Most people have never heard of Pia Arke, which is a shame, because she was an artist who took on one huge subject: the colonial takeover of indigenous peoples by those who termed themselves “explorers” and “discoverers”. There’s a great deal of horror inherent in any indigenous peoples experiences with colonialism. Unsurprisingly, indigenous women got the worst of it.
In the spring of 1995, Danish-Greenlandic artist Pia Arke was digging through the archives of New York City’s Explorers Club. She was searching for maps, ethnographic images, and scientific miscellany that she could repurpose into collages that confront Greenland’s colonial past. Arke knew early 20th-century adventurers often, by turns, demeaned and romanticized her Inuit ancestors. Even so, one photo from American explorer Robert E. Peary’s collection shocked her: a native woman, topless and screaming, restrained by two fur-clad and seemingly untroubled white men. A curator told Arke the woman could have been suffering from a madness called Arctic hysteria.
More than 20 years later, Arke’s mesmerizing film Arctic Hysteria, which she created the year after she found that dark photo, was looping endlessly in an alcove at Denmark’s Louisiana Museum of Modern Art. Situated in a small town along the Baltic Sea about 50 kilometers north of Copenhagen, the Louisiana Museum enjoys the kind of international acclaim that makes it a dream exhibit space for most artists. Arke’s work was part of last year’s star-studded exhibit Illumination, which featured such luminaries as Ai Weiwei, Cindy Sherman, Jeff Wall, and Gerhard Richter. The flashiest Arke piece on display was Legende I-V, a series of five collages of Greenlandic maps and sepia-toned family snapshots layered with imported commodities such as rice, sugar, and coffee. Legende I-V is physically imposing—it dominated an entire gallery wall—and hauntingly beautiful. The foodstuffs function both symbolically and texturally, the photographs evoke the warmth of kinship, and the cartographic lines of Greenland, stamped with place names referencing colonial explorers (Peary Land, Humboldt Glacier, and Kane Bassin, for example), loom insistently over everyone.
Arke’s Arctic Hysteria is equally magnetic. The performance, which lasts six minutes, is silent and consists almost entirely of one scene: Arke crawling naked across a giant black-and-white photo of Nuugaarsuk Point, a spit of land at the terminus of a C-shaped bay. The artist lived there, outside the small town of Narsaq, Greenland, with her parents and siblings in the late 1960s. In the video, Arke strokes the artificial landscape, rolls across it, and sniffs it like an animal. Then she methodically rips the entire thing to shreds, gathers the curled shards of paper, and lets them fall across her shoulders and thighs. The intimacy of the performance and the title’s historical allusion are classic Arke.
Historical context points to alternative interpretations. Inuit women labored at the very bottom of the social hierarchy on Peary’s expeditions and in his camps, expected to sew, fish, carry wood, and submit to the Americans’ sexual desires. Peary, for example, fathered two sons with his Inuit laundress, Ahlikasingwah. His navigator, Robert Bartlett, viewed one woman’s hysteria as simple protest, or “pure cussedness.” Accounts described women who seemed intent on escape or dissent leaping over the ship’s railings or shouting for a knife. Expedition member Donald MacMillan recounted finding a woman named Inawaho naked and screaming, presumably unaware of her surroundings and out of her mind. But as soon as MacMillan pulled out his camera, Inawaho hurled huge chunks of ice at him and later begged him to destroy the photos. Were these women, in fact, crazy? Or were they reacting perfectly rationally—even bravely—to their circumstances?