Inuit Art Quarterly
Gukki Nuka Møller
This mixture of two strong markers of Greenlandic identity—the perlekrave and the tupilaat—with modern and stringent elements of contemporary Scandinavian design transforms all three.
In ancient Greenlandic mythology a tupilak is a monster conjured by a shaman and made of found objects and animal parts such as hair, bone, skin, sinew and tusk. Its sole purpose, once animated, is to seek revenge on behalf of its maker. Entangling yourself in the magic of the tupilak is risky business, though; if the target of the maker’s revenge also knows magic, they might boomerang the tupilak back on its sender, with potentially deadly consequences.
Danes came to Eastern Greenland late in the nineteenth century with Gustav Holm’s Umiak Expedition. Intrigued by Inuit stories of the tupilak, Holm and his crew sought a visualization of this mostly invisible and introverted creature. A visual manifestation gradually took place when Greenlanders began carving interpretations of the creature, which those early European visitors took home. Today’s modern tupilak is a figure with sinister, sarcastic or shady characteristics made of narwhal and walrus tusk or reindeer antler. However, the tupilak has become civilized and now is mostly a souvenir item decorating peoples’ homes, divorced from its shamanistic, vengeful origins.
Despite this colonial taming of the tupilak, the creature continues to play an important role in Greenlandic culture. Today, it represents the ancient Inuit modes of oral storytelling and ties into an enduring idea that there is more to life than what we view. To acknowledge the tupilak’s lasting importance in contemporary Greenlandic art and culture, in 2018 Nuuk Art Museum opened an exhibition titled Tupilappassuit, which means many tupilaat (plural for tupilak) in Kalaallisut.
Greenlandic artist Gukki Nuka Møller was featured in this exhibition with his piece
Kaalaralaaq, (c. 2009), a piece that intricately illustrates the tupilak’s—and Greenland’s— transformed post-colonial identity by mixing symbols of traditional Greenlandic culture with elements of contemporary Scandinavian design.
Kaalaralaaq is named for Møller’s grandmother, herself a likely witness to the colonial era and its transformations. It is a collar of ceramic tupilaat figurines draped over a narrow-necked vase; he describes the piece as a perlekrave, tying the piece to the traditional Greenlandic women’s dress. The traditional perlekrave is the colourful, beaded collar traditionally worn by Greenlandic women, and is typically the most eye-catching part of traditional dress as it is placed on shoulders not unlike a crown.
This mixture of two strong markers of Greenlandic identity—the perlekrave and the tupilaat—with modern and stringent elements of contemporary Scandinavian design transforms all three. Replacing the beads of the national costume, the tupilaat here are more ornamental than vengeful. Whatever evil qualities they had, they’ve been transformed by Møller into love and affection for his grandmother and Greenlandic culture by being woven into a perlekrave-like pattern. Considering the artist’s own travels and displacement— a Greenlandic artist trained in Canada, residing in Denmark—I like to view Møller’s piece as displaying a love for Greenland and as a token of appreciation for the identity symbols from which we measure ourselves.
Further complicating this nexus of modern/traditional and Greenlandic/ European is Møller’s use of ceramics, which sits outside the expected roster of materials in Greenland. Contemporary art in Greenland originates from traditional handicraft and is centred around carving (steatite, granite, tusk, bone, antler for example). It is complemented with drawings, prints and paintings and later again accompanied by photography, video installation and modern means of expressions. In Greenland, there is a strong tradition of storytelling within the performing ar ts such as music, singing and acting. Ceramics in Greenland have traditionally been used for cups, bowls and plates, but is not a widely used medium for art. Møller is the first artist who has combined and perfected the use of ceramics as an aesthetic art form in the Greenlandic art scene.
The duality of his Greenlandic and Danish identity is a central focus in much of his work. Through the mixing of traditional forms, modern designs and novel materials,
Kaalaralaaq embodies the Greenlandic-Danish common history in an artistic narrative of its own. It also represents Danish and Greenlandic cultures bound together by colonial history since 1721 when the Danish/Norwegian missionary expedition came to Greenland.
Nauja Bianco is an independent advisor, freelance journalist, communicator, facilitator and diplomat. She is a native Greenlander and a Danish citizen born and raised in the capital of Nuuk and is the Founder and Director of Isuma Consulting.