Choices That Shape the Future

‘Decolonisation does not mean that you want to go back to something that used to be’, says artist Julie Edel Hardenberg.

Julie Edel Hardenberg.

May saw the opening of Julie Edel Hardenberg’s retrospective exhibition Nipangersitassaanngitsut/Those who cant be silenced at Nuuk Art Museum. The exhibition, which ran until the end of September, featured works from 1999 to 2022. Central topics in Hardenberg’s art are identity, language, and the effects of colonisation. According to her, the Nordic countries are lagging far behind when it comes to discussing their colonial history and the effects it has had. “It’s going to hit them like a tsunami,” she says. Her position is that until we talk about and showcase oppression, we cannot break free of its structures.

Together with the flag of the Inuit Kalaallit, Erfalasorput, and the Danish flag, the cross is a recurring motif in her work. Before visitors even got into the museum, they could catch a glimpse of Erfalasorput/Our flag (2009) through a gable window in the exhibition space. Composed of second-hand clothing in shades of white and red, this bodily work draws attention to the recognisable circular shape that constitutes the core of the flag of Kalaallit Nunaat (Greenland). Despite the fact that the colours are the same as in the Danish flag, the cross is absent, and the circle can be understood as referring to a circular and independent cosmology, among other things. In this interview, which was conducted by e-mail after the exhibition had closed, the artist talks about the relationship between time, acknowledgement, and change, and about giving form and language to the experience of structural racism that has characterised her entire oeuvre.  

This was the first retrospective exhibition that brought key works from large parts of your oeuvre together. What was it like to see so much of your own work from the last twenty-five years presented in one place? 

Personally, I have been surprised by the impact the exhibition has had on my body, from the first time I saw the exhibition. The more time I have spent in the space, the more sorrowful I have become, and I therefore have a very ambivalent relationship to this exhibition. I also think this is an acknowledgement of the fact that time is an important factor in terms of acknowledgement and change. I am fine with the individual works, which represent my own process of acknowledgement, which is dominated by more questions than anyone could ever answer. In this way, over time the works have helped me move forward towards realisations that I didn’t yet know how to articulate.

What was it like to have this exhibition on home ground, in your birthplace Nuuk?

Again, I have very mixed feelings. I have no idea how it has been received by most of the population because I am far beyond the reaches of Nuuk – having been living in Copenhagen since 2022. I also find that it has not received much media attention, which I regard as a lack of engagement in critical societal and cultural debate. In this context, I think our institutions are failing by not participating in discussions about the fundamental questions concerning our challenges as a former colony. Meanwhile, the local population continues to suffer under the colonial legacy, where structural racism and other forms of discrimination persist. We have the world’s highest suicide rate, which has risen since the incorporation of Inuit Kalaallit Nunaat into the Danish realm as a county in 1953. But no one links the number of suicides to the existing structures and their continued reproduction. The focus is primarily on Inuit culture and its inadequacy in the modern world. Narratives about Greenland having been colonised by the most humane among the inhumane continue to abound, supported by the people who benefit from the structure.

Julie Edel Hardenberg, Erfalasorput/Our flag, 2009.

What was the process behind the exhibition? What was important to you in the selection of works and their presentation in the exhibition space? 

The whole process has been marked by doubt. Personally, I no longer felt the need to exhibit my works in my hometown, and I remained in doubt until the very last moment as to whether I should even exhibit at all. Moreover, I had moved away from the city the year before. Still, I felt that it was important to contribute with a critical reflection on the 70th anniversary of Denmark’s incorporation of Kalaallit Nunaat as a Danish county. This was something I had discussed with Kristine Bønløkke Spejlborg, one of the curators at the Nuuk Art Museum, and that we subsequently agreed to use as a point of departure. Regarding the choice of works, this was primarily my doing, but it largely coincided with what the museum itself wanted to exhibit. I left the hanging of the works to the museum, after an initial review of the pieces. It was liberating to leave it to others, who showed great commitment to making sure the works were shown to their full potential in the space. 

The Danish-Norwegian missionary Hans Egede arrived in the Nuuk area in 1721 to establish a mission. This marked the beginning of the colonisation of Kalaallit Nunaat. This year is the 70th anniversary of the constitutional amendment that ended Kalaallit Nunaat’s status as a colony and its subsequent incorporation into Denmark as a county, as you have already mentioned. In 1979, home rule was established, and in 2009 self-government was introduced. However, the self-government authorities have not taken over responsibility for all sectors from the Danish authorities, the inhabitants of Kalaallit Nunaat have Danish citizenship, and the Danish Queen is still the head of the realm. In one of the most recent works in the exhibition, the video My first coin(2022), you reflect on events that in your childhood made you aware of the distinction between those who were like you and those who were like the Queen (and Jesus) – a division that permeated the society you grew up in, including the school system – as the camera pans over the Colony Harbour in Nuuk, where the monument to Egede is strategically placed on a hilltop. In the video’s second part, the camera moves through the centre of Nuuk and Hotel Hans Egede to a cemetery next to the fjord in Nussuuaq, a residential area. In the final part of the video, you talk about ideas related to “the good colony.” Can you tell us a bit more about the work’s background? How do the different parts of the video relate to each other?

The film was made in connection with the film programme Whose Gold Is This? which was screened at Kunsthal Charlottenborg in connection with the Copenhagen Light Festival in 2022. This was an extension of the project Voices in the Shadow of the Monuments, an audio-visual walking city tour curated by Barly Tshibanda, Nanna Katrine Hansen, and Katrine Dirckinck-Holmfeld. The project was awarded funding the same year by the Danish Arts Foundation. In the first part of the film, it is my inner child speaking – perplexed by a worldview that doesn’t make sense. In the second part, I speak as a citizen, pointing out the hidden violence that the colonial structures inflict on the Inuit Kalaallit through discrimination, white privilege, racism, and inequality. Something that is allowed to exist unnoticed in plain view – in the peripheral Arctic.

Julie Edel Hardenberg, My first coin, 2022. Still from video.

In the past you have used yourself, your family, and your own experiences as points of departure. For example, in your language project where for six months you exclusively spoke and wrote kalaallisut. In the exhibition, the language project was represented by the work Ikioqatigiilluta/Ved at hjælpes ad (Helping each other, 2008–2009), which consists of a collection of posters that resemble diary entries. The posters are made up of documentary photographs and short texts that refer to events that took place during the project. Can you tell us more about how the language project came about and your thoughts on the relationship between the personal and the political in your overall artistic project? 

When our daughter was 6 years old, she expressed that she perceived the Danish language as the Inuit Kalaallisut language because it was the language used at preschool, at home, and outside. She considered my language Kalaallisut as a foreign language. This prompted me to initiate my language project where for six months in 2008–09, I only spoke Kalaallisut. The project was a linguistic, psychological, and cultural experiment where I wanted to test the strength of postcolonial effects based on the idea: “What happens if I decide to rely exclusively on my native language, Inuit Kalaallisut/Greenlandic, in my hometown Nuuk?” For six months I observed and became aware of the linguistic, socio-cultural, and cognitive effects of speaking only my Greenlandic mother tongue in my hometown of Nuuk. During this process, I gained greater awareness of the challenges that exist in Danish-Greenlandic relations – not least the economic and social interdependencies between the two countries. 

Despite the seemingly simple principles of a project that might appear unproblematic, I found myself confronted with a wide variety of attitudes regarding language and culture, and I gained a clear insight into the intense tensions that can arise between them. I also became aware of the existing structural (colonial) mechanisms that people are challenged by – challenges stemming from the former status as a colonial power and its impact on the Greenlanders’ self-perception – embedded in a shared identity, between power and powerlessness. I became aware of the exercise of structural racism prevalent in Inuit Kalaallit Nunaat. This results in many Inuit Kalaallit being extremely cautious about expressing their views and opinions regarding the relationship between Greenland and Denmark – especially in the presence of Danes. Ultimately, the language project raised awareness and led to the introduction of a new law in 2009 that stipulates: “Private companies with ten or more employees, public enterprises, and authorities should develop a language policy.” However, the wording is so open that it can easily be interpreted to align with the organisations’ own interests.

I would like to draw particular attention to a sculptural work you made in 2017 dealing with the year of Hans Egede’s arrival in Kalaallit Nunaat. It was placed a little off on its own at the entrance to the museum’s exhibition space. The white-painted, human-sized wooden cross, which resembles the crosses used on tombs in Kalaallit Nunaat, elicits a physical experience when you stand face to face with it. The title 1721 suggests that although the colonial period appears to be a closed chapter, colonialism still haunts Kalaallit Nunaat as a kind of living dead. Can you tell us more about how the idea for this work came about?

The cross with the engraving “1721 – ,” without a final date, refers to the arrival of the Danish-Norwegian missionary Hans Egede in Greenland, paving the way for radical changes in Inuit society and way of life in Kalaallit Nunaat. For although our history does not start with the colonisation of Greenland, the arrival of Hans Egede triggered a fundamental transformation. You could say it initiated our own process of defining our identity – for better or for worse. At the same time, the artwork conveys that we cannot deny history and the fact that we are all shaped by it. It is an unassuming piece that calls for reflection and contemplation, especially in a time when Greenlanders are beginning to make noises about full independence as a sovereign state. I have noticed that many people interpret it politically and want a specific end year. But for me, it’s more about the fact that history cannot be undone; however, we do have influence over choices that will shape the future.

Julie Edel Hardenberg, 1721, detalj, 2017.

Your practice is impressively consistent, in terms of topics, methods, and aesthetic idiom, at the same time as you are constantly moving forward and investigating new perspectives. I’ve already mentioned that the flag motif runs like a red – literally! – (and white) thread through your oeuvre. The work Rigsfællesskabspause (Commonwealth break, 2005), which depicts a straitjacket made up of the Danish and Inuit Kalaallit flags, has gradually become an iconic representation of Nordic colonialism. The straitjacket is also part of a series of portraits from 2011 where people dressed in flag-like creations are photographed against a blue background evoking the sky. The portraits with titles such as Siumut/Straight forward, Namminersorneq/Self-determination, and Nuan’/Great appear forward-looking, optimistic, and full of energy. By contrast, Naammaleqaaq/Enough, from the same series – which, if I’m not mistaken, features your daughter – appears much more resigned, and the motif is reminiscent of a crucifixion. Another of the flag pieces that I would like to highlight is Ineriartorneq/Progress (2017). From the threads of a knitted Danish flag, which is half unravelled, a Greenlandic flag is taking shape. Although the motif is different, the threads and technique are the same. The work forces the viewer to ask what I perceive as an underlying question in many of your works: Is it possible to escape from the colonial structures when the form of government and the associated social institutions are made from the same fabric as the colony?  

I was born into the colonial structures, and I am also a descendant of a missionary, as well as other Inuit and ethnic groups that can be found in my genes. The point is, I am a bearer of my era’s culture, shaped and influenced by a community that steadfastly insists on not disappearing into world history as: “Inuit Kalaallit – a people and a language that once existed.” Although our modern society is built up around colonial structures, our very existence, our culture, and our language are testimony that we know who we are and where we come from. We have our own narrative, which can be accessed through our Inuit Kalaallit language, which is not Nordic. Decolonisation doesn’t mean wanting to return to something that once was. It means having a critical approach to the history that has been written about us by others, not by ourselves. When my mother was born, Greenland was still a colony. When I was born, Greenland was a Danish county. My children were born in the period where we had home rule. My nieces were born under the current self-government in Greenland. Thinking about my future grandchildren – who knows what the future will bring? As one of the world’s smallest peoples and language groups, the fact that we have managed to come this far is in itself quite an achievement. Diversity exists only by ensuring the existence and development of the small languages and cultures in the world.

When I saw your works together in the exhibition, I felt that your focus has shifted. In the 1990s, you were concerned with identity and relations between external markers and cultural stereotypes, for example in Is it all about that(1999). The collage is made up of photographs showing the same woman sticking her head out of a hole in a flag that she is holding up in front of her face, similar to the face-in-the-hole boards found in amusement parks. In the photographic collage Made in (1999), it is you who dresses up as different cultural stereotypes, thereby challenging the viewer’s preconceptions. In your works from recent years, I sense that your focus has shifted inward, and you are more concerned with the impact and influence that colonial structures have at the emotional and psychological level. Whereas at the beginning of your artistic career you often used photography, recently you have worked in more abstract and sculptural forms, for example in the series where you combine black and white hair with readymades. Although the hair can be attached to the body, the alienation strategy you employ when you combine the hair with parts from different objects creates a kind of psychological tension. You are also concerned with the whiteness discourse and structural racism on a general level. Do you agree with my description of this development in your work?

I remember my younger days, when I chose to pursue education in the Nordic countries. First in Denmark, then in Finland, and finally in Norway. My ‘exotic’ dark looks and height of 176 centimetres always sparked curiosity about where I was from. “Oh, you’re from Greenland – so you’re Danish!?” I often ended up acting like a walking encyclopaedia, in addition to having to establish my legitimacy as an Inuk Kalaaleq in the world. All through my childhood and schooling, I was told that I had to learn Danish and get an education so I could make a difference in Greenlandic society. I took this to mean make a difference in favour of our own Inuit culture. But, with time, it dawned on me that perhaps there was an expectation that I, especially as a ‘well-educated’ Inuk Kalaaleq, ought to support the Danish approach. This became particularly obvious during my language project. I soon noticed people’s reactions and change in behaviour towards me – as a kind of loss of social control. 

It also affected the perception of my husband’s leadership profile in the established system, where efforts to hamper his career gradually began, through (political) persecution and attempts at character assassination. Like many other critical profiles in Kalaallit Nunaat, Inuk men are particularly vulnerable. Since the colonial days, they have posed the greatest threat to the white patriarchal system. In contrast, Inuk women have long understood how to ally themselves with this system, and many can now be seen in high-flying positions. For me, who is deeply immersed in the culture and familiar with the various family constellations, the different strategies for optimising personal interests are highly apparent. What surprised me the most was the internalised racism, where Greenlanders practise racism against their own people. As a result, I have begun to view Greenlandic society and its citizens in a more sociological and historical context. Why is our behaviour the way it is? What role do our ethnicity and linguistic affiliations play, considering that the Inuit represent a ‘non-white’ culture and yet are also part of the ‘white North?’

Julie Edel Hardenberg, Trophy, 2021.

I know that you have previously talked about how your participation in the art project Rethinking Nordic Colonialism in 2006, curated by Kuratorisk Aktion (Frederikke Hansen and Tone Olaf Nielsen), has had a huge impact on your work. Can you say a little about what that project has meant to you, and are there any other projects, events, or practices that you would highlight as significant to your art?

My childhood was characterised by having to navigate linguistic and ethnic affiliations, with Inuit Kalaallit on one side and Danes on the other. The expectation of cultural interchangeability meant that there was no time to work out who I was until I was invited to join Inuit Youth International, which is a youth organisation under the ICC [Inuit Circumpolar Council], with a focus on Inuit youth in the Arctic. Later, I was invited to join Rethinking Nordic Colonialism, which took a critical look at Nordic colonial history. This was something that appealed to me and released something inside of me. Finally, there was a Nordic project that made space for Inuit Kalaallit profiles with a critical approach to Nordic colonial history. This was a very unusual opportunity. 

Because you work conceptually, writing and text have always been part of your work. Nevertheless, this exhibition made it clear that writing and text are becoming an increasingly important part of your practice. In the exhibition, we could find several textual works on the wall that also have a spoken word form. Can you tell us more about how your writing practice has developed? 

My mother tongue is Inuit Kalaallisut. Danish is my first foreign language. It is a language I have had to learn in order to be able to function in society. At the same time, it is a language that represents the colonial heritage and power structure. The Danish language is the language of power in Greenland. And it’s a language you can’t avoid. Your success and career in Inuit Kalaallit Nunaat depend on how well you master Danish. It is a language that both exerts violence and, at the same time, provides access to opportunities, albeit limited to the geographical areas where Danish is spoken. Over time, I have become better at using language as a tool to articulate the more critical aspects of society, especially through dialogue with academic and artistic environments overseas. In this regard, my own community has not been particularly helpful, which has led me to ask several questions about our social structure and the built-in mechanisms that have an impact on human behaviour. At the same time, I have become aware of how familial constellations shape our attitudes regarding gender, language, and culture.

You currently have a PhD scholarship from the Novo Nordisk Foundation and are affiliated with the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts in Copenhagen and the University of Copenhagen. From 2022, you have also been employed as Associate Professor II at the Art Academy at the University of Bergen in Norway. How has the transition to academia affected your practice, and how do you feel about working within the confines of academia?

I think the time was ripe for me to move on to academia, which has a growing interest in artistic profiles like mine – with a multifaceted approach to issues. So far, I have worked intuitively. But now I am working more purposefully – gathering empirical data, reading theory, etc. It is exciting and frustrating at the same time. Because in terms of my area of focus, the Nordic countries are lagging a long way behind in the discourse around colonial history. In addition, academia is very far removed from the common person. It’s going to hit them like a tsunami. I think art is a very good intermediary in this respect. 

In the exhibition, you set up a desk where visitors could sit down and share their experiences of colonialism, which you say will be included in your PhD project. A text on the wall above the desk read: “I don’t know whether I’m doing art activism or political work. I just know that my work is my way of not being silenced.” Is it correct to understand this statement as a kind of motto? Finally, can you say something about your PhD project and how you intend to incorporate the stories you collect into your research? 

The statement was intended to put paid to the narrow ideas about my artistic practice, while at the same time drawing attention to the role of art in society – that oppression can be broken by speaking up. Building on my previous artistic investigations of the political influence of Danish colonial history in Greenland, in my PhD project Between power and powerlessness – the de/colonised mind, I will explore the colonial memories and experiences of the people of Greenland. My hypothesis is that citizens who are born and raised in a society that has been built up with colonial structures and thought patterns are not always aware of their own complicity in reproducing the colonial system. Against this backdrop, the project aims to investigate the more invisible aspects of the colonial structures and shed light on the impacts they have on citizens. How do descendants of former colonies carry the colonial legacy? What kind of processes do people undergo when they want to fit in or stand out? The desk set up at the exhibition gave visitors the opportunity to sit down and put their own colonial experiences into words, which I think it is fitting to make use of – especially in view of my practice-based research. I am still in the data collection phase, but I can already sense where it is going: a linking of other experience-based statements intertwined into a whole. This should paint a picture of how we humans relate to history – or don’t!

Julie Edel Hardenberg, Oqaluttuassaqarpit/Har du noget at fortælle? (Do you have something to tell?), 2023.

This interview was made possible by the research project Urban Transformation in a Warming Arctic (UrbTrans), UiO/UiT, and Erasmus+.

Translated from Norwegian and Danish.