Ever-present and Continuous: Jeneen Frei Njootli in Sobey Art Award 2018
“When did your art practice begin to resemble what it is now?” The question – an icebreaker intended to get interview subjects comfortable talking about themselves – generally elicits a rundown of degree programs, exhibitions and milestone projects. Not with Vuntut Gwitchin First Nation artist Jeneen Frei Njootli, however, who shoulders the question by its foundation instead. The Whitehorse-born, Vancouver-based artist is representing the West Coast and Yukon as a finalist for the 2018 Sobey Art Award and her work is on view in the Sobey Art Award Exhibition opening this week at the National Gallery of Canada.
The artist recalls words spoken recently by Musqueam weaver Debra Sparrow about the Salish Weavers Guild, whose work is currently on view, alongside Frei Njootli’s, in Beginning with the Seventies: Collective Acts at the Morris and Helen Belkin Art Gallery in Vancouver. “She was talking about some of the belongings displayed on the walls,” she explains, “and said: ‘Some people look at this and they call it art. For us, this is just part of our life.’”
“In terms of when did my art practice take shape,” Frei Njootli continues, “if art is just part of our lives, then it has always been in the making.” Her grandpa was a painter, she says. “My family on my father’s side are all incredible makers. I was stitched into clothing as a kid by my mom. All of these things shape us.” She operates with an understanding of art not as activities sanctioned or institutional, but rather as a way of being that is ever-present and continuous.
The 29-year-old makes art across multiple disciplines, using sound, textile, performance and workshops and exhibits across multiple stages. Some of Frei Njootli’s works are intended for museum spaces, some for community centres, and some for runways. Some actions happen just for the land, without human audience at all. Her artworks tend to defy the limited, static and preservable qualities ascribed to much “fine art”. What she shows is often a shadow: the traces or residues of something that has happened, as collaborator Olivia Whetung has written. The true act, once put in motion, escapes into the world. Her work has a fugitive nature.
Frei Njootli has been included in exhibitions at the Southern Alberta Art Gallery, the Vancouver Art Gallery and the Contemporary Native Art Biennial, as well as the Adäka Cultural Festival in Whitehorse and Indigenous Fashion Week in Vancouver (2017) and Toronto (2018). She is also co-founder of the ReMatriate Collective, an online group promoting the sovereign and ethical representation of Indigenous women in media.
An example of her multi-faceted work is her performance in Ambivalent Pleasures at the Vancouver Art Gallery in 2016–17. Frei Njootli set up a guitar amp, effects pedals, a mixer, an angle grinder and a “sound tool” made from a caribou antler and contact microphones overtop of a sheet of black photo backdrop paper. She handed out respiratory masks and ear plugs to those in attendance. She played the sound tool by taking the grinder to the antler. It sprayed a fine dust that hung in the space like a cloud. “It smells like a dentist’s office,” someone once told her. Describing another such performance, the dancer, art historian and curator Mique’l Dangeli said she could hear the land. “She heard wind, she heard animals; she could picture the land where I come from,” Frei Njootli says.
Once the dust in these performances settles in the gallery, it marks the outlines of patch chords, guitar pedals and the artist’s performing body on the photo backdrop, which remain in the gallery space as the only document of what has happened (Frei Njootli does not like using photos or videos to evidence her performance). Some dust escapes into the world — maybe on the clothes of witnesses, maybe circulated out by building ventilation. As it proceeds to disperse further and further, the performance continues even after her guitar amp has gone quiet.
The artwork she is presenting at the Sobey Art Award Exhibition, originally in the exhibition my auntie bought all her skidoos with bead money, deals similarly with residues, what they evidence and what goes unseen. The pieces consist of two large rectangular steel plates, about 1.2 by 2 metres. Frei Njootli chose beadwork items made and gifted to her by members of her family and pressed them into her body so their patterns were imprinted on her skin. Then, using grease, she transferred the images from the surface of her skin onto the steel plates. During the exhibition, the artist will perform on one of the plates as a sound tool.
The work is charged by an absence. The audience is not permitted to view the beadwork belongings - objects created during art activities practiced regularly within Frei Njootli’s community and pieces too often viewed by settler culture only under display glass. Instead, visitors see the effect of the belongings as transmitted by the artist’s body.
Just as the antler dust continues its fugitive journey, the plates — handled, shipped and exposed to different elements — have evolved since Frei Njootli first exhibited them. Rust has begun to bloom on their surfaces. The markings have shifted and changed, she says. Although the material suggests permanence, the art is still in the making. It is in flux.
Her artwork, so intertwined with a way of living, has something of a life itself. It resists containment. It runs free.
Jeneen Frei Njootli is one of the five finalists of this year’s Sobey Art Award. Her work will be on view in the Sobey Art Award Exhibition at the National Gallery of Canada from October 3, 2018 to February 10, 2019. The winner will be announced on November 14, 2018. To share this article, please click on the arrow at the top right hand of the page. Subscribe to our newsletters to stay up-to-date on the latest Gallery news, and to learn more about art in Canada.