Nordic Lab celebrates Indigenous artists of the North

Nordic Lab, a new Indigenous-led research and production space at an Ottawa gallery, showcases artists from the far North.

'It can truly be our voice that is heard, and it's not edited,' says Indigenous artist

'Big Hello,' a mobile of hand-beaded cellphone cases from Inuk textile artist Maureen Gruben from Tuktoyaktuk, N.W.T. (Sandra Abma/CBC)

Beaded cellphone cases, delicate bird's nests and embroidered handkerchiefs — these are natural and historical objects that mine untold stories and they are on display in Alakkaajut ("Many Things Appear"), the inaugural show at the Nordic Lab inside Ottawa's SAW Gallery.

Nordic Lab is an Indigenous-run space designed to showcase and nurture work by artists hailing from the Northern regions of the globe. It offers residencies, workshops and exhibitions as a way to connect Indigenous artists who often live in remote areas.

The opening of the gallery and workshop space, which is run by Inuk artist and curator Taqralik Partridge, was long delayed by the pandemic.

For her first show she invited artists from Canada, Norway and Alaska and she wants to bring Indigenous art to the forefront of exhibitions and art-making.

Artist Taqralik Partridge is the curator and director of the Nordic Lab at Saw Gallery. (Francis Ferland/CBC)

"My focus is really on bringing together Indigenous artists from across the circumpolar north ... with a focus on Indigenous-led collaboration," said Partridge. "In a way where Indigenous voices are not tokenized or just commodified to make things a little bit interesting."

WATCH | Northern artists find new space at Ottawa's Nordic Lab

Northern artists find new space at Ottawa’s Nordic Lab

10 months ago
Duration 2:07
The new Nordic Lab, run by Inuk artist and curator Taqralik Partridge, will offer northern artists residencies and gallery opportunities while bringing Indigenous work to the forefront. Artist Sonya Kelliher-Combs contributed to the first-ever exhibition.

Portable secrets

Sonya Kelliher-Combs stands in front of her installation 'A Million Tears.' (Francis Ferland/CBC)

For years Iñupiaq and Athabascan artist Sonya Kelliher-Combs collected delicately embroidered handkerchiefs and scarves. In her installation "A Million Tears," she imagines those hankies as a repository for decades of sorrow and grief.

"I feel like people hold things inside a lot," said Kelliher-Combs. "And one of the ways that they let them go is through these kinds of purging and crying and grieving." 

Kelliher-Combs says healing begins when people are given the opportunity to open up and talk about their pain. 

'It's like a little husk form that you tuck things away and hide away.' Kelliher-Combs creates small handmade amulets in which secrets are stored. (Sandra Abma/CBC)

"I call those secrets, those are the things we carry," said the artist, who leads workshops in crafting handmade amulets, which are small pouches where painful secrets can be stored while the wearer is protected.

"It's like a little husk form that you tuck things away and hide away ... I call them portable secrets."

Taking part in an exhibition put together by an Indigenous curator, in a space that is dedicated to Indigenous expression, has a special significance for the artist.

"It's important for us to be part of every level of a museum situation because it can truly be our voice that is heard, and it's not edited," she said.

Big Hello 

Beaded work from old moccasins are inserted in used cellphones cases in Maureen Gruben's installation. (Sandra Abma/CBC)

More than 100 used cellphone cases are suspended from the ceiling by fishing line in Inuvialuk artist Maureen Gruben's installation "Big Hello." Gruben inserted beadwork from old moccasins into the cases to signify the vital function of phones and the radio in allowing residents of the Canadian Arctic to stay in touch.

"Maureen's piece is really about being connected," said Partridge.

"Even the now, Internet is not the best in a lot of communities, and people still have the radio on all the time and people will call in to communicate different things such as 'Happy Birthday' or 'Merry Christmas' or condolences to family members or, you know, hearing elders tell stories on the radio."

Recasting history

Sissel M. Bergh packed up the materials for her installation into her suitcase and brought them to Ottawa from her home in Trondheim, Norway. (Francis Ferland/CBC)

Sámi artist Sissel M. Bergh was concerned about shipping her art installation to Ottawa from Norway, so she packed up the materials including a fragile bird's nest, pieces of drift wood and electrical cables into her suitcase and brought them here herself. 

"We were worried that when she got to the border, because there are various materials, natural materials being used, we were worried that she wouldn't get through the border. So we had all our fingers crossed." said Partridge.

Sami artist and filmmaker Sissel M. Bergh uses objects from nature to reveal an alternate history of Norway. (Francis Ferland/CBC)

"And then she texted that she had got through the border and the customs agent had said, 'Congratulations, that's so wonderful. You have a show in Canada.'" 

Bergh says her work is "a counter spell" or a way to reclaim Indigenous Sámi history as part of the the story of Norway, which has long emphasized the country's Viking heritage.

Alakkaajut (Many Things Appear) runs at Nordic Lab until March 5, 2022.


Sandra Abma


Sandra Abma is a veteran CBC arts journalist. If you have an event or idea you want to share, please do at