EuroStorie research seminar: Magdalena Zolkos 12.2.2021

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Time: Friday 12.2.2021 15:00-16:00

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Magdalena Zolkos: Entangled in Seaweed: Greenlandic Tupilak Figures and Anticolonial Imaginary in the Arctic


This paper rests on the following assumption: the circulation of cultural heritage objects in colonial contexts maps an ensemble of contacts and connections that exceed the economic rubric of expansionism and extractionism; rather, it is also a story of anticolonial imaginary; of resistance, subversion, mockery and survival. Zolkos aims to sketch such a map in regard to the objects of Greenlandic figurines of ill-wishing and revenge, tupilak, which became a source of great fascination and anxiety for many 18th and 19th c. Danish missionaries and ethnographers, as well as products of a blossoming souvenir market in the 20th c. In 1980s-1990s, the tupilak figures in the collections of the Danish National Museum were the subject of repatriation discussions, known as the Utimut Process.

Zolkos argues that tracing the histories, narratives, and aesthetics of selected tupilak figures offers a unique perspective onto Danish settler-coloniality and migration in the Arctic, as well as illuminates how material objects, carrying an intense mnemonic and affective investment, become vehicles of struggle and survival. The dominant art historiographic interpretation of the Greenlandic tupilak figure presents them as material and symbolic outcomes of the processes of colonial acculturation, stressing the disparity between the figures produced for the Western consumption and the ‘original’ tupilak, with its unique social and narrative functions in the Greenlandic society. Zolkos suggests that we think about the tupilak in an inverse perspective: as an active and deliberate resistance to the colonial impulse to consume and protect the native culture. In the Greenlandic belief systems, tupilak is a peculiar being that defies uniform categorization as either thing, animal, human, or spirit. Rather than a product of cultural adaptation to colonial dominance, Zolkos suggests that we view tupilak figures as material expression of obstinate survival of beings that Western modernity suppresses, because their existence contravenes its binary frame of organizing the world.

About the speaker

Magdalena Zolkos is a Humboldt Research Fellow in Goethe University. Her focus is on memory and trauma studies. Zolkos uses political, philosophic and literary perspectives to look at collective memorialization and historical trauma, including those marginalized in the West on account of gender and race.