Versatile is the word for Maria Panínguak’ Kjærulff’s art practice. This Danish-Inuit artist played a nurse in the first feature length film produced in Greenland and acted in a daytime TV soap opera. She designed Christmas stamps and designed the set of the play “Gi Mi Tiggum” or “Give Me Chewing Gum.” In three short days, Kjærulff painted a 21-foot-long frozen shipping container. Working in collaboration with schoolchildren, Kjærulff transformed hand-painted rocks into a monumental bird effigy. In a small town in northern Finland, she created Igloo Ruin, fantasy landscape of flowers and stone.
Born in 1980 in Copenhagen, Denmark to a Greenlandic Inuit mother and a Danish father, Maria Kjærulff moved to Nuuk, the capital of Greenland, when she was six years old. Her son was born there, and Nuuk remains her hometown today.
Kjærulff’s education is as eclectic as her art practice. Through a Rotary exchange program in high school, Kjærulff studied in Minnesota. After studying at the Nuuk Art School, Maria earned her BFA in 2005, from the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design University in Halifax, Canada. In 2004, she attended the prestigious Cooper Union School of Art in New York. Kjærulff returned to New York in 2010 to participate in the International Studio and Curatorial Program.
“Painting, drawing, photography, film, video, jewellery, snow sculptures, illustration, fashion and scenography” are the media Kjærulff lists on her online portfolio. Particularly she is known for her large-scale painterly works on paper and canvas. Inspired by nature and the human form, these mixed media pieces are often highly abstracted. Kjærulff combines charcoal drawing with acrylic paints—juxtaposing greys with brilliant hues: hot pink, cherry red, ultramarine, citron. The strokes are bold and gestural, and the images crackle with energy.
One such piece is Tame Turkey Running Wild, inspired by a visit to a friend’s house in Canada. The friend’s father kept turkeys in his yard, and Kjærulff writes, “I was so fascinated with them. They were stunning. Feathers organized like haute couture And one male turkey was prancing around proudly” (Kjærulff, email). Upon her return to college, she felt compelled to paint the turkeys, but none of photos she found lived up to her vision. Working from a figurine and memory, she brought the tom turkey to life. “I was in the zone,” she writes about that piece. ”Focused.”
Big White, a work in the collection of the Greenland National Museum and Archives, portrays a Greenlandic woman as part of the hunting and fishing food chain. As she bends over to butcher a seal, the woman’s body morphs into fish and seals. An ulu, the woman’s knife used throughout the Arctic, sits at the base of her spine. “Her naked breast,” writes Kjærulff, “represents passing on milk to the next generation” (Kjærulff, “Big White”).
Taking a stylistic 180-degree turn is a newer series also focused on the Inuit women. Petite watercolors feature whimsical, highly-stylized dancing women with bee-strung lips and coquettish eyelashes. Kjærulff emphasizes their uniquely Greenlandic top-knots and boots. This light-hearted style carried over to the artist’s two 2012 Post Greenland stamp designs, in which the women’s beadwork collars transformed into Christmas trees and ornaments.
Despite the lightness of these works, Maria Kjærulff is not afraid to tackle political issues. The mural painted on the colossal shipping container deals with global warming through the eyes of a polar bear. It’s part of Moving Art, a project of the Royal Arctic Line and KIMIK, a Greenlandic artist collective. Polar bears are native to Greenland and are depicted on the country’s coat of arms; however, in the rapidly melting ice, polar bear populations are expected to drop by two-thirds (“Climatologist Helps Predict Polar Bear Population”). The bright colors contrast the haunting image of a polar bear, flanked by ghostly ursine forms, who faces an open doorway to a blazing orange sky. The disarmingly upbeat title, Be Cool! Be Green!, puns on climate change, Greenland, and the Green Movement.
Igloo Ruin could also be seen as referencing climate change. After all, Greenland is a global hotspot for accelerating ice melt. But this work is more evocative than didactic. Kjærulff created this installation for the Art Ii Biennale of Northern Environmental and Sculpture Art. Located in the small town of Ii in northern Finland, this art fair pairs international artists with local residents to create environmentally sustainable artworks. Igloo Ruin is a “fossilized igloo with white flowers embedded in the stones, surrounded by a patch of moss and land,” writes Kjærulff (email). The wild, jagged stone outline represents “a fake land full of created memories and perceptions of what might have been in the past …. A kind of sacred memorial of something that might have been. Stories and cultures hidden in the space. Ungraspable and fragile, yet momentous and permanent.”
Maria Kjærulff’s art is evolving—growing in nuance and scope. Currently she is represented by Galleri Kalak, a gallery in Copenhagen for Greenlandic Inuit artists. Where does this artist want to take her work next? To Berlin, Germany. “I hope to go there, perhaps go on an artist residency to get the most out of the stay there,” she writes (email). “Meet artists. Be inspired.” And continue to make works that in turn inspire others. —America Meredith
Top Image: Selvportæ, photograph
- “Climatologist Helps Predict Polar Bear Population.” Bulletin Of The American Meteorological Society 89, no. 6 (June 2008): 784-785. Environment Complete, EBSCOhost (accessed January 16, 2013).
- Kjærulff, Maria. “Big White.” Maria Greenland.