Aron From Kangeq

Aron from Kangeq, an indigenous figure in Greenland in the 19th century, is considered a forerunner among Greenlandic pictorial artists. His illustrations of the oral storytelling tradition have gained status as a symbol of the new artistic tradition developed in Greenland in the mid-19th century. In addition to his oeuvre of watercolors, woodcuts, and drawings, Aron was also a dedicated writer of the oral tradition.

Crucial to Aron's life as an artist and the development of the art of painting in Greenland was Hinrich Johannes Rink (1819-1893), the governor of the Southern District of Greenland from 1855 to 1868. Rink was aware that in spite of the cultural suppression on the part of the Danish and German missions, Greenlanders secretly kept alive their traditional oral songs and stories. Amid rapid social and cultural changes within the Greenlandic community, Rink recognized the importance of preserving the knowledge about indigenous cultural traditions. On April 22, 1858, influenced by various projects of collecting folklore in Denmark, Rink sent out an "invitation" to the settlements on the West Coast, the colonized area of Greenland. Rink encouraged the Greenlanders to record their knowledge of the oral traditions, and to contribute maps and drawings. Rink had brought a small, wooden printing press to Godthab from Copenhagen, with which he intended to print the written material in Danish and Greenlandic. His initiative was met with great enthusiasm among the Greenlanders all along the West Coast who sent him their written manuscripts of the oral traditional folktales and stories. The collected material resulted in the four small volumes of Kaladlit Oqalluktualliait/ Gronlandske Folkesagn [Greenlandic Folktales], printed by Rink between the years 1859 and 1863.

Rink's invitation likewise spurred the work of Aron. Aron came from Kangeq, a small settlement a few miles outside of the colonial administrative center of Godthab (presently Nuuk, Greenland's capital) where residents eagerly responded to Rink's project. Aron began contributing to the collection of folktales by illustrating stories that other people had written down. Samuel Kleinschmidt (1814-1886), a Danish-Greenlandic missionary and teacher in Godthab, who knew Aron from collaborating with the artist on map drawings, had shown Rink one of Aron's drawings. It was an illustration of the settlement Kangaamiut, and it must have engendered the idea of encouraging indigenous documentation of cultural knowledge. Rink published his invitation only a couple of weeks later with the specific invitation to Aron to illustrate the collection of manuscripts. Another illustrator, Jens Kreutzmann from Kangaamiut, also sent Rink his works, but Rink used Aron as the primary illustrator.

Rink probably selected a key group of manuscripts and sent them to Aron so that the artist might choose which stories to illustrate. Scholars know from the two men's correspondence that Rink provided Aron with his materials, which were scarce in Greenland at that time. Rink supplied paper, pencils, and pigments from Godthab to Kangeq via kayak. In late 1858, Rink introduced Aron to wood carving as a printmaking method. The first two volumes of Kaladlit Oqalluktualliait/Gronlandske Folkesagn (published in 1859 and 1860) as well as the newspaper Atuagagdliutit (started in 1861) featured Aron's woodcut illustrations. He earned national recognition for these and the picture book Pr0ver af Gr0nlandsk Tegning og Trykning 1857-61 [Examples of Greenlandic Drawing and Printing], a gift to King Frederik VII of Denmark.

Although the woodcut medium represented a significant portion of Aron's work, he subsequently concentrated on watercolor, with which he developed a characteristic style. The watercolors effectively witnessed Aron's intimate relationship with Greenlandic landscape and its colors, people, and their culture. He often executed several illustrations for one manuscript in order to visualize the key scenes of a narrative and elucidate plot. In addition to illustrating other people's stories, Aron began to write his own texts, eventually distinguishing himself as an indigenous writer. Aware of the essential differences between the oral and the written medium, Aron remained sensitive to the written context and focused on creating comprehensible and coherent narratives as compared to many of the other writers who contributed to Rink's collection. Aron sensitively described his characters' inner life; moreover, his descriptions were also often more detailed than was the case with the other writers. The recording of oral narratives necessarily entailed the loss of important elements of traditional storytelling, such as the storyteller's use of voice and body language, which could not be relayed in writing. Through the combination of text and image, Aron nevertheless managed to relay a sense of the vitality and the dynamics of the oral storytelling tradition.

The oral tradition included both legends from ancient times and tales of contemporary events. Aron represented both types in his art, and several manuscripts and illustrations described the seminal meeting of the Inuit and the European cultures; these cultural conflicts comprised some of Aron's first artistic motives. His fascination with material from ancient times (pre-European contact) remained a frequent and enduring theme. A devout Christian, Aron expressed difficulties with the Inuit's "heathen" past; in contrast with other writers such as Jens Kreutzmann, who claimed that the ancient material belonged to the past and Christianity to the present, Aron often tried to adjust the ancient Inuit worldview to comply with Christian morals.

When Rink and his wife Signe left Greenland in 1868, they brought the collected material, including Aron's works. Signe Rink (1836-1909) held a stronger sense of the ethnographic value of the illustrations than her husband, who had primarily been interested in the written manuscripts and regarded the illustrations as a curiosity. In 1905, Signe Rink donated the bulk of Aron's watercolors to the National Museum in Copenhagen, excluding a selection of illustrations that she found either improper or not belonging to the ancient tradition of storytelling, such as the cultural meeting between the Europeans and the Inuit. These were given to the University Museum of Ethnography in Oslo by relatives after Rink's death. The main collection of Aron's water-colors in Copenhagen remained hidden until 1960, when Eigil Knuth rediscovered the museum collection and presented them to the public. This portion of the collection was transferred from Copenhagen to the National Museum of Greenland in 1982.

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