Content note: This article contains a brief mention of the transatlantic slave trade.
After closing a show of historical paintings in 2017, the Nuuk Kunstmuseum team began thinking about how expedition travel across water has been traditionally represented in arctic art.
“In our collection and in many others, you only ever see the destinations, but they might have been travelling on the boats longer,” says Director Nivi Christensen. “There is also the role water played in Denmark colonizing [Kalaallit Nunaat] Greenland and other former Danish colonies.”
Interrogating this idea of the sea as “in between” became the starting point for Nuuk Kunstmuseum’s 2021 exhibition Atlantikumi, meaning “In the Atlantic,” which features older and newly commissioned works by Kalaaleq performance artist Jessie Kleemann and Danish-Trinidadian artist Jeannette Ehlers, alongside pieces by the late Kalaaleq and Danish visual artist Pia Arke (1958–2007). Set against the expanse of the Atlantic Ocean, all three artists examine the political repercussions of colonialism and its effects on personal identity and history-making.
Here, Christensen takes Inuit Art Quarterly behind the scenes of Atlantikumi, which she considers to be one of her favourite exhibitions since arriving at Nuuk Kunstmuseum eight years ago.
Installation view of Atlantikumi (2023)PHOTO NUUK KUNSTMUSEUM
Inuit Art Quarterly: How did you approach the artists?
Nivi Christensen: We started with discussions on coloniality, the meaning of water, the meaning of being and of not being one thing or another. Then we asked, “What would happen if you placed yourself in the Atlantic Ocean?”
IAQ: Were you surprised by their responses?
NC: Many of the artists’ previous works fit within the narrative but it was still surprising that this theme really resonated with them personally.
IAQ: Did the artists see connections between their practices?
NC: Yes, but not only with the works, but also as individuals. The two artists present really wanted to work together and were very honoured to be in the same room as Pia Arke. It was all about bringing those three artists together. We know that Jeannette is reflecting on Pia’s work. And from now on, she and Jessie will be reflecting on each other’s work.
IAQ: What mood did you want to evoke?
NC: We wanted the feeling of the ocean. It doesn’t fit with the idea of the Atlantic to have works close to each other—we wanted the space to feel very big, very airy and light.
Jeannette Ehlers Waves (still) (2009) Video installationCOURTESY NUUK KUNSTMUSEUM © THE ARTIST
This video felt almost as if the Atlantic Ocean was flooding the space. It was installed on a full wall with three projectors covering floor to ceiling. The sounds from the waves were bold and overwhelming. On the opposite side, we had Kleemann’s video where she is crawling up on the bay, which was installed with a tonne of sand on the floor. The sounds from the two pieces mixed together, influencing the many ways to experience the show.
Jessie Kleemann Kinaasunga (stills) (1988) Video installationCOURTESY NUUK KUNSTMUSEUM © THE ARTIST
This is possibly the first-ever video piece produced in Kalaallit Nunaat but it had never been shown here. We wanted to include it because this exhibition explored the personal side of being “in between”—who am I and who am I in the context of two or three different countries—which is what Kleemann was exploring in ’88.
Pia Arke Old School Map (2) (1992) Pencil, parchment paper and North Atlantic map 64.5 × 47.2 cmCOURTESY NUUK KUNSTMUSEUM © THE ARTIST
Old School Map (2) (1992)
There was a solo exhibition of Pia Arke’s work happening at the same time and so there were many pieces we would have liked to use that we couldn’t. We tried to borrow this one,
where she drew on an old-school map the colonial trading routes between Kalaallit Nunaat and the Caribbean (documenting the triangular Atlantic slave trade.) We knew this piece captured the feeling that we wanted. In my mind, this piece is still part of the exhibition. Afterwards we purchased it and now it’s a part of the museum’s permanent collection.
Jessie Kleeman and Jeanette Ehlers speak about their work included in Atlantikumi
This Feature first appeared in the Spring 2023 issue of Inuit Art Quarterly.