• Feature

5 Trailblazing Northern Indigenous Artists to Know

Aug 09, 2023
by Malayah Enooyah Maloney

Each region of the circumpolar North has its trailblazers: the game-changing artists that have led major cultural conversations and made historic contributions to the artistic landscapes of their regions. For each of the five areas represented, Malayah Enooyah Maloney interviewed artists about their own practices and their thoughts on a legacy artist’s impact.
What connects Indigenous art across the circumpolar North? Throughout the Arctic, Indigenous artists are using their art to centre interdependence between people, politics and the natural world, by embodying generations of cultural knowledge and advocacy efforts towards Indigenous rights. The North is our home, and the art emerging from the land, oral histories and our collective advocacy for the land and people is hugely important in protecting Indigenous ontologies.

Many outstanding artists and knowledge keepers have had lasting impacts on generations of circumpolar Indigenous peoples. To recognize those whose artistic legacies have paved the way for artists today, we conducted interviews with one artist from each region: Alaska, Kalaallit Nunaat (Greenland) and the areas of Sápmi that currently fall within Finnish, Norwegian and Swedish borders. We spoke to artists working across various mediums and asked them to speak about the legacy of an artist in their region who has shaped artistic practice as well as how those artists have contributed to advocacy for cultural rights and access to the land and natural resources.

Each artist we interviewed touched on the legacy artist’s physical and spiritual relationship with the land and how it impacts the continuation of Indigenous art from the North. And while each circumpolar region is affected by its own political context, the artistic legacies emerging from them are not bound by borders. They bridge and redefine boundaries, traversing oceans from nation to nation. Today, those whose contributions have uplifted contemporary Indigenous artists continue to encourage decolonial conversations and influence the future of artistic methodologies.


Susie Bevins-Ericsen
Last Dive (1991) Aluminum, wood and wool yarn 51 × 40 × 65 cm

Inuit Nunaat (Alaska)

Susie Bevins-Ericsen

Sonya Kelliher-Combs was first introduced to the work of Susie Bevins-Ericsen as an undergraduate student in the Native Arts Program at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. “I was moved by her strength and determination to both challenge and enrich the lives of her audience and fellow artists,” says Kelliher-Combs. Impressed by how Bevins-Ericsen confronted social norms, Kelliher-Combs drew inspiration from how she “pressed the boundaries of what was considered traditional in the Alaska Native art field. She employed found objects, new materials and challenging subject matter.”

Bevins-Ericsen, known as Qimmiqsak in Iñupiaq, was born at Beechey Point, Inuit Nunaat (Alaska), a remote trading post operated by her father, the late Jack W. Smith. After his passing, Bevins-Ericsen then moved to the village of Utqiaqvik, formerly known as Barrow, where, as Kelliher-Combs describes, “She grew up much like her ancestors: living on the land hunting, fishing and harvesting what was needed,” eventually moving to Anchorage, Alaska, where she was taught English in public school. A deep connection to Iñupiat culture has always informed Bevins-Ericsen’s work, which rose to prominence with the commissioning of numerous public sculptures throughout the 1980s and ’90s.

Alongside her innovative sculptural practice, part of Bevins-Ericsen’s legacy has been her advocacy. As Kelliher-Combs says, “She has been a tireless arts advocate, serving on numerous committees, boards and has been a teacher and mentor, impacting the lives of countless young people.”

Sonya Kelliher-Combs

Sonya Kelliher-Combs is an Iñupiaq/Athabascan mixed-media visual artist with family roots in the North Slope and Interior Alaska. Her work is manifold. Visually, she connects intergenerational knowledge with material histories to make art that is informed by her culture and experience as an Indigenous woman. Throughout her work in curation, community engagement and advocacy, she seeks to create opportunities to feature Indigenous voices. Kelliher-Combs regularly examines the connections between Western and Indigenous cultures, by creating opportunities to share the experiences and skills of other artists also navigating between the two cultures.

Much of her work draws from legacies of traditional women’s work and she builds new personal symbolisms from these legacies, establishing a unique visual language that is deeply tied to materials such as fur, hide, wool, walrus gut, wax and thread. An artist who has shown widely across the United States and internationally, Kelliher-Combs is also the recipient of numerous fellowships. Invited by Susie-Bevins Ericsen, Kelliher-Combs was also a founding board member of the Alaska Native Arts Foundation.


Anne-Birthe Hove
Five Letters (2007) Lithography 50.7 × 68.9 cm

Inuit Nunaat (Kalaallit Nunaat)

Anne-Birthe Hove

Artists and the land are inherently interconnected. The land is part of what feeds creativity. All of this is evident in artworks like the lithographs of Sermitsiaq (an island mountain northeast of Nuuk, Inuit Nunaat (Kalaallit Nunaat) by late Kalaaleq artist Anne-Birthe Hove (1951–2012) whom Lisbeth Karline Poulsen identifies as a key figure in the region. As a graphic artist, Hove used various techniques to translate the meaning of significant landmarks and the challenges they face as spiritual beings affected by the changing world. The symbolic meaning behind her practice lies within the framework that there is a direction we are all headed in and, while uncertain, there are many ways of tackling historical and contemporary challenges.

Beyond her artistic work, one of Hove’s major achievements has been collective: she was a co-founder and an early leader of KIMIK, the Association of Artists in Greenland. “There were a lot of amazing women who went to the Academy of Fine Arts in Denmark because we were not able to study fine arts in Kalaallit Nunaat. Anne-Birthe Hove was one of them, and so was Arnannguaq Høegh,” Poulsen explains. Led by a desire to create a stronger platform for fine arts in Kalaallit Nunaat, Hove, Buuti Pedersen, Miki Jacobsen and Jessie Kleemann founded KIMIK in 1995. The group serves multiple functions: operating a studio and workshop in Nuuk, acting as an artist union and as an organizer for exhibitions. Like Poulsen says, “It is lonely to do art,” but both Poulsen and Hove have shown us that there are whole communities standing behind each artwork, filled with truths and layered understandings of our connection to each other.


Anne-Birthe Hove
Five Letters (2007) Lithography 53 × 71.4 cm

Lisbeth Karline Poulsen

Lisbeth Karline Poulsen is a multitalented Kalaaleq artist and mother of two who is active in KIMIK, an association of artists from across Kalaallit Nunaat. Poulsen’s artistic works often address the complexity of a mixed-Indigenous heritage, including the complexities of identity, womanhood, city life and many forms of artistic expression such as theatre, textile art and photography. With this background, Poulsen creates art that ties itself with everyday life, cultural identity and the historical connection between Kalaallit Nunaat and Denmark. 

Poulsen considers herself a mediator for her art and, in our interview, she emphasized that her art is meant to be shared: it is an exploration meant to be accessible for everybody. For Poulsen, art is constantly being informed by everyday life; art is an energy that never dies. For Inuit, this energy is called Inua—the accumulative spirit of our environments, ways of life and our self-expressions.


Hans Ragnar Mathisen
Tacitus ’98 A.D/Goahti (1998) Woodcut and monoprint 55 × 62 cm

Sápmi (Norway)
Hans Ragnar Mathisen

“In the ’60s and ’70s, artists in the Mázejoavku (a collective of Sámi artists based in the village of Máze, Sápmi [Norway]) were challenging very colonial notions of what art was,” Liisa-Rávná Finbog explains. “Hans Ragnar Mathisen was one of the artists within the Máze group that hasn’t always been recognized. One of his major projects was to take on the role of the cartographer—to go out and remake maps of the Sámi homeland.” Mathisen created maps that integrated Indigenous languages and land-based knowledges, and illustrated tensions between human- and non-human relations. “Today when people talk about Hans Ragnar, they mostly think about the maps—which are absolutely awesome!—but he is one of those amazing artists, who has done everything from oil paintings to watercolours to carvings.”

Mathisen has also been very politically active throughout his life, providing friendship and mentorship to young Sámi activists, including Finbog herself. She recalls, “He would come to political events with his art and he would try to sell it. It is a bit funny because there is an idea that something is only really good art if it’s not accessible to the common people.” But according to Finbog, some of Mathisen’s most powerful work has come in the later years of his career, in the form of bookworks. “Sámi language is a very verbal language in the sense that it is focuses on process as opposed to the final result, unlike English, which focused on nouns. In Sámi literary traditions, the spoken word and art have been the biggest ways that we have documented, shared and transferred knowledge. Hans Ragnar’s books are in the space in between these two different traditions, but traditions that are equally literary. I don’t know if people really understand the importance of this yet—there is something really beautiful about what he is doing, but it’s also incredibly profound.”

Liisa-Rávná Finbog

Liisa-Rávná Finbog, a Sámi scholar and duojár (craftsperson) from Oslo, Vaapste and Skánit in Sápmi (Norway), navigates what it means to be Indigenous in connection with the dynamics between fine art and politics in her work. Also the co-curator of the first ever Sámi Pavilion at the 2022 Venice Biennale, Finbog is deeply invested in Sámi methodologies, a theme she highlighted in our interview with personal stories about spending time with her grandmother on the land. As in many Indigenous cultures, there are certain Sámi teachings that are passed down generationally that are not currently represented in academia. These teachings are often directly related to the ways we recognize those who lived before us. Finbog describes this relationship as “growing up with the understanding of art and what aesthetics are,” indicating that this is key to the continuation of Indigenous knowledge. This understanding is fundamental to her practice now—whether it be in the arts, in academic institutions or in activist struggles for Sámi sovereignty.


Katarina Pirak Sikku
Suojehis ruoktu | Defenseless home (2015) Digital photograph
Sápmi (Sweden)

Katarina Pirak Sikku

In speaking about artists whose legacies have been influential, Monica L Edmondson explains: “What inspires me is really the work of the hand of previous generations and I struggle to pinpoint one single artist’s work. If I’m working with textile, then I might look at Britta Marakatt–Labba. If I am working on sculpture, I look at Ingunn Utsi or Annelise Josefsen. I would also like to mention the importance of art by Anders Sunna. Craftwork, music, film and literature is very close to the field of visual art. I really think it is a non-Indigenous way of thinking to divide our ways of expressing ourselves into different categories and fields of art.”

Edmondson conscientiously notes Katarina Pirak Sikku as a trailblazing figure in the part of Sápmi that currently falls within Swedish borders. Pirak Sikku’s artistic practice often concerns Swedish racial biology as it affects generations of Sámi people. As a photographer, illustrator and installation artist, Pirak Sikku intertwines her work with historical facts and texts to enact her own sense of activism both personally and in the public realm. Part of her research entails analyzing Swedish cartography and responding from a Sámi perspective, carefully examining visual elements of her culture to gain a better understanding of how her people came to be, and mapping her family’s lands based on local knowledge.

In her work, Pirak Sikku represents how Sámi people are connected to the land, supported with oral histories that are passed down within each family—marking the permanence Indigenous people have with the natural world and the practices that sustain it. The marriage of contemporary artistic practices with traditional knowledge and ongoing political concerns makes Pirak Sikku an inspirational artist.


Photos from Katarina Pirak Sikku's series Agálaččat bivttastuvvon sohkagotti ivnniiguin, Ihkát ájttegij bájnoj gárvodum, För evigt klädda i ättens färger, Ihkuven aajkan maadtoej klaeriejgujmie gåårveldihkie (Perpetually Wound in the Colours of the Ancestors) (2021) on display at the exhibition Hurting and Healing: Let's Imagine a Different Heritage, at Tensta kontshall, Stockholm, Sweden, 2022

Monica L Edmondson

Monica L Edmondson is a distinguished Sámi glass artist based in Sápmi (Sweden). She completed her visual arts degree in Australia in 1999, and she has worked in art ever since, exhibiting worldwide. Edmondson often collaborates with architects and other artists to fully engage the public with her practices, especially in projects exploring coexisting notions of fragility and strength for Sámi people in Northern Europe. “We all need to raise awareness of our people and our issues,” Edmondson says, referring to Sámi identity in both a social and political sense. All her work is made with Sámi identity present and she aims to tell stories that evoke curiosity about her culture and people, presenting work in public spaces but also honouring practices that “might not be visible to everyone.” Across all of Edmondson’s work the act of looking at art, creating it and sharing it involves a high level of care and gratitude for materials, artists and generational knowledge.


Untitled (Triptych) (1987) Acrylic 160 × 120 cm each

Sápmi (Finland)

Anniina Turunen describes Áillohaš (Nils-Aslak Valkeapää) (1943–2001), as a significant artist “that has always been there,” recalling fondly seeing his books on her grandparents’ bookshelves as a kid. Áillohaš was a philosopher, poet, painter, joiker (traditional Sámi singer), composer and actor in films—as she says, “a rockstar” of Sámi art, who has opened many doors for Sámi artists today. Áillohaš is well known for his poetry collection, Beaivi, áhčáčan (1988), meaning “The Sun, My Father,” for which he received the Nordic Council Literature Prize in 1991, but Turunen also points to his 1971 pamphlet, Terveisiä Lapista, meaning “Greetings from Sápmi,”—which championed Sámi rights in the face of cultural erasure and articulated a philosophy of life that rejects separations between different forms of art—as an influential work. Áillohaš’s impact on Sámi art has been immense: from participating in the revitalization of joik,to  contributing to Indigenous philosophy, to acting as an ambassador and advocate for Sámi culture through establishing artist and writers’ unions and festivals.

Reflecting on Áillohaš’s legacy, and the impact of the generation of Sámi artists who rose to prominence in the 1970s, Turunen notes a major lesson: “Be more playful with the materials,” because then, “You can be creative, open. There isn’t a certain way where, when you work like this, then you’re a Sámi artist.”

Áillohaš was also known as a mentor, teacher and advocate for young Sámi artists—and his influence persists. His rejection of artistic categories and embrace of experimental work that traverses art and politics has also influenced the advice Turunen gives to her students: “You’re never ready. You don’t have to be ready. You can experiment as much as you want and develop your skills.” Áillohaš’s legacy of reviving Sámi culture both influences new work and brings back older traditions to be celebrated and honoured.

Anniina Turunen

Multidisciplinary artist Anniina Turunen embraces natural and human-made materials in her wide-ranging textile practice, which integrates traditional Sámi craft techniques, weaving, silkscreen printing, museum research, poetry and political activism. Also a lecturer in duodji at the Sámi Education Institute in Inari, Sápmi (Finland), Turunen identifies herself as a duojár, explaining that duodji encompasses “not just art, and not just handmade items to be in use. It’s everything.” She emphasizes the expansiveness of duodji, saying, “It’s your mind, and your hands, and ancestors, and what you’re doing and the future. Everything is related. It’s also about the material—how you work with it.”

Much of Turunen’s work, which often reflects on issues like climate change and rights to the Sámi homeland, builds on the work of earlier generations of textile artists, duojárs and activists. In 2022, Turunen participated in The Vuogas Way: Sániidkeahtta hállát, a project launched by the Lassagammi Foundation that premiered at the Markomeannu Festival and which reflected on Áillohaš’s legacy and design philosophy.

Editor’s Note: 
While the IAQ has a long history of bringing together emerging, established and legacy artists from the Inuvialuit Settlement Region, Nunavut, Nunavik and Nunatsiavut, our coverage of intergenerational artistic relationships outside of Canada has been limited. For this reason, when working with Maloney on this piece we asked her to focus on speaking with artists based in the five regions you see here.

Malayah Enooyah Maloney
is originally from the Qikiqtani region of Nunavut, with maternal roots in Mittimatalik (Pond Inlet), Inuit Nunaat (Inuit Nunangat), and paternal roots in Cape Breton, NS. Her personal artistic work primarily includes textiles, photography and hand-poke tattooing. Maloney is currently pursuing a BA in First Nations and Indigenous Studies at the University of British Columbia, located on the unceded territories of the Musqueam, Squamish, and Tsleil-Waututh Nations. Maloney is most inspired by teachings gifted to her by friends, family and mentors who have supported her growth as a young arts professional and emerging multidisciplinary artist.


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

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