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Guest Curating a Film Program at the Whitney Biennial: An Interview with asinnajaq

May 02, 2024
by IAQ

Established in 1932, the Whitney Biennial which takes place every two years in New York City, NY, is known as the longest-running exhibition survey of American art and artists. But this year the Biennial curators decided to shift away from a focus on the United States and lean in to highlighting more international artists and curators who facilitate conversations across colonial borders. asinnajaq, a filmmaker and curator originally from Inukjuak, Nunavik, QC, joined this year as the first-ever Inuk guest curator. She played a large part in incorporating international Indigenous voices into the show—eight of the 20 international artists included in the Biennial are featured in asinnajaq’s film program “The Land Wants You.” 

In this program, asinnajaq brings together films by Indigenous artists from around the world—from Sápmi to Mongolia—whose films are grounded in place, land stewardship, kinship and care. The program includes a number of filmmakers from the circumpolar North: Inuk/Taíno/Haitian artist Siku Allooloo and Sámi artists Jenni Laiti, Niillasaš-Jovnna Máreha Juhani Sunná Máret – Sunna Nousuniemi and Lada Suomenrinne; as well as Canadian Mongolian animation artist Alisi Telengut; Mongolian artist Zulaa Urchuud; Oglála Lakȟóta artist Kite; Mapuche artist Seba Calfuqueo; and Líl̓wat artist Sydney Frances Pascal. The IAQ caught up with asinnajaq to talk about what it was like to guest curate for the Whitney Biennial. 

Lada Suomenrinne_Mun&Don
Lada Suomenrinne MUN & DON (You & Me) (still) (2019) Film

IAQ: What are the films in the program about?

a: When I was in high school we did superlatives and I was voted “Most Likely to Save the Earth.” And I think a lot about that—the dynamic of what it means to “save” something.

I don't think we can “save” the Earth; I think that we can become in better relation with it. That has to do with our relationship with ourselves, with the people in our lives and with the environment. So in this program, the films are pieces of this puzzle of thinking about how we are in relation with ourselves, caring for ourselves, but also not seeing ourselves as alien in natural environments. If we're in good relations, our presence is not a burden; it's necessary as a part of the functionality of the environment. The films touch on these layers: our relationship with ourselves, with our family, with our land and seeing how those all blend and are important together.

IAQ: As a curator and film programmer, how do you find new films and filmmakers? 

a: Either through personal instances of meeting or going to exhibitions and seeing people's work. 

I got to meet Seba Calfuqueo [whose film is included in this program] in Paris at the exhibition Reclamer la terre at Palais de Tokyo in 2022 where we both had work. I found that her work was so incredible, powerful and had a gentle sensibility that I found really beautiful. Many years ago I did a residency in Grande Prairie, AB, where Sydney Frances Pascal was one of the other invited artists and our work had been curated together. Later, she reached out to me to talk about film and in that process shared what she was working on. I was so blown away by her work which came to mind immediately for this program. I only learned about artists in Mongolia because I got invited to go to a film festival in Ulaanbaatar called Golden Ger and then met beautiful and really talented people. Meeting others does make the biggest impact on me as a person. I feel that's a part of my unique perspective.

I also work as a programmer right now at BlackStar Film Festival, which focuses on films by Black, Brown and Indigenous artists, and I've worked at different festivals over the years. I also run my own called Tillitarniit, which focuses on Inuit film. That way, I stay in touch with Inuit, especially, who are making films. 

Siku Allooloo Spirit Emulsion (still) (2022) Film 

IAQ: How did you choose the title “The Land Wants You” for this film program?

a: When I was making this program I was doing a residency in Sápmi in Gáregasnjárga and I brought a computer for doing work. But it's not the place to be on your computer all day, because the land wants you to be out on it. It wants you to play and run around and be in relation. And so I was thinking, especially [for] this program, screening in New York City—what do I want to share with New Yorkmiut?

Access and relationships to the outdoors, land, air and everything is very different when you're in a city. There are generations of people who don't necessarily have a connection at all. So in thinking about these people, if I could tell them anything, it's that the land wants you. It's for everyone to know that the land wants to be in relation with us. It's not just a want, it's really a need, a two-way need. We don't exist without it. 

IAQ: Without giving too much away, what can viewers expect from the films in this program? 

a: There is ASMR, whispering and sounds of objects. A specific Mongolian dialect that names the things of the world and universe with hand-painted animation. Archives. Real love between a person and snow. Really beautiful landscapes and sunsets. Sadness. Longing. Mending of relationships. And love.

It’s just very beautiful, honestly.      

Films in the “The Land Wants You” will screen on Friday, May 3, 2024, at the Whitney Museum in New York City. Select films are also available to watch online through MUBI.  

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. 


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