches along the grain

let the river be the bridge

clean water, the sacred song

lucky feather as an amulet


only take what’s needed

the answer is land


gažaldat eana, vástádus eana

álo álmmastit miehterávdnjái,

miehtemurrii álo njáskat

johka ieš min šaldi

buhtes čáhci, sáivaluohti

leavvedolgi várjalussan


váldit dušše maid dárbbaša

vástádus eana 


“As local [community members] were involved in the emergence of the lines, it felt as if the land itself was writing the poems,” says Holmberg [5]. “Now it feels like Rájácummá was something started by us but owned by the local communities involved.”


Niillas Holmberg
, Jenni Laiti and Outi Pieski Rájácummá – Kiss from the Border (the answer is land) (2017–18) Digital photograph

Based on a Sámi understanding of sustainable life, the poem encourages people to view land use as an ongoing relationship requiring continual upkeep, care and renewal, reading in Northern Sámi, “gažaldat eana, vástádus eana,” or in English, “land is the question, the answer is land.” In placing an emphasis on viable coexistence and by highlighting the features of the region, Holmberg, Laiti and Pieski open a conversation about land stewardship and self-government by local Sámi people, proposing “equal status for nature and people based on reciprocity and respect” [6].

By creating and sharing artwork on the land, with the land and for the land, all of these artists are redefining what it means to centre an arts career outside of southern metropolises. How do we Northernize the art world? For these artists, the answer is land. Instead of travelling south, circumpolar artists are generating creative solutions by highlighting and exhibiting art on the landscapes around them, representing themselves away from the southern gaze. This resourcefulness and creative ingenuity is what connects northern peoples across the circumpolar region. Art that is made for the North, by the North and with the North is future-building work.


Laura Hodgins is a white settler from Sǫ̀mbak’è in Chief Drygeese Territory (Yellowknife, NT). She is currently studying at Concordia University in Montreal, QC, for a MA in Art History, writing her thesis about the history of art development in the Northwest Territories. As a northerner, Hodgins is passionate about fostering and promoting the arts above the 60th parallel.



[1] All quotes from Maureen Gruben, interview with Laura Hodgins, January 2023.
2. All quotes from Bolatta Silis-Høegh, interview with Laura Hodgins, February 2023.
3. Excerpt from Melissa Shaginoff’s artist statement, accessed April 2023, melissashaginoff.com/portfolio.
4. Niillas Holmberg, Jenni Laiti and Outi Pieski, Rájácummá – Kiss from the Border, 2017–2018, http://www.outipieski.com/installations-collages/kiss-from-the-border/.
5. All quotes from Niillas Holmberg, written correspondence with Laura Hodgins, February 2023.
6. Excerpt from Holmberg, Laiti and Pieski’s artist statement, see note 4 above.


This feature was originally published in the Summer 2023 issue of the Inuit Art Quarterly.

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