Like the Raven

In Odense Aka Høegh draws expressive lines between Greenlandic mythology and postcolonial identity, and points to the interconnectedness of everything.

Aka Høegh, Tulugaq tuullillu/The Raven and the Loon, 2022. Litograph. Photo: North Atlantic House.

A Greenlandic myth relates how the raven and the common loon were both snow-white birds at the dawn of time. One day they agreed to paint patterns on each other with lamp soot. The raven gave the loon its distinctive black and white pattern, while the loon painted regular spots on the raven’s plumage. Dissatisfied with the result, the raven began to paint over the spots, and before it realised what was happening, it had become pitch black all over. In its enduring sorrow, the raven’s plaintive cry can still be heard today over Greenland’s mountains.

The reason why the myth of the raven and the loon is included in Mai Misfeldt’s catalogue text for Aka Høegh’s exhibition probably has to do with the fact that the raven’s regret at not having stopped painting in time is a feeling familiar to all artists. It also reflects how the interplay between black ink and white paper is central to the many fine-art prints featured in the show. In the lithograph Tulugaq tuullilu/The Raven and the Loon (2022), depicting a scene from the myth, the loon bends patiently over the enraged raven, whose entire body trembles with sheer temper and rage as it seeks to arrange the dots. The contrast between the almost explosively furious raven and the calm loon is reinforced by a single hand-painted red dot in the eye of one bird, which becomes the focal point of the entire work. Here we are given to understand that it is not easy to be a visual artist torn between concentrated calm and expressive force.

In the eyes of Aka Høegh, the raven is the greater artist of the two. Observers will readily understand her position when looking at her works, which mainly take the Greenlandic landscape and fairy tales as points of departure. Here, the paper and canvas are dominated by violent discharges of energy, enormous forces, and fierce expressive movements, as in Sikup killingani/At the Edge of the Ice (2022),  which shows a polar bear devouring a seal. Their bodies form a circle, as if they were already a single cohesive unit, while a few drops of blood dot the snow below them. In the midst of this assault and violence, a kind of concentrated calm and balance emerges. In the Arctic, some must die if others are to survive.

Aka Høegh, Nattoralik/The Eagle, 2022. Pastel, 39 x 31 cm. Photo: North Atlantic House.

We find such oscillations between the dramatically expressive and the calmly contemplative everywhere in Høegh’s worlds. Icebergs crack and crash towards the sea. A furious ocean current sends animals and people swirling. The wind seems to rush through the pictures, dragging everything with it. And then, suddenly, all movement stops, and a Greenlandic icy landscape stands breathlessly still, glittering and magical – like a several-metres long Peter Doig-esque painting. Or when a woman’s face emerges in the midst of a ferocious abstract discharge of energy rendered in black and white crayon, her eyes like alluring tunnels into another realm.

Høegh is preoccupied with what she perceives as the animation of nature, its spirit. In Greenlandic mythology, the term inua is used to denote an intuitive connection between humans, animals, and nature; a kind of life force that intertwines the fate of animals and people with that of merciless nature. Høegh paints with loose, soft strokes that connect subjects from different spheres, letting whales gently kiss women’s lips and dark waves wash away creatures in swirling currents sweeping them to their doom.

Høegh’s artistic endeavours began in earnest during the early 1970s, when she studied at the newly started Grafisk Værksted (Graphic Workshop) in Nuuk, and are closely linked with the period’s rebellion against the Danish presence in Greenland. Efforts to establish Hjemmestyret (home rule) were underway, and in this process of finding a distinctive Greenlandic identity and mode of expression, Høegh’s interweaving of mythology and depictions of nature became pivotal. It may be tempting, then, to view Høegh’s aesthetic as deliberately detached from Western art history, yet certain elements – such as her bold, expressive lines – are also clearly connected to the Danish art scene as it was when Høegh intermittently studied at the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts in Copenhagen.

Høegh’s works are thus poised on the edge between two sets of expectations: the Danish fetishisation of the specifically Greenlandic and a modern Greenlandic desire to find a visual standpoint in a postcolonial world. The position must be difficult – what, for example, must Høegh have thought when, in 1973, she took part in the Danish theater group Solvognen’s action in Rebild Bakke, expressing solidarity with the American First Peoples? – yet at the same time this tension is part of what makes Høegh’s practice interesting to reflect upon. What we see in Høegh’s works does, to some extent, point back to our own outlook and framework of understanding.

I certainly feel my own Danishness when encountering Høegh’s sculptures, which resemble traditional masks with distinctively human features. The materials are nature’s own – a shoulder bone from a walrus or a piece of driftwood that has found its way on the currents from the Siberian forests – and as such the sculptures illustrate the fundamental idea of the inua concept regarding a fusion between man, animal, and nature. Still, there’s something about the masks that I can’t quite access, probably because the past they harken back to isn’t mine.

The exhibition’s title, Behind the Mask, suggests that viewers can slip over to the other side and see the world through the narrow eye slits carved in the walrus’s bone. But for many Danish observers, the mask may also be a point of fracture: where the different cultural expectations navigated by Høegh’s works are finally allowed to collide with a crash. I think Aka Høegh would appreciate that; she is indeed a raven.

Aka Høegh, Arnap kiinarpa/Female Mask, 2022. Shoulder bone from a walrus, 34 x 45 cm. Photo: North Atlantic House.