Jeneen Frei Njootli, installation view of “Throats tight with medicine, teeth that cannot chew, mountains and rivers in the gut,” 2024. Photo: Bryon Dauncey, Courtesy Macaulay + Co.

Jeneen Frei Njootli


Macaulay + Co.

Jeneen Frei Njootli is “obsessed with ptarmigan.” This plump, winter-white beauty of the grouse family not only inspired the title of their current show—“Throats tight with medicine, teeth that cannot chew, mountains and rivers in the gut” (on view through May 11, 2024)—but its feathers, wings, and harelike feet also protrude from the epoxied pockets and gloves of several sculptures like lucky keepsakes. A Dagoo (ptarmigan) stew, hunted and prepared by the artist, was served at the opening, while steel renderings “tenderly” depicting the birds’ tracks are propped up against the gallery walls like bookends. Deftly combining sculpture, photography, performance, and poetry, Frei Njootli’s meditations on Indigenous sovereignty, decolonization, and the body read like a nuanced, multifaceted story that takes off from and remains grounded in place, time, and memory.

Born in Whitehorse, Canada, Frei Njootli is a Vuntut Gwitchin First Nation artist (with Dutch, Czech, Jewish, and Womyns ancestry), now living in Old Crow, Yukon. A graduate of UBC’s MFA program and Emily Carr University, and molded by mentors and knowledge keepers over the years, they have shown their work in spaces around the world. This show includes several large-scale photographic works conceived during a performance involving the artist’s family and realized during a residency and subsequent exhibition (“Noise of the Flesh: Score for Gina Pane”) at the Frac des Pays de la Noire in Nantes, France. A number of sculptural pieces focus on clothes worn by the artist and their kin, including a sturdy-looking jacket and boots that Frei Njootli wore in the evocative photoscapes, as well as their nephew’s old work pants, secured together with duct tape. Throughout the exhibition, poetic flourishes—the detailed beadwork of an abandoned glove, a pretty floral scarf cast into the shape of the artist’s hunting rifle, and titles such as my grandma used to check her traps with lipstick on—accent a relational approach to art-making and inspire a transformative vantage point from which to delve deeper into some of the stickier aspects of Indigenous cultural heritage.

Jeneen Frei Njootli, Glove with wing, 2024. Leather, fleece-lined glove, ptarmigan wing, and epoxy, 6.25 x 7 x 7.5 in. Photo: Bryon Dauncey, Courtesy Macaulay + Co.

In Frei Njootli’s photographic panels, steel, a composite material typically associated with strength and durability, acquires dynamic states and interpretations. Sprayed with a corrosive that contributes to ongoing rust and decay, the surface of the metal becomes confused with imprints of haunting screenprinted images. In one of the triptychs, a spectral figure (Frei Njootli) stands against a stark landscape; in another, a body (again the artist’s) is seen lying motionless in the snow. Displayed on the floor, three impressions of Frei Njootli’s face gaze up, bearing witness unto themselves, each repetition merging further into the background, like superimposed negatives disappearing into a blurry nothingness. With Frei Njootli’s body standing in for everybody, the pieces carry solemnity and power, their existence alone defiantly confronting the viewer’s gaze. The clothes found hanging from the ceiling and scattered about the space feel as if they had been pulled from the depicted snowy banks, appearing both wet (the snow melted and glistening with epoxy) and frozen in time. It’s a sharp, subversive contrast to all of the Indigenous “costumes” imprisoned in museum vitrines around the world. “Here are our clothes,” the pieces seem to say, a symbolic bright orange scarf linking together the arms of the work jacket, like hands.

Genocide of a people occurs not just through violent acts, but also through cultural suppression and omission, through languages lost and heritages subsumed into the dominant culture. Frei Njootli’s work speaks not only of a reclaiming of the past (the artist has been slowly relearning their language, Dinjii Zhuh Qyuu or Gwich’in), but also a revisioning of the present and the future ahead. With the narrative reframed under the guidance of the rightful storyteller, I think it is important to revisit the circumstances surrounding the creation of Frei Njootli’s photographic panels. The day they were made was filled “with so much joy and levity,” driving around the island with their father, the children playing, and a cousin assisting with the photographing. “After driving home, we all had caribou head soup and gave thanks for the day.” Life matters; every child matters. In the end, like the salve of the ptarmigan stew, Frei Njootli’s dicing up and stirring together of stories is but a reminder, as they describe in their exhibition statement,  “that all are our children are all our children…[and] They are part of time.”