Blending Colours and Cultures

Later this month, the Adäka Cultural Festival will bring to the Whitehorse waterfront its second year of celebrating the diverse heritage of the Yukon.

The festival has gathered an impressive lineup of First Nations musicians and artists from B.C., Yukon, NWT and Alaska to entertain and educate festivalgoers.

One artist eager to return to the Yukon with her artwork is Jeneen Frei Njootli of the Vuntut Gwich’in First Nation.

Njootli recently graduated from Emily Carr University in Vancouver and is currently working in the photography department of the Banff Centre for the Arts. Though she was born in Whitehorse, she has spent most of her life in other parts of Canada.

When she was a kid, she would obsessively draw pictures of wolves, mountains, fields and the ocean. She remembers her grandfather painting vibrant landscapes in watercolour when he came to visit her in Prince Edward Island. They would go out into nature and paint from life what they saw.

Njootli also had an incredible art teacher. Elizabeth Milner held classes on alternative art practices such as sculpting snow coloured with Kool-Aid, tie-dying and abstract painting. Milner taught her that art can be anywhere or with anything, as long as it’s fun.

When she was 11, Jeneen met her brother Stanley Njootli, Jr. for the first time. He had a trippy style of art that blew her mind.

“I was really inspired by his sketchbook,” she remembers. “I had never seen anything like it. It was dark and beautiful, vivid. His work has influenced me a lot.”

Her artwork and her brother’s will be on display together for the first time at the Adäka festival.

Though she hasn’t spent a lot of time in Old Crow, her roots there are strong. The elegant patterning and beautiful roses of her grandmother Joanne Njootli’s beadwork have left a lasting impression on her.

“My aunties taught me how to bead, which I am grateful for,” she says.

Njootli has a deep respect for traditional beadwork, yet she is also interested in how traditions evolve over time.

“Culture is not something that is static. It shifts and grows with its surroundings, with its people.”

She wonders how modern materials, textures, colours, substances, foods, sounds and industry effect a culture and its ways of expressing itself.

Njootli has been painting watercolours a lot lately, a number of which will be on display at Adäka. She has found an interesting history in the tradition of Canadian landscape painting and the romanticism with which the rest of the world regards the North.

She likes to play with the representation of landscape in her watercolour. She may leave the sky and water blank altogether, with pieces of landscape floating through the frame, and figures pouring pollutants into the blank rivers and sky.

“The spirit world bleeds from one dimension into another; between landscape, figure, and river,” she says.

She shows this spirit presence with the absence of colour.

Njootli identifies a polarization in stereotypes about First Nations people, in our society at large but particularly in the media. There are extremes—nomadic heroes or village bums—which bear little relation to reality.

There is also the problematic depiction of First Nations people in art, from contact to the present, which serves as a sub-context for her work.

She likes to use iconic imagery and materials, but plays with their religious, spiritual and traditional connotations by shifting their content or the way they are displayed. She is happy to tackle serious, heavy subjects, but prefers to do so with a degree of humour.

She’ll experiment with a classic subject such as a caribou. What happens when the caribou is taken from its context altogether; when the classic trophy head is removed, and its upturned carcass is surrounded by ghostly spirit creatures holding beer cans and iPhones?

Jeneen and Stanley Njootli will have artwork on display over the course of the week-long festival. Jeneen will be giving workshops on using watercolours, and on a fast and easy method of making prints.

You’ll also be able to see her working in the festival’s Artist Demonstration Studio, and you may even get her to paint your face.

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