Exploring Indigeneity in the Arctic

On Oct. 31, the Clark Art Institute hosted a talk in its lecture series in the Michael Conforti Pavilion. This recent talk, entitled “Arctic Ink,” was presented by Christopher Heuer. Heuer is currently working as a professor for the graduate art students at the Clark, and is the author of The City Rehearsed: Object, Architecture and Print in the Worlds of Hans Vredeman de Vries, as well as co-editor of Vision and Communism. His next book, Into the White, an expansion on his lecture’s focus on Renaissance conceptions of the Arctic, will be published in 2018.

Heuer’s introduction for the talk was a particular broadsheet illustration of a mother and child, abducted from the waters off of Greenland and toured as ethnographic specimens in several cities in Flanders around 1566. The duo was presented to the public of Antwerp, Belgium, in late 1566 in a printed publication that portrayed the two as “a wild woman with her daughter,” and claimed that the mother was known to be a cannibal. The woman and her child were incorporated into mounting narratives of exoticism and fear of savagery for the European consumers of this media. This encounter, seen in conjunction with the rise of stricter forms of Protestantism, negotiated the conception of native and non-native and the role of spectacle in the reception of these peoples in Belgium, Germany and other countries. Narratives of dehumanization were mobilized against peasants and “cannibalistic” native peoples alike, and Heuer spoke on how these subordinated groups had their status torn between that of  “animals, objects or property.”

The encroaching specter of capitalism beginning to develop in this early era of colonialism colored the ways in which Western peoples regarded themselves as globalized subjects. Emerging from the Renaissance, and impacted by new understandings of “cultural exchange,” these illustrations have a great deal to reveal regarding the framing and depiction of racialized othered subjects.

In his lecture, Heuer sought to complicate the common narrative of “cultural exchange” as a site for change and differentiation, and instead  to look to instances of colonialism’s stasis and mundanity. He brings in the written recorded experiences of explorers of the Arctic, marked by long periods of frigid and sometimes life-threatening immobilization among fickle ice flows, in contrast with the colonialist projects of Spain and Portugal, in tropical lands that seemed to teem with an abundance that was quickly exploited. Where they encountered and brought about the destruction of complex civilizations, English, Dutch and German explorers of the far North encountered no major civilizations, but rather scattered groups of peoples that lived among the ice nomadically.

In this space, the perpetually freezing and abating terrain was threatening and foreign in an entirely different way, as dangerous icebergs lay hidden below the surface and even one mistake could lead to the loss of an entire expedition.

Towards the end of the lecture, Heuer spoke about a crew of 17 people that set out from Amsterdam in 1596 that mistimed its journey and ended up marooned on the island of Nova Zembla, on the northern coast of Canada, for nine months. Though the crew managed to return after these long months with only two casualties, the harshness of the landscape and the fear it fostered were not lost on the men.

The narratives that the men captured were given shape by disorientation, darkness and immobilization. At this point, before the later sensationalized race to the North Pole in the early 20th century, an early account of the terrain was recorded by one of the crewmen on Nova Zembla, and in 1598 these writings circulated as an adventure story, popular among children and adults alike. In this talk, Heuer continually expanded on the power of texts and images to construct European imagining of the northern extremities of the Earth. During this period in the 16th century, while colonialism was changing the ways Europeans understood their relationship to the rest of the world, the Arctic and its Indigenous populations were phenomena to be marveled at, feared and captured. He concluded his lecture at the point when narratives of conquest gave way to life-threatening stasis, and brought out new ways of thinking about the globalized subject.

The next lecture the Clark will be hosting is on Tuesday, and is entitled “Baak: The Qualities and Craft of Ancient Maya Bone.”

Christopher Heuer explains how objects inform us about narratives of Renaissance globalization. Photo courtesy of Boston University.