RE­CLAIM­ING THE NORTH

Con­trast­ing views of­fered

Calgary Herald - - NEWS - ERIC VOLMERS

Sir John Franklin and his crew van­ished some­time after July 1845.

De­spite be­ing rel­a­tively long in the tooth, the 58-year-old Arc­tic ex­plorer had been given com­mand of the Bri­tish Ad­mi­ralty’s lat­est ex­pe­di­tion to lo­cate a North­west Pas­sage. The two ships he was com­mand­ing, The Ere­bus and Ter­ror, were last seen by whalers in Baf­fin Bay that July.

The dis­ap­pear­ance was an em­bar­rass­ment for the Bri­tish Em­pire, which would ex­pend end­less re­sources, man­power and lives on fur­ther ex­pe­di­tions in an at­tempt to dis­cover what hap­pened to Franklin and his crew. (The Ere­bus was fi­nally dis­cov­ered at the bot­tom of Cana­dian wa­ters in 2014; the HMS Ter­ror in 2016.)

But a cu­ri­ous thing hap­pened to art­work de­pict­ing Arc­tic ex­plo­ration after Franklin van­ished. Im­ages of the Inuit, once a sta­ple of art chron­i­cling the Em­pire’s Arc­tic ex­pe­di­tions, quickly faded from pub­lic record. In other words, when Franklin lit­er­ally dis­ap­peared, the Inuit sym­bol­i­cally dis­ap­peared right along with him.

“If you want to de­fine your coun­try by its heroic ac­tions, en­gag­ing in hero­ism in a place where peo­ple are thriv­ing and liv­ing al­ready doesn’t re­ally help your case,” says Travis Lut­ley, co-cu­ra­tor of a new Arc­tic-based ex­hibit at the Glen­bow Mu­seum. “As we see after Franklin’s dis­ap­pear­ance, the Inuit are es­sen­tially re­moved from the of­fi­cial vis­ual record. While they ap­pear fre­quently in ex­pe­di­tions and im­agery be­fore­hand, aside from a few in­stances, they are largely erased from the im­agery.”

Ex­plor­ers on ex­pe­di­tions in the years fol­low­ing Franklin’s dis­ap­pear­ance even con­sulted the Inuit in hopes they would pro­vide eye­wit­ness ac­counts of what hap­pened to Franklin and his crew. But this tes­ti­mony was largely ig­nored be­cause it didn’t fit into the heroic, mythol­o­gized im­age of 19th-cen­tury Bri­tish ex­plor­ers that the Ad­mi­ralty was keen to sell to the pub­lic at the time. The Franklin dis­as­ter was a ma­jor blow to the ego of the Em­pire, so ac­knowl­edg­ing a peo­ple who not only sur­vived but ex­celled in the Arc­tic dur­ing that pe­riod didn’t re­ally fit the script.

Which all fits nicely into one of the ma­jor themes of The Arc­tic: Real and Imag­ined Views from the Nine­teenth Cen­tury, which runs un­til Jan. 6 at the Glen­bow Mu­seum. On one level, it ex­plores the over­lap be­tween the Bri­tish Em­pire’s 19th-cen­tury ex­pan­sion into the Cana­dian Arc­tic and the Ro­man­tic art move­ment. The pieces are largely drawn from Glen­bow’s ar­chives and in­clude both orig­i­nal art and re­prints that were pub­lished in books and pe­ri­od­i­cals of the day and based on work brought back by am­a­teur artists who served on the ex­pe­di­tions.

There are also in­trigu­ing ar­ti­facts on dis­play, in­clud­ing a mys­te­ri­ous anvil block from ei­ther the doomed Ter­ror or Ere­bus that the Glen­bow pur­chased from a Bri­tish mu­seum back in the 1960s.

But a key part of the ex­hibit is to ex­plore Arc­tic im­agery and the dif­fer­ences be­tween the real and the imag­ined, the prac­ti­cal and the highly ro­man­ti­cized. So cu­ra­tors con­sulted Sophia Lebessis, the Inuit owner of Trans­for­ma­tion Fine Art, and James Kup­tana, an Indi­g­e­niza­tion strat­egy spe­cial­ist at Bow Val­ley Col­lege. Both pro­vided com­men­tary for many of the pieces and in­put on how the Inuit should be rep­re­sented in the ex­hibit.

So, upon en­ter­ing the space, at­ten­dees are greeted by two con­trast­ing sights. First, there are en­larged im­ages of mas­sive ships trapped in the ice and bat­tling the stormy, un­for­giv­ing Arc­tic cli­mate. Along­side those pieces is an Inuit kayak from the pe­riod, which rep­re­sented “a more prac­ti­cal, proper way to be nav­i­gat­ing the seas in the Arc­tic,” Lut­ley says.

“Arc­tic voy­ages and ex­pe­di­tions re­ally said a lot about con­flict­ing world views,” he says. “There’s an Inuit world view, which is one of har­mony and striv­ing for har­mo­nious liv­ing with your en­vi­ron­ment; and a colo­nial world view, where you are en­gag­ing in con­trol and es­tab­lish­ing do­min­ion over land and peo­ple. We see that in the art­work and in his­tory we see that con­flict come to­gether quite sharply in the Arc­tic.”

So while much of the Bri­tish art on dis­play was ini­tially cre­ated to fac­tu­ally doc­u­ment the ex­pe­di­tions, the ex­hibit shows an in­ter­est­ing evo­lu­tion in the work and how it came to rep­re­sent the English na­tional iden­tity in the 19th cen­tury.

“There was a con­fla­tion of ob­ser­va­tion and ro­mance,” Lut­ley says. “A lot of the artists that are ad­dressed in the ex­hi­bi­tion were of­fi­cer artists who were re­quired, it was their duty, to ob­serve and re­port, both in a nar­ra­tive and in im­age. You have this duty to re­port, but th­ese in­di­vid­u­als were also in­flu­enced by the artis­tic move­ments of their time. You have this Bri­tish tra­di­tion of pic­to­ri­al­ism evolv­ing into this very ro­man­ti­cized way of mak­ing an im­age. You get to see this blend early on and the full-on ro­man­tic im­agery after the dis­ap­pear­ance of Franklin’s third ex­pe­di­tion.”

The lat­ter may be best rep­re­sented by Amer­i­can artist Henry Collins Bis­pham’s 1865 oil on can­vas, Dr. Kane in Search of Sir John Franklin, which comes from the Glen­bow col­lec­tion.

It de­picts Elisha Kane, who led an 1853 ex­pe­di­tion in search of Franklin. He is perched upon the cliffs and peer­ing through binoc­u­lars amid the hos­tile climes of the Arc­tic. It was all part of de­pict­ing the Arc­tic as dan­ger­ous and des­o­late, an ap­pro­pri­ate back­drop for the heroic ad­ven­tures sto­ries that at­tempted to re­cover both Franklin’s trail and colo­nial pride.

“That’s not the whole story of the Arc­tic, of course,” Lut­ley says. “But it re­ally coloured our per­cep­tion, a non-Inuit peo­ple’s per­cep­tion, for gen­er­a­tions as this place of des­o­la­tion. Of course, it’s vi­tal and it’s beau­ti­ful and full of life as well.”

As we see after Franklin’s dis­ap­pear­ance, the Inuit are es­sen­tially re­moved from the of­fi­cial vis­ual record.

LEAH HEN­NEL

Travis Lut­ley, co-cu­ra­tor of a new Arc­tic-based ex­hibit at the Glen­bow Mu­seum, says “Arc­tic voy­ages and ex­pe­di­tions re­ally said a lot about con­flict­ing world views.”

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