PRINT November 2022



View of “ᐊᖏᕐᕋᒧᑦ/Ruovttu Guvlui/Towards Home,” 2022–23, Canadian Centre for Architecture, Montreal. Photo: Mathieu Gagnon.

A SOFT GRADIENT BECKONS. Evoking sunrise across a gallery wall, its pale orange fades into a delicate blush of pink. The atmospheric hues, connoting a clear morning sky over an open landscape, serve as the backdrop for a humble wooden structure. A freestanding, zigzagging wall, it is bare on one side, while on the other, the skeletal construction suggests a fragment of an interior, an armature for a dense agglomeration of artifacts—parkas, mittens, boots, and other personal and domestic objects indicative of a colder climate. The tropes and trappings of conventional architecture are absent.

ᐊᖏᕐᕋᒧᑦ/Ruovttu Guvlui/Towards Home” explores Indigenous understandings of domesticity, particularly in the circumpolar regions that encompass Inuit Nunangat, in northern Canada, and Sápmi, an area traditionally inhabited by the Sámi people that spans several countries in northern Europe. The title is derived from the terms angirramut (Inuktitut) and ruovttu guvlui (Sámi), which mean to approach home or to think about where dwelling might take place. Curated by Joar Nango, Taqralik Partridge, Jocelyn Piirainen, and Rafico Ruiz, the exhibition ponders these communities’ relationship with the terrain, bypassing colonial borders and epistemologies to reflect on commonalities and to highlight the unique ways in which people have situated themselves across the Arctic. This is an exhibition in which notions of home and homeland are deliberately, and productively, conflated.

The wall text explains that the wooden installation—a curatorial intervention—mimics a typical pan-Arctic porch, where a Northern home meets the land. In a corner of the same gallery, wall-mounted works are encased in a variety of unassuming frames reminiscent of those used for family pictures. One work in this group, Shuvinai Ashoona’s drawing Untitled (Camp scene), 1997, depicts tents on flat ground. Another drawing, Hannah Kigusiuq’s Building Tents, 1991, captures a busy scene of people erecting temporary summer shelters. A label clarifies that there is no exact Inuktitut translation for the terms art and architecture, as distinct from less specialized words for the idea or act of making.

The exhibition raises a series of questions about the built environment in Northern geographies, such as “Where is home?” and “Where does land begin?” At each of the thresholds between the show’s several galleries, one of these queries is emblazoned on a wall, announcing the conceptual premise around which adjacent rooms are organized. Unlike in standard architectural discourse, these queries do not suggest utopian visions, hyperbolic speculations, or grand plans. They are gentle provocations that call for radical reorientations, urging viewers to contemplate elementary truths that humanity in its hubris has had the tendency to overlook. The show evinces a modesty and an accessibility that cannot be appreciated in only a detached or intellectual way. It must be experienced viscerally and somatically, too.

I did not expect the exhibition to resonate with me on such a personal level. But for members of displaced communities like me, reflecting on how home can be defined or where it might be found is a perennial, and fraught, exercise. Southwest Asia (or the “Middle East”), where I come from, is also a region that has suffered from colonial interventions and endless ideological projections. It is often caught between two contradictory stereotypes: on the one hand, terra nullius, a land of empty and harsh desert ripe for occupation and Western civilizing missions; on the other, an elusive place overloaded with Orientalist phantasmagorias that erase the agency of the region’s incredibly diverse cultures. The Arctic, though commonly viewed as a kind of environmental inverse of Southwest Asia, has similarly been subjected to external Western projections. The show captures shared aspects of how the two cultures, that of the Indigenous Arctic and that of the part of the world I come from, relate to their geographies: the experience of asking what home might mean while colonized; inventive adaptations to life outside temperate climates; the fact that our communities see themselves as caretakers of their surroundings, consider Earth sentient, and develop symbiotic relationships with it; and the employment of spatial constructs as implements for tending the land.

Shuvinai Ashoona, Untitled (Camp scene), 1997, felt-tip pen on paper, 16 × 19".

The curators clearly view exhibition-making as a collaborative exercise, and there is a refreshing blurring of the boundaries among artworks, the exhibition design by Tiffany Shaw, and curatorial labor. In a gallery corner, Geronimo Inutiq replicates his family’s summer tent (facing a miniature stream represented by a sinuous blue band pasted on the floor), allowing visitors to experience the kind of cozy yet ephemeral space depicted in Ashoona’s drawing. The sound of a radio can be heard in the background, amplifying the ways in which community broadcasting connects Inuit households to one another and to place, while videos by Inutiq emulate windows, offering glimpses of outdoor vistas.

The collectively created, playful, and unpretentious displays elucidate the bonds between Northern homes and their inhabitants. Operating against the grain of the rigid, compartmentalized spaces of the institutional container, the show emphasizes how Indigenous thinking transcends Eurocentric and colonial definitions of architecture. The exhibition design metaphorically breaks through the walls to suggest atmospheric qualities, seasons, and even terrestrial orientations: By depicting sunrise on an eastern wall, for example, the curators align visitors with cardinal directions, thus establishing links with the landscape on the largest possible scale, that of Earth as a whole. The differentiated lighting and colors—there are both flat painted surfaces and gradients of varying hues—tend to evoke the despotic yet normalized isolation of the uniformly illuminated white cube.

Notions of neutrality and objectivity are equally upended. The Indigenous curators are personally invested, and their lived experience is crucial for understanding the material on display. As such, the show is not didactic; rather, it affectionately reflects intimate aspects of life in the Arctic. For instance, Carola Grahn and Ingemar Israelsson’s installation Offernat (Votive Night), 2022, is conceived as a personal altar, at which visitors may partake in a ritual through offerings of dried flowers or leaves while becoming privy to Grahn’s childhood memories of gazing at northern auroral lights, which are conjured by a glistening chartreuse textile undulating against ultramarine walls.

The striking tenderness of the exhibition brings into sharp relief the inadequacy of architecture, along with its institutions, discourses, and practices, and its fundamental inability to tackle this subject matter, given how mired it is in deeply problematic ways of thinking and inherited modes of representation. It is not surprising that this is the first exhibition exploring Indigenous approaches to space at the Canadian Centre for Architecture—which, like the entire city of Montreal, stands on the unceded lands of the Kanien’kehá:ka Nation. Although this might signal a long-overdue shift within the discipline, it remains to be seen how the Canadian Centre for Architecture, or architecture more broadly, will address non-Western narratives moving forward and whether there will be sustained engagement that centers those of us currently treated as outsiders.

But the lack of such engagement to date is precisely why there is a real danger in viewing the content of this exhibition the way the Western architectural establishment has looked at “other” cultures. Take classic books that attempt to portray the unfamiliar traditions of the non-West, like Sibyl Moholy-Nagy’s Native Genius in Anonymous Architecture (1957) or Bernard Rudofsky’s Architecture Without Architects (1964); or those that explore uncustomary ways of building, such as Adhocism (1972) by Charles Jencks and Nathan Silver; or perhaps even those that continue to seek the origins of architecture in a temporal or spatial elsewhere—for example, Mark Jarzombek’s Architecture of First Societies (2013). Visitors can browse some of these titles at Joar Nango’s Sámi Architectural Library, 2019/2022, a nomadic installation that, while accounting for existing literature, aims to create new, subversive, and Indigenous-led knowledge. The aforementioned publications, emblematic of dominant architectural theory and pedagogy, were written by Western authors who—though possibly motivated by admiration and curiosity—tried to quantify, classify, and interpret ways of living that lie outside their comprehension and values, and of course such impulses still persist. The reality is that this discipline still has no frameworks for addressing—let alone acknowledging and respecting—the worldviews of communities that think differently about their place on land and their relationship with built form. As a result, the discipline is also incapable of meaningfully recognizing, and thus ameliorating, the troubling role it has played in the subjugation of non-Western cultures.

Geronimo Inutiq, I’m Calling Home, 2022, virtual radio broadcast, video, photographs, matchbox house, prospector’s tent, garbage box. Installation view, Canadian Center for Architecture, Montreal. Photo: Mathieu Gagnon.

The profound contribution of this exhibition is not only that it challenges reductive perceptions of Northern geographies and peoples, but also that it reveals that colonialism is still very much alive, that its mechanisms of oppression continue to harm Northern communities, and that architecture, deliberately or unconsciously, is complicit in maintaining its devastating hold. Taqralik Partridge and Laakkuluk Williamson Bathory’s Inissaliortut: Making room, 2022, a two-channel video set up as a dialogue between the two Inuit artists, reflects on how colonialism sustains itself by dispossessing and plundering the original inhabitants of these territories. From land grabbing to legislation ensuring continued control over Indigenous territories and resources, colonization is as real, as concrete, and as detrimental as conventional architecture—which, under settler colonialism, is one of the most explicit forms of occupation.

Inissaliortut: Making room both confronts us with these truths and celebrates the resilience of the artists’ communities, which continue to thrive despite the odds. The orators tell heartrending stories about the deplorable conditions endured by the Inuit people and express the absurdity of experiencing housing precarity on their own land. The work succinctly affirms, and indeed the show as a whole proves, that “home” cannot possibly be understood in colonized contexts without grappling with the forces that alienate people from their ancestral homelands and affirming their sovereignty and their right to self-determination and self-representation.

This is perhaps why those of us who have been dislocated find it so difficult to come to terms with the notion of home, and the forceful removal from our homelands, without accounting for the ruthless violence of colonialism, both historically and today, as manifested in ongoing political meddling, military interventions, and relentless extraction. But those of us who survive colonialism’s wrath try to persevere, and to carry with us values such as hospitality, reciprocity, and accountability, through which we create a sense of home wherever we go. I locate the ultimate strength of this exhibition in its warmth, in the generosity of the curators and artists who invite us to momentarily coinhabit their Arctic abodes.

ᐊᖏᕐᕋᒧᑦ/Ruovttu Guvlui/Towards Home” is on view at the Canadian Centre for Architecture, Montreal, through February 12, 2023.

Amin Alsaden is a writer based in Toronto.