Sedna, a beautiful finissage at NONAM | Polarjournal
Not to be missed! Before the mythical goddess of the Far North returns to the cold seas, don’t miss the opportunity to see or revisit the exhibition dedicated to her. Photo: Severin Nowacki

Sunday 17 March marks the closing of the exhibition “Sedna. Myth and Change in the Arctic” at the Nordamerika Native Museum (NONAM) in Zurich. Take this opportunity to experience the final visit with Martha Cerny, curator and director of the Cerny Museum of Contemporary Circumpolar Art and co-organiser of the exhibition with Heidrun Löb, director and curator of NONAM.

With more than 10,000 visitors, we can say that the Sedna exhibition was a great success since its launch in February 2023. And to close the exhibition, the Museum Cerny and NONAM go all out. With a documentary film, guided tour, workshop and vernissage of the exhibition catalogue and short exhibition film, Sedna will say goodbye in style. But before that, here is a look back with Martha Cerny on the exhibition which shares the Indigenous voices from the Far North.

What is your stocktaking of the SEDNA exhibition at the NONAM?

The exhibition has been very successful. People have been extremely interested. This is probably the first time that the public was able to see the multiple layers that are included, the different topics that the artwork is addressing, displayed in the impressive scenography, created by Markus Roost.

The seven different islands with ice blocks slowly decreasing on the different islands and the area of water getting larger as you go through the exhibition show the environmental challenges people are facing. I thought it was a great idea and it worked quite well because the public can really envision what is going on and even compare it with what is happening in Switzerland, particularly with the melting of our glaciers.

Spread over seven islands, the exhibition offers sculptures, prints, drawings, and films. A true journey through the circumpolar world. Photo: Museum Cerny

The different topics that are addressed are thought-provoking. Using Sedna as a red thread to go through the exhibition underlines the importance of this figure, how important this whole story is and how present it is. Sedna’s role has changed through times related to what people have been doing to their surroundings. 

Even if the Arctic is far away from us, we have, here in Switzerland, an influence on what is happening in the Arctic, with the jet-stream, the currents and our neglect to take care of our surroundings. 

What was the feedback you have received from visitors?

During the curators’ visits, there was always a minimum of 15 people. Often, we would start with a smaller group and more people would join when hearing the stories. 

Most of the reactions I’ve personally heard were “Oh, I never knew that!” or “That’s new to me.” or “I didn’t realise that”. Basically, it was a lot of reactions regarding the history that hasn’t been talked about. It’s always about how beautiful the Arctic is and how people are able to survive in those conditions, but there are other stories, you know. It’s not only about how surviving in this harsh environment but it is also surviving those external forces that people were obligated to deal with because of colonisation. And it’s about the trauma people have suffered and suffer today. 

One of the exhibition aims was to show wounds created and addressing those wounds as a part of the healing process. We felt it was one of the reasons the exhibition is existing: to amplify Indigenous peoples’ voices when they’ve been talking about their history, what has happened and their environment. These are voices that nobody has been listening to. And now it is really time to listen. 

One of the artists featured in the exhibition, Ningiukulu Teevee, has talked about how things have changed regarding hunting and how she feels about the animals. Their survival is now in question because of the environmental changes and pollution that people are exposed to. It’s really moving to start having people doing something to turn around the situation or stop its progress. It’s something positive.

“Change” Island tells the story of how Western colonization profoundly changed the way of life of circumpolar Indigenous populations. From forced settlement to population relocation through Christianization, the consequences are still dramatically present in the daily lives of the populations of the Far North, as represented here in this scene. In the center, the work of Bart Hanna Kappianaq, titled Confrontation, depicts a man (perhaps a priest or convert) defending himself against a shaman in bird spirit form. Photo: Museum Cerny

What were the exhibition highlights?

For me, the highlights were Arctic Day and Indigenous Day that were co-organized. At NONAM in June 2023, at Indigenous Day, the Duncan Family, Hoop Dancers, and H. E. Leon Kaulahao Siu, the Hawaiian Minister of Foreign Affairs, who came from the United States, Billy Gauthier from Nunatsiavut and Sami artists and writer, Fredrik Prost and Inga-Wiktoria Påve from Sweden, performed, gave tours and workshops. It was a wonderful opportunity to have Indigenous Peoples gathering and talking together about what is concerning them and to see how much they had in common, especially in terms of history and environment, not only with each other, but also the visitors. 

During the introduction of the artists who were there, each sang a song. It was remarkable how they were communicating not only with their voices, but also with their music. Through their songs, they brought a bit of their surroundings with them with their music. 

Is there a piece of art that is special to you?

Actually, there is a number of different Sednas throughout the exhibition. She was present on each of the islands in order to show how her role, her figure has changed. 

The one thing that was really important to me was to have the different areas of the circumpolar regions represented, because that is the direction of how we have changed from the clearly Canadian Inuit Art to understanding and realising how the holistic way of thinking among people in the North is similar. That is why the Cerny collection has grown to include the different circumpolar regions.

I think also for NONAM because 20 years ago, we had the first exhibition with them. So you can imagine our common history is over 20 years old. The NONAM wanted to show this development. From a North American Native Museum, they have opened to the circumpolar areas and have understood the importance of this dialogue. There is a lesson to be learnt from the Indigenous people. 

Martha Cerny (together with her husband Peter Cerny) is the curator and director of Museum Cerny which encompasses one of the most comprehensive collections of contemporary circumpolar art. Photo : Museum Cerny

What is to be expected from the finissage that will take place this Sunday?

There is going to be a film in the morning talking about an Alaskan village and its present situation. Then Heidrun Löb and I will do a curators’ tour. We will also screen the SEDNA short film that was made of the exhibition.

The finissage will also be the occasion to introduce the exhibition catalogue. This catalogue will feature articles from Sami artist Tomas Colbengtson, who is also featured in the exhibition, and Theresie Tungilik, who is an artist but also the National president and spokesperson for Canadian Artist Representation. She is the first Inuk woman who holds this position at this national art association. And it’s not just an Inuit Art association, but a much larger one. I’ve known her for a long time and when I met her, she was talking about the sealing problem, even before the European Union put the ban on sealskin products. She wrote a wonderful article about this subject, that is also a very personal topic. She discusses about how she grew up with this and how somebody from the outside has taken a decision that has been affecting her life and those around here. And it’s something that has been repeating over a long period. Instead of consulting with the people to find out how or what might affect them, things are just done. For me, Theresie’s article is definitively about inclusion. 

The catalogue is not only about highlighting the exhibition, but also giving the reader the possibility to hear the voices of the artists that are represented in the exhibition.

In addition to a catalogue, a short documentary film of the exhibition will presented at the finissage. Video: arttv / YouTube

How was your collaboration with the NONAM?

It’s been a wonderful collaboration with Heidrun Löb and her team. Our continuous collaboration has been a lot of fun and it was interesting choosing the pieces together. It’s very refreshing to see the collection through other people’s eyes and to be able to focus on new nuances. Sometimes you get comments from other people on things you’re so used to see, or on things that you haven’t seen, and you realise there is something more or different from what you saw. 

Besides, the goal of both of our museums is to be a platform for Indigenous voices. I’ve learned so much from the people I’ve been collaborating with. Our Western society has gotten so far away from nature that now it’s time to get back there again and consider our responsibilities to it. Another reason I think these voices need that kind of platform so we can hear them and learn. 

The finissage program is available on the NONAM website.

Interview by Mirjana Binggeli, PolarJournal

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