Contemporary Art Gallery: Jeneen Frei Njootli

Jeneen Frei Njootli
my auntie bought all her skidoos with bead money
July 13–September 16, 2018
Opening July 12 7pm
Contemporary Art Gallery

Jeneen Frei Njootli’s solo exhibition in the B.C. Binning Gallery, my auntie bought all her skidoos with bead money, speaks to refusals, belongings, loss and love, through a new and deeply personal body of work. Its propellant is a series of cultural belongings which are not, in fact, on view: hand-sewn beadwork gifted to Frei Njootli by the women of her family. On first entering the gallery, visitors encounter four large-scale sheets of steel leaning against the walls and floor. Upon their surfaces we catch fugitive impressions left by the beads, which have been pressed into the artist’s skin and then transferred, by way of grease prints, from her skin to the steel. As they inhabit the gallery’s atmosphere over time, the steel plates gradually respond to their environment and, depending upon humidity and temperature fluctuations, the spectral floral patterns might approach the viewer or recede from view, as though of their own volition.

A member of the self-governing Vuntut Gwitchin Nation, Frei Njootli’s practice is both invested in and materially tethered to that community, its way of life and the beings that support it. Her relationship to the matter with which she works is not abstract but defined by her lived experience in the far North. Moving between media, she considers the nature of her culture’s belongings (she rejects the term “artifacts”) as they are entangled with ancestral memory, contemporary community and care. She navigates their complex relationships to her own impermanent body and to the continued consumption of Indigenous people’s histories, labour and knowledge. In her actions and interventions, she asks repeatedly of herself and her audiences: Who or what is the sender? Who or what receives?

At the back of the gallery is a new video work commissioned by CAG for this exhibition. A single take, played forward and then in reverse in an endless, seamless loop, records the slow appearance of an expansive panel of floral beadwork impressed upon the artist’s bare back. Projected at a scale echoing that of the steel sheets, Frei Njootli’s skin — which exceeds the boundary of the image — becomes an expansive, slowly undulating field. Almost imperceptibly, the patterned impressions emerge, as though produced by the skin itself.