Thursday, 22 September 2016

ARCTIC SOLES AND ARCTIC SOULS: ART AND INNOVATION AT THE BATA SHOE MUSEUM


EXHIBITION REVIEW

BY: SADIE MACDONALD


Art and Innovation: Traditional Arctic Footwear from the Bata Shoe Museum Collection. Photo Credit: Sadie MacDonald.
This week I went to the Bata Shoe Museum for the first time! Generally shoes aren't my friends (having flat feet with a significant discrepancy in size will do that to you), but I easily put that troubled past aside while visiting here.


These shoes rule. Source.
I especially enjoyed the semi-permanent exhibition Art and Innovation: Traditional Arctic Footwear from the Bata Shoe Museum Collection, which opened earlier this year. If you haven’t gone to see it yet, you really should!



This exhibition features boots, clothing, and sewing tools from various people who live around the Arctic. Cultures from three continents are represented, from Inuit to Sami to Nenet. The showcases are grouped by region (Greenland, Canada, Alaska, Western Siberia, Eastern Siberia, and Sápmi) and are positioned according to those regions’ respective location around the Arctic within the room’s space (clever, clever). This project is the result of field research organized by the Bata Shoe Museum, and interviews and demonstrations were conducted with the objects’ makers. The opening statement reminds us that “many of the boots in this exhibition have a story to tell.”


The Art and Innovation exhibition's glacial ambience. Photo Credit: Sadie MacDonald.
The room is lined with sharp-edged, glacial white displays that surround an expanse of space. Interspersing this cold set-up are the stunning and eye-catching featured objects, which imbibe the area with vitality and activity. The exhibition design reflects the popular idea of the Arctic as a barren wasteland and simultaneously challenges that notion by pointing to the vibrant and diverse cultural traditions of those who live there.

While they are all grouped under this exhibit as part of the Arctic in general, the articles on display are from a variety of cultures and were made for a variety of purposes from a variety of materials. Utility, ceremony, gender identity, and straight-up artistry are common themes. Materials include reindeer pelt, seal intestine, grass, fish skin, and duck skin.


Slippers made from eider duck skin – seriously! Meeko, Silatik. Sanikiluaq, Belcher Islands, Nunavut, Canada. 1989. Photo Credit: Sadie MacDonald.
I really appreciate how this exhibit credits nearly all of the makers of the objects on display, and in the very few cases where the artist is not known, the label acknowledges it. The labels also frequently provide the artists' cultural background and their reasons for making the pieces. This personalized labelling was part of a deliberate effort to avoid the anonymity that tends to accompany indigenous artifacts. Senior curator Elizabeth Semmelhack wanted to move past the “anonymous maker” concept; in this exhibit, “we know the names of all the makers, who they made the pieces for, and why they were made in that way.” Sometimes museums present indigenous works as generalized, representative examples of the cultural practices they originate from, but here, these objects have particular stories and were made by and for specific people.


Siberian white reindeer boots. Moldanova, Natasha. Beloyarsk, Ob Basin, Siberia, Russia. 1980s. Photo Credit: Sadie MacDonald.
The boots above, for example, were made in the 1980s by Khanty seamstress Natasha Moldanova for her son Valery. He would wear them while undertaking activities like hunting, fishing, and the annual March reindeer festival. You can learn more about Siberian reindeer boots like these at the Bata Shoe Museum blog here.


These must have taken forever to make. Okadluk, Leah. Arctic Bay, Northwest Territories, Canada. 1987. Photo Credit: Sadie MacDonald.
My personal favourite were these awesome sealskin kamiks made by Leah Okadluk, an Iglulingmiut Inuit artist, for the 1987 Bata Shoe Museum Foundation Decorated Moccasin competition. She won second place (Joyce Growing Thunder Fogarty won first). These show a complicated fur inlay technique, in which the artist crafts stylized motifs from aligning different types of fur in a smooth effect. Get a load of those polar bears!


Take a closer look at that snout. Photo Credit: Sadie MacDonald.
The photo above shows traditional Sami shoes called gallohat. This pair was made by Berit Karen Bongo Utsi for her husband Nils using the pelt off a reindeer’s head. See where the nose is? And with that nose fur the artist managed to get the nice curled toe that is distinctive to Sami footwear.

The exhibited objects are in beautiful condition – lots of glossy pelts and bright colours here! Most of these items were made during the 20th century by skilled craftworkers. It’s an important reminder that these are contemporary objects involved in ongoing cultural traditions and everyday activities, and not artifacts from dead, ancient history as popular perception too often casts indigenous works. Here, they are alive.

True to their word, there are many stories told by these shoes. Give them a listen sometime!

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