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Magnetic North: Voices from the Indigenous Arctic – British Museum

Reviewer: Helen Tope

Directed by: Michael Walling

An event focusing on indigenous voices, Magnetic North uses an assemblage of film, music and text to articulate the past, present and future of this corner of the globe.

We start in silence, with footage of Arctic tundra. The camera quietly observes a huge, impassive landscape that does not seem to register any sense of time passing. We are not so much frozen in time, as sitting outside of it altogether. As the camera travels mile over mile, the scale of what we are seeing is almost too much to take in.

Magnetic North intersperses this footage with poetry, music and debate. A reading by performance artist Laakkuluk Williamson-Bathory describes her connection to her ancestry as a “small etch in the continuum” – to complement this reading, director Michael Walling uses a film of mask dancer, Elisabeth Heilmann Blind. Dressed in the markings of her ancestors, Heilmann Blind combines shades of contemporary dance with primal, searching movements. Emerging from the sea, and onto land, this is expedition as well as expression.

The poems and stories told by Williamson-Bathory and Taqralik Partridge are vibrant and truly engaging. Magnetic North shifts from present to past, with Williamson-Bathory’s ancient myths. A natural story-teller, Laakkuluk draws us in with an impish sense of humour. Weaving feminist concerns into her work, she offers a new take on stories of indigenous origin. Partridge is a more reserved performer, but delves into political discourse with ease. Her poems unpick complex and often contradictory ideas. Her satire, examining the metaphor of colonisation as a pyramid scheme, is excellent. The rights of indigenous people intersect, and clash with, ideas of colonisation. A discussion between environmental activists, Caitlyn Baikie and Dr. Mya-Rose Craig, highlights how certain Arctic traditions can no longer be practised due to the effects of climate change. Routes, used by generations of Inuit, are now inaccessible. Partridge’s work – and the discussion between Baikie and Craig – indicate a way forward where indigenous people are part of the decision-making process in preserving land, and with it, a way of life.

Some of the most powerful moments of the programme are Walling’s camera capturing the moods of the Arctic. The quieter, almost desolate spaces seen earlier are contrasted with busy, energetic scenes of a community taking part in hunting rituals. The activity is illustrated by a beautifully evocative score by Torgeir Vassvik, Life seems almost unchanged, until the camera hovers over huge cracks, fault lines in the ice.

By framing the environmental message against a population whose way of sustainable living is being damaged, Magnetic North looks at the problem from a different angle. In celebrating indigenous culture, with an emphasis on preserving its future as well as its past, this project moves the debate on further. This is not just in the abstract – although the scenes of melting ice (in real time) are shocking – Magnetic North succeeds by anchoring its argument in a culture and history that feels, not alien, but part of something older that we have lost touch with. Reconnecting, not just to the land, but to ourselves, is an effective means of persuasion. It is not what has disappeared, but what can be recovered.

Reviewed on 3 December 2020

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