• Amy Toledano

Magnetic North presented by Border Crossings and the British Museum


Daniella Zalcman, courtesy of Greenpeace

What Is It?

An online event celebrating the work of Indigenous Arctic artists. It’s part of Border Crossings’ ORIGINS Festival, in partnership with the British Museum.

What Is It About?

Magnetic North platforms the work of a variety of Indigenous artists from across the Arctic and includes storytelling, poetry, dance, music, and more. It also showcases stunning visuals and landscapes. It offers perspectives on COVID-19 and the climate crisis that may be new to those who don’t live in the polar region.

How Did It Make Me Feel?

Bookended by Torgeir Vassvik’s Sámi yoik and accented throughout with Kiliii Yuyan’s wonderful photographic and visual work, Magnetic North manages to capture a distinctive mood and sense of place that can be difficult to achieve in the online format. This is great as sense of place and atmosphere magnifies the message of what is being shared, as it encourages the viewer to put aside any assumptions or preconceptions they may have regarding the many cultures that are portrayed here. It places viewers in situ and removes the middleman: this is a very generous sharing that I feel grateful to have witnessed. It is a rare experience to hear the oral histories, poetry and storytelling presented in their original languages, by artists including Hivshu, Ishmael Angaluuk Hope and Laakuluk Williamson-Bathory—and the Greenlandic mask dancing of the incredible Elisabeth Heilmann Blind.

The conversation surrounding climate change and COVID-19 is well-integrated, woven into and amongst the art, and is in some ways inseparable. It’s much more difficult to ignore the impending sense of climate catastrophe when your entire lifestyle and cultural history is adversely affected year-on-year. For these communities, it isn’t as abstract as many Western politicians like to pretend it is. It confronts the viewer with the reality that the people who are most affected by these crises are often the ones who are most excluded from this conversation. Magnetic North showcases the admirable work of young activists such as Caitlyn Baikie, who are pushing back against this exclusion through education programmes, expeditions, advocacy and scientific research. They provide the leadership we need now.

I’m not sure how self-aware the production itself is regarding the lingering effects of colonisation, and indeed colonialism. The first couple of minutes of Magnetic North present us with some silent shots of objects behind glass display cases in the British Museum. Presumably the intention behind this is to communicate something along the lines of—‘behind these neatly catalogued objects are real people with real stories: we cannot speak for them, therefore the sound will come on only when they do.’ I understand that this event accompanies an on-going exhibition to which the production may have wished to signpost viewers, but conveying this through this kind of framing introduction doesn’t work. This symbolic scene-setting and mediation is unnecessary and is at odds with the intimacy achieved by the rest of the event. These artists need to be heard right away, in their own way and on their own terms, and they do not need to be contextualised in this manner.


Anything Else?

This event is part of the public programme accompanying the Citi exhibition Arctic: culture and climate, available to view at the British Museum 22 October 2020-21 February 2021.


Arden x



Magnetic North streamed on the British Museum’s YouTube channel on Thursday December 3rd 2020.

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©2018 by Amy Toledano