Jeneen Frei Njootli: my auntie bought all her skidoos with bead money
At the Contemporary Art Gallery until September 16
On the opening night of Jeneen Frei Njootli’s exhibition at the Contemporary Art Gallery, the air was redolent of smoke and musk. The scent, an olfactory allusion to a beaded jacket of tanned caribou skin we never saw, had vanished by the next day.
The absence of jacket and then scent spoke eloquently of the fugitive nature of this young artist’s interdisciplinary practice. By her request, there was no recording of her sound performance later that evening. And the major sculptural works in the show, four large steel sheets that lean against the walls of the gallery or lie flat on its concrete floor, are marked with forms and designs that shift in size, shape, and density, like clouds on a distant horizon. Like smoke.
Frei Njootli’s art is powerfully connected to the land, history, and culture of her Vuntut Gwitchin First Nation, located in northern Yukon. At the same time, her creative interests are aligned with the feminist Indigenous media collective ReMatriate, of which she is a founding member. She is a rising star in the art world: even before graduating with an MFA from UBC in 2017, Frei Njootli had won considerable critical and curatorial attention and acclaim.
Her CAG show, my auntie bought all her skidoos with bead money, alludes to conditions surrounding the beadwork for which the women of her nation are celebrated. One of Frei Njootli’s strategies is to wrap her hands, limbs, or bare back in beadwork and impress the patterns into her skin. With her body as a printing plate and the steel sheets as her ground, she uses grease to impart the beadwork patterns onto the surface of the steel. The printed image may initially reveal the fine particulars of the beadwork, but then will become more generalized dark smudges from which the evidence of the beads has disappeared. Processes of oxidation and rust on the panels also occur during the run of the show, further thwarting our search for the original beaded patterns.
In willing, a new video commissioned by the CAG, a single take of the impressions of beadwork on the artist’s back—red dots against the pale landscape of her skin—is played backward and forward in an endless loop. Projected greatly enlarged onto another steel plate, the bead pattern gradually forms and equally gradually disappears. As with the grease prints on steel, the predominant strategy here seems to be one of refusal.
Still, curator Kimberly Phillips suggested, while touring the Straight through the show, that Frei Njootli is honouring the art of Gwich’in women, especially the women of her family, and at the same time, protecting it—and them—from consumption by a system that is capitalist and patriarchal. It’s a system that has long enacted itself in the form of violence upon the bodies of Indigenous women.
During Frei Njootli’s sound performance, her vocalizations intertwined with subtle percussive effects played on one of her steel panels and electronically modified. For a few haunting moments, sounds reverberated in the air and in our bodies, thrumming in our diaphragms. Then they disappeared forever.