Of all the mediums Jeneen Frei Njootli works in, perhaps none is more resonant than the passage of time. Her performances are built around what comes after—how an artistic creation will be held in space once she leaves, living on in people’s minds.
Picture, if you will, contact microphones, some amps, a caribou antler, and an angle grinder. Those are the central pieces of Frei Njootli’s 2018 exhibit, I Can’t Make You Those Mitts Because There Is a Hole in My Heart and My Hands Hurt. The Vuntut Gwitchin artist put grinder to antler in a one-time performance, creating an inescapable sound.
“It leaks and bleeds and is not really capable of being contained,” she says of the antler’s song.
The fine white powder produced from the show settled elegantly around the electronic equipment and even the crowd. A black backdrop and platform, dusted in caribou, becomes the only evidence of the performance, and that too is temporary.
Born in Whitehorse and now based in Vancouver (where she just took on a role teaching performance and sound art at the University of British Columbia), Frei Njootli is a past recipient of the William and Meredith Saunderson Prize for Emerging Artists and the Contemporary Art Society of Vancouver’s Artists Prize. In 2017, she was long-listed for the national Sobey Art Award. Using a mixture of media, textiles, sound, and performance, her work explores relationships with cultural regalia and the social history of Indigenous art.
Such art originates from a point of refusal. Information, material, even the artist’s presence are often withheld in her work. History, culture, and politics are alluded to in shadow and absence, demanding engagement from viewers.
For her Sobey Art Award exhibit, she presented a piece entitled my auntie bought all her skidoos with bead money. Beadwork items, made and gifted to Frei Njootli by her family members, were pressed into her body and imprinted on her skin. The impression was then transferred with grease onto two dark steel plates. At first glance, the resulting pattern isn’t even identifiable as beadwork. Withholding that beauty is important, she says.
“I want to find other ways of showing images. Our work, our people, our materials are so beautiful. I think sometimes people expect that in our work and I’m grumpy so I don’t want to give it to them!”
As such, many of her pieces defy a static framing of “fine art.” That, too, is by design. Historically, she says, Indigenous artwork has been displayed with a deadening “museum aesthetic” that strips away the artist’s voice.
“I’m really wary of how Indigenous women have been represented in the media,” she says. “For a long time, we haven’t had sovereignty over our images.”
It’s one of the reasons she co-founded the ReMatriate Collective—an Indigenous women’s art collective that aims to collaborate with and empower female artists from across western and northern Canada.
“We began because we wanted to fight for ethical representation of Indigenous women in media. It’s really hard when the only representations you see of yourself in media make you want to bawl your eyes out.”
Giving back to her community like that is vital. When talking about her work, Frei Njootli first and foremost makes sure to pay respect to her family. Her mom, grandma, aunts, uncles, cousins, dad, brother, and all those “who’ve shared so much with me.”
She also feels intense gratitude to Old Crow for helping her get through school. At the top of her mind—whether she’s producing new art or mentoring young artists—the question Frei Njootli always asks is, “how does this work benefit Old Crow?”
So many have already sacrificed so that this artist’s song can be heard. Honouring that history is the only path forward.
“It’s not really a choice. We all need to lift each other up.”