Cari­bou Heard

Je­neen Frei Njootli makes noise with antlers and am­pli­fiers

The Walrus - - CONTENTS - by Erica Ngao

In the north­east­ern cor­ner of Alaska, along the Yukon bor­der, is Iizhik Gwats’an Gwandaii Goodlit — “the sa­cred place where life be­gins” in Gwich’in, the lan­guage of one of Canada’s north­ern­most First Na­tions. Each sum­mer, up to 40,000 cari­bou calves are born on this 607,000hectare coastal plain. But the United States gov­ern­ment has started open­ing up the re­gion for oil-and-gas de­vel­op­ment, which would threaten the cari­bou’s breed­ing ground. “Our elders say that if there are no cari­bou, we’ll all cease to ex­ist,” says Gwich’in in­ter­dis­ci­pli­nary artist Je­neen Frei Njootli. “The cari­bou and we are in­ter­twined.” For Frei Njootli, who was born in White­horse, this re­la­tion­ship has be­come a re­cur­ring artis­tic theme. Vis­it­ing the com­mu­nity of Old Crow, where her fam­ily is from, is “like fill­ing a cul­ture­shaped hole,” she says. ndn burn, Frei Njootli’s ex­hi­bi­tion at New York’s Fier­man gallery this spring, fea­tured sound, pho­tog­ra­phy, and tex­tile pieces, such as a se­ries of base­ball caps made with por­cu­pine quills, cari­bou fur, and black chains. But Frei Njootli is best known for in­tense per­for­mance pieces shaped by per­sonal his­tory and con­nec­tion — to the cari­bou, to the ter­ri­tory, to noise. In one, she places a cym­bal on the ground, loops the sound with a pedal, then sings over the feed­back. “I’m en­am­oured by noise,” she says. “I re­ally en­joy fall­ing into it.” Frei Njootli rec­og­nizes her work is not for ev­ery­one. In Herd, she grinds a set of cari­bou antlers with power tools, then am­pli­fies and dis­torts the screech. The au­di­ence is given ear plugs and res­pi­ra­tory masks — bone dust and the smell of burn­ing antler fill the air. Noise per­for­mances can be deeply vis­ceral. Some leave the room. Oth­ers are lulled to sleep. Frei Njootli says she never knows what to ex­pect: “We all have our own gazes, and we all have our own bag­gage.”  — Erica Ngao

top left, bot­tom right I can’t make you those mitts be­cause there is a hole in my heart and my hands hurt, de­tail, 2018. top right lux|mam iii, bronze, bleached cari­bou antler, plas­tic, leather, 2017.

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