• Feature

Kalaallit Nunaat on the World Stage: Inuuteq Storch's Exhibition at the 60th Venice Biennale

May 16, 2024
by Kira Lennert Olsen

Two years ago in 2022, the Venice Biennale in Italy attracted 800,000 visitors from around the world. [1] Inuuteq Storch’s mom brought this statistic up to the artist during dinner on his last night in Venice, surrounded by friends and family, adding that she heard this year’s Biennale’s attendance could even surpass that number. He told us all to shush—it was inconceivable that his artwork could potentially reach such a vast audience. Storch’s achievement is monumental: he is the first photographer to have a solo exhibition in the Danish Pavilion, the youngest to ever present work and most significantly—the first Kalaaleq artist to represent Denmark at the Venice Biennale.

Gathered around the dinner table that night, we understood where Storch was coming from as achievements of such global scale aren’t common in Kalaallit Nunaat (Greenland). Our country’s population is only around 56,000, less than the number of seats in an American football stadium; we’re accustomed to cheering on Danish sports teams as they qualify for world championships and watching Danish movies receive prestigious nominations and awards. It wasn’t until this past year that a Greenlandic movie, Ivalu (2023), was nominated for an Academy Award. Representation of Kalaallit Nunaat on the world stage is scarce; due to a colonial past, our country is instead often represented by Danish figures. But our imprint on the world stage is most significant when told with our own native voices, not those of others. 

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Kalaallit Nunaat sign on the exterior wall of the Danish Pavilion.

Storch is from Sisimiut, the second largest city in Kalaallit Nunaat located right above the Arctic Circle. His exhibition Rise of the Sunken Sun, curated by Louise Wolthers, showcases both historical and contemporary photographs of Kalaallit Nunaat and everyday life, and it builds on themes of belonging, colonialism, decolonization and identity. The essence of the exhibition is to “tell the Greenlanders’ visual history, not seen through the visitors’ eyes, but through the Greenlanders’ own.” [2]  When I approached the facade of the Danish Pavilion, the words “Kalaallit Nunaat” covered the permanent “Denmark” sign—a symbol of the complex relationship between the two countries, while Kalaallit asserted their presence.

Colonized by Denmark in 1721, Kalaallit Nunaat gained home rule in 1979 and self-government in 2009. The latter marked Kalaallit’s recognition as its own distinct people with specific rights, whereas during home rule, Kalaallit were considered a unique society within the Danish realm; our political landscape has existed independently for only 45 years. However, with some political areas still under Danish jurisdiction, colonial influence remains a part of the Kalaallit reality. A paternalistic Danish voice has long dominated our context, with Denmark often portrayed as the parent and Kalaallit Nunaat as the child. This ongoing dynamic plays into the title of Storch’s exhibition Rise of the Sunken Sun, which hints to the sun as a symbol for the historically oppressed “son,” now emerging to claim its space and assert its voice. Visitors noticed the Kalaallit Nunaat sign as they entered the pavilion and from the expressions on some Danish speakers’ faces, it was clear that they felt this was a bold move.

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Installation view of Inuuteq Storch’s series Soon Will Summer be Over (2023)© THE ARTIST

Inside, four to five hundred photographs are on display in different rooms taken in various locations; from the capital of Nuuk, to Storch’s own hometown of Sisimiut, to Qaanaaq: the northernmost town in Kalaallit Nunaat. Qaanaaq was one of the last places to be colonized, and in the past, was a destination for explorers to get a snapshot of “authentic” Inuit culture. In these photos we follow piniartut hunters on the ice with dog sleds, both on their hunt and busy cutting up catch. Yet alongside these scenes of traditional life the images also reveal a stark reality: the ice has become increasingly unstable and dangerous to navigate on, speaking to the existential threat facing the way of life and hunting traditions of Inuit communities as our planet continues to warm.

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LEFT Installation view of Inuuteq Storch’s series Mirrored (originally shot by John Møller) (2021)
RIGHT Installation view of Inuuteq Storch’s series Keepers of the Ocean (2019)

In one dimly lit room, a large glowing sculptural element sits in the centre, resembling a red half circle that symbolizes the Arctic sunset and also seen in Erfalasorput, the flag of Kalaallit Nunaat. Illuminated photographs fill the walls; here, two photographic collages juxtaposed side by side immediately drew my attention. One side features solely black-and-white digitized archival photos by John Møller, the first professional Kalaaleq photographer. Taken between the late 1800s and early 1900s, the old photographs picture Danish and foreign figures working in Kalaallit Nunaat when the country was still a colony.

In the opposite collage, colourful images of Kalaallit youth taken by Storch himself include many faces that I recognize from home, and create a striking contrast. The two photo collages purposely mirror one another and display a nuanced portrait of the diverse figures and people of Kalaallit Nunaat, both then and now. This concept of mirroring made an impression on me as Danish figures have been an influential part in shaping us. Many Kalaallit have Danish family members, some of us even with a Danish parent, and with Danish being taught in schools and widely spoken, the language is deeply woven into our identity. Yet, in our society there exists a recognizable feeling among Kalaallit of not being good enough, due to a constant comparison to the Danish people.

Inuuteq Storch Venice_wall text Wall text inside the exhibition Rise of the Sunken Sun.

In that same room, amateur photographs taken by Storch's grandparents between 1940 and 2000 are displayed in a captivating slideshow. An ancestral dimension is a vital source of inspiration for this exhibition and an important aspect of Kalaallit culture that we share with many Indigenous and Inuit cultures. Quotes addressing the spirituality of his ancestors are subtly written on walls throughout the exhibition, almost unnoticeable to the eye. This passing on of ancestral knowledge, which includes hunting rituals and the connection to nature and questions of spirituality, has always played an important role for us. Exploring this connection falls in line with today’s decolonial movement in Kalaallit Nunaat, as we’ve begun to reclaim values and norms stemming from our Inuit culture that had become overshadowed by Danish values and religion.

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Inuuteq Storch inside the exhibition Rise of the Sunken Sun.

When I asked Storch what message he wished the audience would take away from his exhibition, he responded, “The exhibition is not about me or for me, but about the Kalaallit people and for my fellow Kalaallit and the Greenlandic society at large. . . . I hope that my contribution can foster dialogue within our community of where we are today and where we are headed.” [3] He emphasized similar sentiments during his speech at the opening of his exhibition. Storch’s opportunity to show the world what Kalaallit Nunaat is, what its people and our culture are, means a lot to us. As I congratulated him on his successfully executed exhibition which I was honoured to have witnessed, he made it a point to acknowledge and express gratitude to his family, friends and those who paved the way before him, for without their involvement the project would not have been a reality.

Hailing from Nuuk, Kalaallit Nunaat (Greenland), Kira Lennert Olsen is currently pursuing her master’s degree in Security Risk Management at the University of Copenhagen, Denmark. Like many Kalaallit, she is in Denmark for higher education due to the limited options at home; she obtained her bachelor’s degree in Arctic Social Science from Ilisimatusarfik, the sole university in Kalaallit Nunaat. Prior to her master’s, she spent a year teaching social science at the local high school in Nuuk, interned at the Greenland Representation in Washington D.C. and held positions as a student assistant in the Greenlandic foreign service, a role she continues in at the Greenland Representation in Copenhagen.

[1] “Biennale Arte 2022: The Biennale Arte 2022 closes with over 800,000 tickets,” La Biennale di Venezia, November 26, https://www.labiennale.org/en/news/biennale-arte-2022-closes-over-800000-tickets
[2] Danish Pavilion Instagram post, January 30, 2024.
[3] Conversation with Kira Lennert Olsen, April 2024.

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