Arctic Culture Lab

Handmade Selkie

excerpt from project presentation by Andreas Hoffmann at Arctic Art Summit, Rovaniemi, June 2019:

Designers, artists, knowledge bearers and experts from Greenland, Faroe islands, Iceland, Norway, Denmark, Finland and Åland in search of a contemporary artistic expression for the mythology of Selkies, striving for the goal to resume, explore and disseminate knowledge about seal as a forgotten cultural resource of the North.

For the Coastal Sami people of Northern Norway as for all indigenous peoples of the North seal is one of the most important natural resources and commodities, a fact which explains why this animal is also very present in the narrative of the North. The several thousends of years old story of Kiviuq, the eternal Inuit wanderer, starts with a handicapped boy who is abused and mobbed by others. He takes revange by transforming into a seal, alluring his persecutors out on the sea where he creates a storm which killes his tormentors. Eventhough the boy with power to transform has no name, this epic story of the Inuit finds new ground east of Greenland, on Iceland, the Faroe islands, Orkney islands, Shetland where the name Selkie appears. For almost two years and in collaboration with many researchers, storytellers, knowledge bearers and historians I am tracking this story, a journey which is to be continued.

The story of Selkie, a creature with the ability to shift shape from human to seal and vice versa, is pretty complex and touches a whole scale of topics. It is exciting to see how the folk-lore travels from Beringstreet to the Gulf of Bothnia while due to christianisation we find changing elements in the opposite direction from the Gulf of Bothnia to the Eastcoast of Greenland. Beside philosophical, educational and spiritual levels, the story also proves the importance of seal for circumpolar communities of the North.

Please look at your right hand. Compare it with your neighbor`s one. How big, how long grown is the skin between your fingers? To compare this so called interdigital webbing was a popular childrens`s game on the Åland islands about 75 years ago as elderly people told me.

We intend to think about seal as the classical resource of Greenland and North Canada. But also in Northern Norway, Sweden, on Iceland, the Faroe islands and Finland seal was an important resource for clothing, food and oil as many documents and photos tell us, like this picture of a shooting sled with camouflage sail is from Västerbotten in Sweden. Seal skin shoes found on Holmøn close to Umeå, provided with steal spikes to walk on ice. Seal hunt 1980 at Varangerfjord in the North of Norway. The Greenlandic artist Karale Andreasson depictures seals as tupilak/evil spirits in 1931. Long time ago, you might say, but to expose a seal head in front of your house to protect your property from bad spirits as it was practised still by the end of the last century in Bottenviken close to Luleå. In 2007 the post of Faroe islands released a series of stamps designed by Edward Fuglø telling the selkie story without words.

Today, in times where cultural appropiation and the question of ownership are on the daily agenda, it is important to learn about knowledge exchange and adaptation while respecting local practises, often related to the inhabitants of a small place.

What was it that made seal losing its importance for European coast dwellers?

Well, as Alethea Arnaquq-Baril summerizes in her 2016 documentary Angry Inuk there is a political agenda about the ban on trade with sealskin thanks to populistic anti-sealing campaigns in the 70s, 80s and 90s which had a devastating impact on many indigenous communities of the North and eventhough Greenpeace appologized for the damages noone even tried to fix the mischief. On the other hand: seal reacts to the impacts of climate change, environmental  pollutants and extraction of resources. The ecosystem of our Arctic oceans is a fragile one.

In Northern Norway the coastal Saami have been most negatively affected by the brutal colonialistic measures of the so called Norwegianization. Together with researchers I could identify more than 50 words in the Saami language describing seal and the use of seal. Thats almost the same amount the Saami language uses in terms of reindeer herding. However, the use of seal is no longer relevant for coastal Saami communities and the knowledge about processing parts of the animal is disappearing.

When it comes to the Gulf of Bothnia the loss of see ice as a result of climate change showcases what many Arctic communities experience today. Climate change and environmental pollution is threatening culture heritage. But nature is partly adapting and i.e. seal is doing very well in the Bothnian sea. The same facts are reported from many other locations of the European North and several interest groups, like the fishing industry, is calling for regulation by seal hunt. But how can we handle a resource if we lost traditional knowledge and are not eager to find new paths from tradition to innovation?.

This are some of the reasons while Arctic Culture Lab with support from Nordic Culture Fund started last year the project “Handmade Selkie”as continuation of our Seal culture revitalisation project back in 2016. Together with designers, artists, knowledge bearers and experts from Greenland, Faroe islands, Iceland, Norway, Denmark, Finland and Åland but also Alaska and Canada we are searching for a contemporary artistic expression for the mythology of Selkies, striving for the goal to resume, explore and disseminate knowledge about seal as a forgotten cultural resource of the Arctic North. To work in groups was important to stimulate sharing and to avoid the selfdefinition or extern view on the artist as the lone creator of a singular vision.

Mythology was taken as a starting point. During days of brainstroming we tried to formulate what the story of transformation does mean to us today. How can we define differences between transformation and shapeshifting? How can seal be crafted, circulated and curated as metaphor, material and as a way to understand the entangeled social, cultural and biolgical knowledge of the North? Which political, philosophical and spiritual responsibilities appear in terms of colonisation and safeguarding peoples identity? How many human attributes can an animal stand, how animalistic can human be? Is this form of transformation a way towards a better understanding of nature? Or is mythology a misleading tool? 7 x

The interdiscplinary project asked participants to go beyond the question of materialiy by looking at the subject from the perspective of material culture. Since we are living in a world where meet is packed in a way which doesn`t make the consumer think about shape, smell, movement, appearance or even colour of skin/fur of the animal that we consume, an important part of the workshop was the contact with the animal as a whole. So we went seal hunting and everyone interested got basic experience in preparing a seal skin. The result of hard work made people happy.

We asked artists to investigate the entire animal, to experiment with all kind of materials provided by seal but also to gain a basic understanding for the complex processing of single parts: skin, leather, intestines, claws and bones. Not to forget the tasting experience sice seal is local food transporting itself to the consumer.

As result we got a whole bunch of scetches, models, experimental abstracts and secret outlines from alien-like seal leather sculpture, through a gut chair, some at first glance more traditional with lots of hidden details, some grabbing the tactile form to experiments with jewelery.

With this project we want to resume, explore and disseminate knowledge about seal as a forgotten cultural resource for design, contemporary arts and handicraft. At the same time, the project is about the innovative development of material use with a sustainable ecological footprint which, because of its highly aesthetic look, can contribute to the so-called Blue Economy. Thereby we hope to stimulate a more facta based discussion about seal hunt, to kick off smal scale businesses dealing with seal products and to contribute to the practical implementation of indigenous knowledge of theArctic.


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