Jeneen Frei Njootli’s solo exhibition in the B.C. Binning Gallery, my auntie bought all her skidoos with bead money, speaks to refusals, belongings, loss and love, through a new and deeply personal body of work. Its propellant is a series of cultural belongings which are not, in fact, on view: hand-sewn beadwork gifted to Frei Njootli by the women of her family. On first entering the gallery, visitors encounter four large-scale sheets of steel leaning against the walls and floor. Upon their surfaces we catch fugitive impressions left by the beads, which have been pressed into the artist’s skin and then transferred, by way of grease prints, from her skin to the steel. As they inhabit the gallery’s atmosphere over time, the steel plates gradually respond to their environment and, depending upon humidity and temperature fluctuations, the spectral floral patterns might approach the viewer or recede from view, as though of their own volition.
A member of the self-governing Vuntut Gwitchin Nation, Frei Njootli’s practice is both invested in and materially tethered to that community, its way of life and the beings that support it. Her relationship to the matter with which she works is not abstract but defined by her lived experience in the far North. Moving between media, she considers the nature of her culture’s belongings (she rejects the term “artifacts”) as they are entangled with ancestral memory, contemporary community and care. She navigates their complex relationships to her own impermanent body and to the continued consumption of Indigenous people’s histories, labour and knowledge. In her actions and interventions, she asks repeatedly of herself and her audiences: Who or what is the sender? Who or what receives?
Fundamental to each of Frei Njootli’s works is a reconfiguration of that which is “given to be seen.” Settler colonialism is intimately linked to patriarchy and capital and thus has always been — and continues to be — a systemically gendered process. It is, as Leey’qsun Coast Salish scholar Rachel Flowers argues, “invested in gaining access to land and resources through the dispossession of Indigenous peoples, violently or legislatively, a process that begins with the body, specifically the bodies of Indigenous women.” In our current political moment in Canada, even with its audible shift toward recognition and reconciliation, colonial violence has not ended, and the burden on Indigenous women (art workers, mothers, Elders) to continually give of themselves, their culture and their forgiveness persists. For many Indigenous artists and activists, refusal has become a political practice, and for Frei Njootli, it defines the shape of her feminist-iterated survivance. By setting limits on what can be viewed and consumed, she simultaneously negates access to information and affirms her own sovereignty.
The imperative of capitalist consumption is to work toward smooth and glossy surfaces that conceal signs of labour. Frei Njootli’s grease-printed marks are of the type normally eschewed by the gallery — fingerprints should not be visible on artworks. By insisting on their presence, Frei Njootli not only honours the legions of women who hold Gwich’in culture — first of all her grandmother, who beaded the prickly northern wild rose imagery that appears in this work — but begs a consideration of all the unknown labourers who have handled this steel: who smelted the iron ore? Through whose hands did it travel? Through whose traditional territory?
At the back of the gallery is a new video work commissioned by CAG for this exhibition. A single take, played forward and then in reverse in an endless, seamless loop, records the slow appearance of an expansive panel of floral beadwork impressed upon the artist’s bare back. Projected at a scale echoing that of the steel sheets, Frei Njootli’s skin — which exceeds the boundary of the image — becomes an expansive, slowly undulating field. Almost imperceptibly, the patterned impressions emerge, as though produced by the skin itself.
Skin is a boundary-object: the site of both exposure and connectedness. The complex, living landscape of Frei Njootli’s recorded skin, not unlike the caribou-crossed terrain imaged in Frei Njootli’s 2017 video work Being Skidoo or the fugitive grease prints on the steel works, reminds us that the experience of being embodied is always already mediated by our continual interactions with other human and non-human bodies. Frei Njootli’s marks are indices of interconnectedness and interdependence. Their legibility reveals a deep pride in her community and the land that sustains it; their fleetingness evinces her desire to protect them both. As Unangax scholar Eve Tuck and artist C. Ree have so powerfully written, “I care about you understanding, but I care more about concealing parts of myself from you…I am using my arm to determine the length of the gaze.”
An artistic practice never develops in isolation, but is entwined with and strengthened by the voices of many others. In recognition of this, while at the same time acknowledging that a community’s knowledge always exceeds that which can be encapsulated in written form, the artist and curatorial team, in partnership with Simon Fraser University, have assembled a library to accompany the exhibition. It is hoped that these books, which span subjects from Gwich’in language to poetry to feminist theory, might offer numerous different entry points into the work of Jeneen Frei Njootli, and create a space for study, reflection and discussion.