When the show was over I went back to my room, sat down on the edge of the bed and began to cry.
This was March 15. I had just come from covering the opening of I Can’t Make You Those Mittens Because There is a Hole in My Heart and My Hands Hurt, an exhibition by Jeneen Frei Njootli. The show was being held in a gallery in Peterborough, Ontario and I had driven out from Montreal to be there.
I Can’t Make You Those Mittens is presented without explanation. There is an essay on Frei Njootli’s work by Olivia Whetung available for purchase, but the show itself is left achingly open to interpretation. Frei Njootli is a member of the Vuntut Gwitchin, a First Nation whose expansive traditional territory is centred in Old Crow, a fly-in only community in the Yukon. Frei Njootli describes her practice as being inextricably tied to the land and life of the Vuntut Gwitchin. I have lived in the Yukon for most of my adult life.
The hide of a barrenlands caribou from the Porcupine herd features prominently in I Can’t Make You Those Mittens. It’s the first thing you see when you walk into the gallery, looming above you on a black wall. The show, which the artist herself describes as “sparse,” is very loosely spaced, which gives this piece a weight it would not otherwise have in a more crowded setting. It’s impossible not to stare at. It’s magnificent.
The hide was harvested by Frei Njootli’s brother, she said. She brought the skin back—still wet, unfinished—on the plane from the Yukon to Vancouver, where she lives and works.
As well as being an artist in her own right, Frei Njootli is one of the founding members of the feminist, Indigenous social media project ReMatriate. I had interviewed her once before, in Whitehorse, during a show by that group honouring her godmother, Lorraine Netro, a Vuntut Gwitchin elder and longtime advocate for the Porcupine caribou herd. The future of the herd is currently threatened by the recent American decision to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, where the caribou calve, to oil exploration and drilling. This issue is one of more than mere ecological preservation—the Gwich’in have relied on the Porcupine caribou herd for thousands of years, and consider them of a spiritual and cultural importance that a non-Gwich’in person would be hard-pressed to comprehend.
The Gwich’in word for the calving grounds—where oil companies would like to drive trucks and cut up the earth and pump out the oil to fuel more trucks—loosely translates to “the sacred place where life begins.”
I’m not a Vuntut Gwitchin person. I think, though, that it’s impossible for anyone who has ever seen a caribou—one lone caribou, black against the snow, moving with his measured steps towards some purpose you cannot see—to not grasp that there is something sacred in them.
I Can’t Make You Those Mittens is designed to incorporate senses and features not customarily found in a standing art exhibit, Frei Njootli said. The time of day, the way the light moves across the room, whether or not some elements—such as a cymbal attached to a power tool which turns to spin it at designated intervals—are active when the viewer is present all influence the way the show might be perceived. Smell is also a subtle but powerful element. When the cymbal is turning, for example, it not only gives off a sound, but the constant rubbing of the tool along its edge causes it to give off a faintly warm, coppery aroma as it wears the metal down.
Likewise, the caribou hide has its own odour—earth, smoke, flesh, musk. The smell makes me unspeakably homesick. As it warms under the lights and the presence of the bodies in the gallery it grows increasingly pungent.
Certainly, that smell, coupled with the nostalgia of being home and not home, is part of why I found myself so shook up later. But what really unhinged me was a sound.
For a crowd of about 20 people, Frei Njootli gave a one-time sound performance as part of opening night. Frei Njootli works in multiple mediums, including sound art, for which she builds her own microphones and component parts. She used beads falling, felt caught in machine parts, dragging, scraping things over various surfaces and—the thing that really rattled me—the sound of metal cymbals for the performance. Not smashing together, as they would typically be used, but rolling, faster and faster, spinning on their topsides like dropped plates.
I was seated on the lip of the window with my back against the glass and my notebook propped against my knee. The sound thrummed through my chest and stuttered in my breast bone and hummed in the window behind me. The noise was so thick it had a metallic taste, rising higher and higher like a shouting match in which neither person can be heard, like an argument about to turn towards a violence which both people are helpless to prevent.
When I am working as a journalist, there are often things I cannot say. We are not supposed to share opinions, are discouraged from forming connections with our subject matter, and, while it is impossible not to having feelings, those feelings should never show on our face. A journalist is supposed to observe, not partake. But this sound—this splendid, terrible sound—shook my heart and left me struggling to continue to hold that mask in place.
When asked, afterwards, by another listener, what I thought of that particular sound, my answer was immediate— oppressive. The woman, a professor from the local university, was surprised, only partially agreed.
“But I feel like it was alright,” the professor said. “Because (the artist) was there to direct that sound.”
I had not felt alright about it. That sort of noise is not something that can be controlled. I wandered around the gallery as the night wound down, making notes, watching other people talk, think, socialize, react, trying to keep a straight face. Something in me had been struck my that sound and continued to reverberate. There was a too-full and yet curiously empty feeling in my chest I was at a loss to explain.
The night ended. I went for a drink. As I sat at the bar at the Only Cafe on Hunter Street, I wrote in my notebook—five, six, seven times, on a blank page, right in a row— what is that sound?
I drank the first beer. I ordered another. Half way through the second drink, something loosened up, clicked. Pen still in hand, I wrote, beneath that— that sound is the sound of someone you love hurting you and you don’t know why.
That sound—the way it rolls around you and vibrates through you, the way it surrounds you, is uncomfortable and familiar, a sound you struggle to understand through that discomfort, that you struggle to both push away and embrace—is one I knew in a strange, misplaced way. The sound of someone you love hurting you and you don’t know why. A feeling anyone who has ever covered a bruise given to them by someone in the next room knows. A feeling many, many women know.
I stared, stunned, at what I had written.
I knocked back my drink and went back to my rented room. When I was finally alone I looked at the notebook again and came undone.
I don’t know why that sound did what it did. Someone else, hearing the exact same sound at the exact same moment would almost certainly not have had the same reaction. I think there are some places in everyone that are like silent animals—you can ask them all day long why they do what they do, but you’re never going to get an answer.
That’s perfectly alright. And I’m grateful. It’s a beautiful thing, to see or hear something outside yourself that’s also inside yourself, somehow. It’s not a bad thing, to be made to cry.
Frei Njootli’s show I Can’t Make You Those Mittens Because There is a Hole in My Heart and My Hands Hurt runs at the Artspace gallery in Peterborough, ON, until April 16. It is part of a year-long series of solo shows by Indigenous women hosted by the gallery.
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