Contemporary Art Under the Sign of Sedna

Issue no5
Oct-Nov 2021

Across the circumpolar North, the story of the water goddess Sedna prevails as one of the most beloved and animated myths of Inuit culture. Several artists recently devoted work on this myth, amongst whom Shuvenai Ashoona and Shary Boyle, whi currently participate in the berlin biennale in Berlin.

Across the circumpolar North, the story of the water goddess Sedna prevails as one of the most beloved and animated myths of Inuit culture. For communities born of open-water hunting and fishing, it is no surprise that Sedna is a key figure for she is the one who governs the sea and maintains its plenitude. But Sedna is more than a cultural fabulation; she is a lively actant who could not be more contemporary, especially for Inuit artists who give articulation to the perturbations of climate change in the Arctic. Sedna is making an appearance on the world stage and brings with her a sensibility for how myths of water are vectors for the global transformations that act on the earth’s oceans and waterways.

Since the 19th century, the myth of Sedna has captured the imaginations of anthropologists and explorers who recorded the many variations of her story across Alaska, the Northwest Territories, Nunavut, and Greenland. The story of Sedna culminates in the creation of sea mammals: the whales, narwhal, walrus and seals that sustain the Inuit. But her myth tells of so much more about Inuit social economy as well. The story begins with the dilemma of Sedna’s status as young woman who refuses to marry, and the struggle that ensues as her father tries to place her with a husband. As the story unfolds Sedna’s father is tricked into brokering a marriage agreement with a man who was secretly part fulmar (an Arctic sea-bird). While he had promised that he was a successful hunter and would provide Sedna with plenty of food, when she arrived at her new home she discovered the truth about the birdman: that not only was he not a hunter at all, he only ate fish and his home was covered in smelly fish-skins. When her father came to visit her and he saw how unhappy she was; he killed the birdman and tried to bring her home in his kayak. However, the two were swarmed by a flock of vengeful fulmars. They beat their wings and stirred up the ocean until, terrified, Sedna’s father flung her overboard as a sacrifice. When she clung to the edge of the boat, her father cut off her fingers all the way to their stumps. Her fingers sunk down into the ocean and became the sea-creatures: walruses, seals, narwhals and whales.

The etymology of Sedna’s Greenlandic name, Aiviliajoq, has been traced to its roots aiv, meaning “giving”, iliaq to denote a temporal doing, iaq meaning “plenty” and joq “one who”. In full, her name connotes “the one who periodically [seasonally] brings plenty of useful things.” In times of duress when animals are scarce—times when Sedna is said to be angry—an angekok (shaman) must turn into a fish and travel to the ocean underworld where she still dwells. The shaman must clean and braid her hair since she cannot do it herself with her disfigured hands. The balance between the community and the sea is therefore upheld through the care and comfort of Sedna.

As the world of contemporary art grapples with the legacies of global colonization and resource extraction—particularly climate change and its symptoms such as warming ocean waters, glacier melt, changing animal migration patterns, animal extinctions, and the European embargos on the industries of the Arctic Inuit—the figure of Sedna has begun to appear with particular vigor. At the 2012 Liverpool Biennale, Greenlandic artist Jessie Kleemann performed a work called Sassuma Arnaa, “Mother of the Deep,” another moniker for Sedna. Over the course of the performance, Kleemann enacted different aspects of the myth and set these to a haunting vocal by singer, Iben Mondrup and sound by Niels Lynge. She demarcated the space of the performance by hanging beakers of seal blubber. She then moved through this space, and eventually in and out of the audience. Initially, she covered her naked body in a white textile, writhing underneath it in such a way as to simulate metamorphosis from raw matter. She eventually disrobed to her underwear and heightened the facets of exposure, aggression and abandonment that characterize the story of Sedna. Taking one viewer’s glass of red wine, she poured it over herself inferring bloodshed. She then took a handful of ice cubes and painfully rolled them over her fingers, letting them fall to the ground in a gesture that suggests Sedna’s dismemberment. In this way, Kleemann connoted the mechanism of sacrifice on which sea life and Inuit livelihood relies.

As art historian Kristen Thisted argues, Jessie Kleemann’s performances are rife with the ambivalent position of Greenlanders, who were stigmatized by the colonial lens of Danes and other Europeans who disdained Inuit practices of hunting and cooking, especially their pervasive use of pungent smelling blubber. In the postcolonial era, there has been an impetus to counteract the colonial lens and affirm the beauty of Inuit identity with an embrace of the practices of drumming, dancing and of course, myth. Yet, Kleemann’s performances surface the more complex feelings of shame, loss and inferiority that are the inheritance of the colonial view of Indigeneity. Her performances are also a vector by which to reveal how the condition of sea life is interwoven with Inuit economy, identity and performative expression. Sassuma Arnaa not only retells the myth of Sedna, it calls on that myth as specifically relevant to the plight of independence for Greenlanders, as well as their abandonment and disfigurement at the hands of paternalistic colonialism.

The figure of Sedna expresses the lived impact of climate change, moreso than any scientific fact or economic prediction. Her myth illustrates an ideal economy with the sea and a value system that upholds its balance. When Kleemann reenacts her story of origin, she calls forth an original perturbation of that balance, the periodic need to reciprocate the generosity of her sacrificed fingers. But what was once a cycle of mythic sacrifice and reciprocated care is now a deeply compromised value system. Indeed, it seems that Sedna’s ocean underworld reacts to the contemporary predicament by generating phantasms that show how compromised sea-life has become. Sedna’s myth is changing; her story is not that of a young woman tricked into marriage and sacrificed by her father. Rather, she is the guardian of the sea who faces the betrayal of Southerners who occupy her domain and pollute her waters.

Consider two drawings by Shuvenai Ashoona, an Inuit artist from Cape Dorset, Nunavut: the first, Titanic, Nascopie and Noah’s Ark and the second Universal Cobra Pussy, a collaborative drawing with Toronto-based artist Shary Boyle. In the first, Titanic, Nascopie and Noah’s Ark, Ashoona visually recounts the historic sinking of the RMS Nascopie, a supply ship from the Canadian Hudson’s Bay Company that sank in the icy waters near the Cape Dorset harbour, where it struck uncharted reef in July of 1947. The story of the sinking of the Nascopie is still remembered by the elders and is a favourite story that has been depicted in the work of several of the Cape Dorset artists of Ashoona’s generation. This oral history is transcribed and transformed by Ashoona’s hand, as she summons images, entities, and associations from the colonial, to the Biblical to the monstrous. The ship is identified by three names written on its starboard: the Nascopie, the Titanic—another ship that garnered notoriety as a Victorian dream turned catastrophe—and Noah’s Ark. The latter reference not only evokes a global scale flood, but also resonated with contemporary climate change. Yet, in the drawing the presence of mythic animals alters the story of Noah’s ark. Instead of the ship salvaging two of each species, the Nascopie seems to have elicited the presence of monstrous sea animals: a giant tentacled squid-like creature lurks in the depths of the water aiming at the Inuit villagers who attempt to save the food and goods from the sinking ship. On the shoreline, a winged polar bear growls at the squid as her three young cubs scamper from the nearby cave. The squid appears as a spectral emissary from the icy deep, neither belonging to the angelic animal kingdom of the Arctic, nor of the colonial assemblage in the harbour, but rather something in between – an anarchical hinge between the two that aggressively binds this scene together. Does the squid come from the ship or did it ransack the ship from the depth’s of the sea? Is it an indicator of Sedna’s displeasure? Does it haunt the history of trade in the Arctic archipelago like a guilty conscience, floating up and sinking back periodically? What has been unleashed by Ashoona’s retelling of this history?

Universal Cobra Pussy further elaborates the new appearance of Sedna and her mythic world as a contemporary concern with the history of colonial territorialisation of the Arctic. The composition was titled whimsically by Ashoona, a set of three terms that loosely attach to elements of the scene but which also encompass something of the collaborative practice with Shary Boyle, which entailed freestyling and juxtaposing forms to create landscapes that are charged by Inuit mythology, Arctic landscape, and popular culture. Their practice runs counter to the ideological representation of Arctic landscapes as isolated, unpopulated virgin territory that is mysteriously subjected to the atmospheric conditions of climate change. Instead, Universal Cobra Pussy demystifies settler presence in the Arctic. Here, Sedna appears in the midst of a melted glacial landscape that seems to have been turned upside-down.

A profusion of planets float like untethered balloons above the scene, each one a world of blue waters and green life, but which now drift away leaving behind a scene of fantastical violence. The horizon line of an Arctic mountain range appears in the sky and has been turned upside down so that the delineation between sky, land and sea is uncertain. Sedna appears in triplicate (in the foreground, midground and background); a mermaid who has climbed on the shore. She exerts and contorts herself in poses that are at once reminiscent of yoga, the cobra pose to which the title refers. But these poses also suggest that she is writhing in pain. Her disfigured hands now appear as seal fins the push her body upward, miming the breaching narwhals that rise up from the water.

This phantasmic landscape is animated by floating signifiers of a distressed Arctic. It show both an apocalyptic end of the world and a wild proliferation of a mythic world. The end of the world and the rise of the mythic happen within one and the same set of limits, limits that are cut and inscribed by the sharp elements scattered throughout: the horns from narwhals that are themselves pierced and bleeding on the bank; spiders with incisors; an ulu and a knife; the teeth of an eel, and a profusion of angled geometric shapes such as stars, diamonds, and spades. Ashoona and Boyle recuperates Sedna’s world, but equally disfigure it with an arsenal of sharp objects.

Climate change brings a set of cold, hard facts about the global condition: rising sea temperatures, the growing numbers of animal extinctions, and the increased rate of melt of the cryosphere. But the causes of climate change and its intertwinement with imperial histories remain invisible in the midst of these facts. Yet the imbalances of this history, and especially the primary imbalance to sea-life registers in the recounting of Sedna’s myth in contemporary art. In this recounting, the world of the sea is assessed and the restoration of balance—between people and the sea—demanded. It behoves us to imagine this balance under her sign.


Amanda Boetzkes is Professor of Contemporary Art History and Theory at the University of Guelph. She is the author of Plastic Capitalism: Contemporary Art and the Drive to Waste (MIT Press, 2019),  The Ethics of Earth Art (University of Minnesota Press, 2010), and co-editor of Heidegger and the Work of Art History (Ashgate, 2014). She has published in the journals Afterimage; Postmodern Culture; The Large Glass, Art Journal; Art History; e-flux; Polygraph; Mediations; Weber; Reconstruction; and Antennae: The Journal of Nature and Visual Culture among others.

1 Harriet Newell Wardle, ‘The Sedna Cycle: A Study in Myth Evolution’, American
2, 1900, p. 570
2 Kirsten Thisted, ‘Blubber Poetics. Emotional Economies and Post-Postcolonial
Identities in Contemporary Greenlandic Art and Literature’, in: Sámi Art and
Aesthetics. Contemporary Perspectives
, edited by Svein Aamold, Elin
Haugdal and Ulla Angkjaer Jørgensen, Aarhus Universitetsforlag, 2017, p. 267-297

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Metropolis M Magazine for contemporary art No 5 — 2021