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Vuntut Gwitchin artist Jeneen Frei Njootli works in ‘sound and dust and residue’

New solo exhibition brings a unique piece of the North to Peterborough, ON
Crystal Schick/Yukon News file Vuntut Gwitchin artist Jeneen Frei Njootli, seen here applying quotes to a wall at an exhibit in Whitehorse, has a new solo exhibition which brings a unique piece of the great North to Peterborough, Ont.

Lori Fox | Special to the News

By the end of the evening, the smell of the caribou hide — smoky, animal, musky — is much stronger than it was in the beginning.

Maybe it’s because the air has thickened up as night has fallen, or because the 20-some bodies milling about in the gallery have raised the temperature in the room and heated up the skin. Either way, as the evening peters out and people take their leave, the smell lingers.

If you stand and take a deep breath through your mouth you can taste it. The hide rests against a black wall, limp, at a height which forces the viewer to look up; it gives the impression of being somehow alive, as if the caribou has casually slipped out of his skin for a moment and hung it up so it wouldn’t get wrinkled.

This solo exhibition, entitled I Can’t Make You Those Mitts Because There Is a Hole in My Heart and My Hands Hurt, is designed to change in subtle ways as time goes on, to be influenced by the hour the viewer is in the gallery, says artist Jeneen Frei Njootli. The show’s title, written in large, bold letters on the gallery windows, is difficult to read from the inside, as it appears backwards. But as night falls, the light from the street lamps causes the shadow from the painted letters to fall across the floor, allowing them to be read on the inside as they would be on the outside.

Frei Njootli is a member of the Vuntut Gwitchin First Nation, currently living in Vancouver, as she says in her biography. She is one of the founding members of the feminist, First Nations social media project, ReMatriate, and an increasingly well-known artist in her own right. It is hard to pin down exactly what sort of artist Frei Njootli is — performance, visual, textile, sound — which may be part of her appeal.

“I work in sound and dust and residue,” Frei Njootli says of her own work.

“What I do isn’t for everyone. Sometimes, when I perform, people walk out, and that’s perfect…. I want to rattle walls.”

I Can’t Make You Those Mitts Because There Is a Hole In My Heart and My Hands Hurt was accompanied by a one-time performance by Frei Njootli on the March 15 opening night. The piece, which included the use of sound filtered through microphones Frei Njootli builds herself, did indeed rattle the walls. You could feel the sound as a tremendous, near-physical presence, alternately scattering like hail or pressing down, hard, on your chest.

The show’s title, Frei Njootli says, is the result of the emotional and creative hardship of her recent artist residency at SOVA in Dawson. It reflects the way many Indigenous women are feeling right now, she says.

“So many of us are feeling tired,” she says. “So much is expected of us, often that we provided free labour, emotional labour.”

On the wall, pinned in place by a long iron rod, a mitten pattern hangs, unfinished. Its shadows cast unusual and curiously unsettling shapes.

The show is, by Frei Njootli’s own description, “sparse.” There’s a lot of open space, the pieces themselves are minimal, placed far apart from each other. This spartan arrangement is intentional, she says.

“I think it’s important to allow work to breathe more, not to crowd it,” Frei Njootli says. She specifically avoids the use of traditional, Western-style displays, like the use of plinths, which can make work feel “static.”

“I’m wary of that history of display, how Indigenous work is usually displayed,” she says. “I find it evokes a museum aesthetic and that aesthetic has always deadened us.”

I Can’t Make You Those Mitts Because There Is a Hole in My Heart and My Hands Hurt is the second show in a year-long series of solo shows by Indigenous women at Artspace. Frei Njootli says that having these solo exhibits is important for Indigenous women, as their work often just gets “lumped” together as simply “Indigenous” which doesn’t give the individual work the proper weight and depth it otherwise would deserve.

Artspace director Jonathan Lockyer says that is precisely the gallery’s intention — to give Indigenous women artists the space to stand out on their own, allowing audiences to appreciate the works outside of these preconceived categories. The gallery, he notes, did not receive any special funding for this series, but rather made the series part of its general programing.

“I want people to be confronted by what are both subtle and assertive aesthetic examples of (Frei Njootli’s) identity as a Vuntut Gwitchin person,” Lockyer says.

“You don’t have to be Vuntut Gwitchin or from the North to understand what she’s doing here.”

Speaking with Frei Njootli, it’s immediately and powerfully apparent how deeply influenced by politics her work is — an inevitability, she says, of being who she is.

“(Indigenous artists) really don’t have a choice about whether or not or work is political.”

The show was accompanied by an essay by Olivia Whetung entitled Fugitive Dust. The essay explores Frei Njootli’s work and practice as a Vuntut Gwitchin artist, going in depth into some of Frei Njootli’s previous work.

“Frei Njootli creates a liberatory space in performances, a space where she can look and create with a Gwich’in gaze,” Whetung writes. “She escapes the cage of cognitive imperialism through her creation of fugitive motion.”

Whetung is Anishinaabekwe and a member of the Curve Lake First Nation. She is also an artist, focusing on beadwork, printmaking and digital media.

Lockyer says he will be sending copies of Whetung’s essay to various institutions in the Yukon, where they can be read by the public.

I Can’t Make You Those Mitts Because There Is a Hole in My Heart and My Hands Hurt runs until April 16 at the Artspace Gallery in Peterborough, ON.

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