In View: Romans Suta’s Inuit Motif. Inuit Knowledge and Eastern European Art

“In View” is a new series of short essays focused on important artworks from the modern history of East-Central Europe that have been overlooked by prevailing art historical narratives. Each author in the series selects a single work that has been ignored in broader histories of global modernism or regional cultural histories, and offers a rich and close reading of that work, highlighting its nuance and import. Texts in the new series will vary widely in their geographic and chronological purview, but they all develop an argument for a specific work’s significance through a detailed examination of its genesis, context, material and formal qualities, and/or reception. Introducing a new set of richly invigorating points of reference and contrasting narratives, “In View” aims to broaden our understanding of the modern art history of East-Central Europe’s (former) peripheries and overlooked centers.

Romans Suta, Inuit Motif, 1926, Painted porcelain. Latvian Museum of Decorative Arts and Design. Riga, Latvia.

A parka-clad Inuk seal hunter deftly navigates his qajaq through an icy maze of frozen geometries. The stylized teardrop shape of the man’s hood echoes the triangle of the open makeshift tent and the panoply of pointy peaks looming in the distance. In front of this dramatic backdrop, two grey seals burst through thin ice, gasping for air as they use their flippers to slide onto the slippery surface of an ice floe. These seals move toward the hunter unaware of his presence—the parka’s soft, lustrous fur has transformed the hunter to appear as a slick, solidified iceberg. While the parka conceals the human to confound the pinniped, the plate’s circular shape unveils the human. In this confluence of gazes, the formal similarities between iceberg, tent, and parka begin to assume new significance.

If this painted image toys with the stakes of perception, it is because it makes visible the co-existence of multiple ontologies. Just as the human floats beyond the seals’ lines of vision, so, too, do discretely stylized other-than-human beings exist beyond the boundaries of the hunter’s vision. Alongside the living, breathing human predator and seal prey are other equally potent beings: the polar bear whose fur both warms and camouflages the wintertime hunter; the walrus whose hide keeps the qajaq buoyant and waterproof; and the bowhead whale whose bones undergird the qajaq’s physical structure. Taken together, the plate’s concentric compositional structure and its content visualize Inuit knowledge.

Romans Suta (1896–1944), the maker of this plate, had no personal experience of the Arctic. He did not speak any of the Inuit languages, and likely never met an Inuk person. He was a denizen of Riga, the capital of the fledgling Republic of Latvia, where he was an active member in two of the most influential collectives of the Latvian avant-garde: Rīgas mākslinieku grūpa (The Riga Group of Artists) and Zaļā vārna (The Green Crow) between 1920 and 1939. Together with Aleksandra Beļcova and Sigismunds Vidbergs, Suta also founded the applied arts co-operative Baltars, the progenitor of a robust, if brief tradition of modernist decorative arts considered fundamental to the history of the Eastern European avant-garde.(Steven Mansbach, “Methodology and Meaning in the Modern Art of Eastern Europe,” in Central European Avant-Gardes: Exchange and Transformation, ed. Timothy O. Benson (Cambridge, MA and London: The MIT Press, 2002), 297.) The Baltars studio developed a flexible visual language that merged Constructivist abstraction with figural sources as diverse as Safavid paintings, rural Latvian weddings, modern pilots, and Eastern Orthodox icons onto porcelain plates. As one of Suta’s first designs for Baltars, the plate here calls into question how we approach the confluence of Inuit subject matter with Latvian modernism. Staking the claim that “American art history is Indigenous art history,” Jessica Horton has done much work to expose “the co-presence of Native knowledge in far more locations than are currently addressed within the purview of Indigenous studies.”(Jessica Horton, “An Ecolonial Reassessment of the Indian Craze: Elbridge Ayer Burbank and Standing Bear,” in Ecocriticism and the Anthropocene and Nineteenth-Century Art and Visual Culture, eds. Maura Coughlin and Emily Gephart (New York and London: Routledge, 2018), 50.) Taking cue from Horton, I investigate Suta’s painted porcelain plate as a testing ground to explore how Indigenous art history can also be Eastern European.

Beyond Primitivism

The contours of art history suggest that we should understand the Inuit plate as an example of primtivism: here, a non-white person sits embedded among the slick geometries of Suprematism and Cubism and discrete shapes of vaguely “ethnographic” designs. The only known instance of Suta engaging with the Arctic, the plate is an outlier in a studio setting where ethnography in the new nation-state focused more regularly on the wedding traditions of the rural Latvian peasantry.(Suta produced around forty designs on the theme of Latvian wedding traditions as compared to one image of the Arctic.) Robert Flaherty’s 1922 Nanook of the North—the first ethnographic documentary film—and Knud Rasmussen’s Fifth Thule Expedition between 1921 and 1924 fomented the popular visibility of Inuit, albeit a white-authored discriminatory and racist visibility. Elsewhere, the Surrealist map of the world famously eradicated the continental United States and southern Canada in lieu of engorging the Inuit lands of Alaska, present-day Nunavut, Nunavik, and Nunatsiavut, as well as Greenland.(I am thinking of the map Le Mond au Temps des Surrealistes published in the Belgian journal Variétés in 1929.) Closer to home, the Latvian poet Lūcija Zamaiča had published evocative poems based on her experiences in the Arctic city of Arkhangelsk, where she lived during the Russian Civil War (1917–1922). Zamaiča returned to Riga and ran in the same circles as Suta, Aleksandra Beļcova, and other artists affiliated with the Baltars studio, leading Dace Ļaviņa to postulate that “the culture shock for bourgeoisie society” about “Eskimos and white people (mainly foreigners) living among them” may have inspired Suta’s creative endeavors.(Dace Ļaviņa, “‘Onward, my Dream Horses! Romans Suta,” Baltars, ed. Dace Ļaviņa (Riga: Neputns, 2019), 92.)

Produced at the height of this polar pop,(I borrow this phrase from Aaron Leggett, “Polar Pop,” in North: Finding Place in Alaska, ed. Julie Decker (Anchorage and Seattle: Anchorage Museum and University of Washington Press, 2017), 209–226.) the angular shapes of the painted Inuk seal hunter and Arctic environs reflect European modernism’s obsession with ethnography and codifying knowledge, its production in Latvia thus attesting to that young country’s striking cosmopolitanism. For the scholar of European art, this may be the end of the analysis. Another attempt might juxtapose Romans Suta’s Inuk figure with the artist’s large corpus of folkloric Latvian images produced in the Baltars studio, or even Aleksandra Beļcova’s evocative series of painted porcelain plates with “African” motifs, and investigate the visual politics of race within a Latvian context. While these art histories remain unwritten—as so many do within the context of Eastern Europe and especially the Baltic—we need not wait for their advent to push the envelope further. In order to do so, I advocate bringing colonial legacies into the fray.

Thinking through ideas of coloniality and its attendant power relations in the Baltic States of Estonia and Latvia has proven especially fruitful in recent exhibitions and art historical research focusing on two distinct periods: the long 19th century and the Soviet Occupation (1940/1944–1991).(See, for instance, the recent exhibition “The Conqueror’s Eye: Lisa Reihana’s In Pursuit of Venus,” Kumu Art Museum, Tallinn, Estonia, September 18, 2019–January 26, 2020.) Both of these periods neatly correspond to eras of Russian rule. By contrast, the colonial dimensions of the interwar period, when both countries were independent nations, have received less interrogation than the visual culture of nationalism.(For the newest survey of interwar Latvian art, see: Eduards Kļaviņš, ed., Art History of Latvia V. 1915–1940: The Period of Classical Modernism (Riga: Institute of Art History of the Latvian Academy of Arts, 2016).) While a colonial focus is certainly relevant to local conditions in the Baltic, the broader global networks of imperialism—those we usually associate with larger, domineering powers—are equally imbricated in the material realm in powerful, if rarely investigated ways.

Suta’s Arctic Contemporaries

To understand Suta’s painted porcelain plate better, we could compare it to another modernist image of the Indigenous Arctic, a self-portrait that Inupiaq photographer Charles Menadelook produced between 1912 and 1917.(For a reproduction of the image, please see Eileen Norbert, Menadelook: An Inupiat Teacher’s Photographs of Alaska Village Life, 1907–1932 (Seattle: University of Washington Press and Sealaska Heritage Institute, 2017), 24.) Hurried lines that Menadelook scratched onto the negative radiate from his body like sunbeams, creating a halo of light that appears to emanate from within his person. His white fur gloves and the hood roots of his parka—in emulation of the shape of walrus tusks—also radiate with brightness. Menadelook’s solid stature on a wooden chair gives a central focus to the image as he gazes off into the distance. Lining the edge of the reindeer parka, the sartorial element of greatest stylistic variation and individual expression, is a white band inset with dark diamond shapes. Created by his mother, the parka materializes the reciprocal relationship between mother and son as well as the inextricable interconnectivity of Arctic peoples, animals, and other-than-human beings.(For Indigenous Arctic perspectives on their sartorial traditions, see the section “Personal Narratives” in Arctic Clothing of North America-Alaska, Canada, Greenland, eds.  J.C.H. King, Birgit Pauksztat, Robert Storrie (McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2005). Men often completed fancy leatherwork on such parkas.) Menadelook’s scratching on the surface marks his authorial presence in a modernist practice reflective of the adaptive aesthetics of an Inupiat pictorial language that long made meaning through etching onto ivory.(Here I am thinking about a confluence of scholars not always in conversation: Patricia G. Berman, “Scratching the Surface: On and In Self-Portrait (1895),” Kunst og Kultur vol. 100, no. 1-2 (2017); Heather Igloliorte, “Curating Inuit Qaujimajatuqangit: Inuit Knowledge in the Qallunaat Art Museum,” Art Journal vol. 76, no. 2 (2017), 100–113; and Nicole Stratham, Through a Native Lens: American Indian Photography (Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 2020).)

Unidentified Inupiaq maker, Engraved ivory drill bow, collected in 1836, Estonian History Museum, Tallinn, Estonia.

Menadelook’s self-portrait presents a modernist vision of a parka-clad Inuk person, demonstrating that such visual representation was not always already wedded to the ethnographic settler colonial gaze. Yet, the Inupiat pictoral legacy that Menadelook inherited also found its way to the Baltic. Around 1836, Baltic German explorer Ferdinand von Wrangell brought a number of carved ivory drill bows—replete with encised pictorial narratives of Bering Strait life—to the University of Tartu in the 19th century.(Amy Phillips-Chan, Quliaqtuavut Tuugaatigun (Our Stories in Ivory). Reconnecting Arctic Narratives with Engraved Drill Bows (Ph.D. diss, 2013, Arizona State University).)Once in Europe, engraved Inupiat ivories may have become ethnographic specimens, but their embedded knowledge endured their physical uprooting from one end of empire to the other.

The Ecologies of the Parka between the Bering and the Baltic

In his 1971 text Give or Take a Century: An Eskimo Chronicle, Inupiaq multimedia artist  and author Joseph Senungetuk writes,

In Kotzebue [the Alaska town named after the Baltic German explorer Otto von Kotzebue], the middle-aged and older folks don their “fancy parkas” and pose for the camera buffs. Out around the countryside those who are less attracted to the tourist dollar wear simple parka covers while fishing or gathering berries. I suppose tourism helps keep the Eskimo traditions alive in an era of technological invasion, by urging the natives to superficial dress and dance. But still I cannot help feeling distressed to know there are some fellow Eskimos who are being exploited because of their innocence in business matters.(Joseph Senungetuk, Give or Take a Century: An Eskimo Chronicle (San Francisco: The Indian Historian Press, 1971), 131.)

Senungetuk’s distaste towards the performative act of his elders posing in “fancy parkas” emerged from a long and distinctively global history of the exploitation of Alaskan peoples and ecologies dating to the early days of the Russian-American Company. A century into Qing-period rule in China, the Manchu aesthetic preference for fur transformed among Han Chinese from a marker of barbarism to a material of imperial belonging.(Jonathan Schlesinger, A World Trimmed in Fur: Wild Things, Pristine Places and the Natural Fringes of Qing Rule (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2017), 17–18.) The shift in taste created a burgeoning market for pelts, especially the dark, lustrous furs of the Pacific sea otter. In 1799, the Russian-American Company emerged to monopolize this lucrative market. Dependent on Native Alutiiq labor and expertise, the Company sent able-bodied hunters to seek otters, whereas younger boys and older men hunted puffins, whose skins women would sew into parkas.(Kenneth N. Owens, Empire Maker: Aleksandr Baranov and Russian Colonial Expansion into Alaska and Northern California (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2017), 72–74.) If Alutiiq women created elaborate parkas at this time, it was for the Russian colonial elite, and under extreme duress, psychologically as well as ecologically.(Anjuli Grantham, “Puffin Skin Parka Shows Work of Alaska Native Women in Russian America,” Alaska Out of the Vault. Podcast audio, July 6, 2017. The podcast also notes that provenance and use is difficult to determine. Other Alutiiq wearers, especially elite ones, may have also worn this puffin-skin parka.) As the Russian-American Company quickly drove Pacific sea otters to the brink of extinction, they turned their attention northwards towards the Bering Strait, inaugurating a century of marine mammalian disappearance from whales to walruses.(John R. Bockstoce, Furs and Frontiers in the Far North : The Contest Among Native and Foreign Nations for the Bering Strait Fur Trade (Yale University Press, 2009); Ryan Tucker Jones, Empire of Extinction: Russians and the North Pacific’s Strange Beasts of the Sea, 1741­–1867 (Oxford University Press, 2014); Bathsheba Demuth, Floating Coast: An Environmental History of the Bering Strait (W. W. Norton: 2019).) As animals disappeared and peoples starved, Baltic German names remained in the landscape, retaining their settler aura as Alaska’s geopolitical affiliation changed from Russia to the United States in 1867. By the mid-1890s, the United States imported reindeer to redress this ecological devastation.(On distinctions between wild caribou and introduced domestic reindeer, see Karen H. Mager, “‘I’d Be Foolish to Tell You They Were Caribou’: Local Knowledge of Historical Interactions between Reindeer and Caribou in Barrow, Alaska,” Arctic Anthropology, vol. 49, no. 2 (2012), 162–181.)

artwork image

Unidentified Alutiiq maker, Puffin-skin parka, puffin skin, puffin feather, sealskin, caribou fur, sinew, ochre, yarn, human hair, collected in 1845. Finnish National Museum, Helsinki, Finland.

Though Inupiat had long traded for reindeer skins with Chukchi across the Bering Strait, the newly-local production of reindeer skins transformed parka designs.(Reindeer herding gave Inupiat seamstresses access to “an almost unlimited supply of the desirable white or mottled brown and white skins.” Cyd Martin, “Caribou, Reindeer and Rickrack: Some Factors Influencing Cultural Change in Northern Alaska, 1880–1940,” Arctic Clothing of North America-Alaska, Canada, Greenland, eds.  J.C.H. King, Birgit Pauksztat, Robert Storrie (McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2005), 138.) As Menadelook’s self-portrait makes clear, such exuberant parkas became a source of pride. Decades before Joseph Senungetuk lamented performative parkas for the tourist lens, Inupiat photographers asserted their sovereignty and selfhood in this colonial confluence of material cultures.(Jolene Rickard, “Sovereignty: A Line in the Sand,” Aperture no. 139 (Summer 1995), 50–59. Michelle Raheja, “Reading Nanook’s Smile: Visual Sovereignty, Indigenous Revisions of Ethnography, and Atanarjuat (The Fast Runner),” American Quarterly vol. 59, no. 4 (2007), 1159–1185.) We may now see the multiple ontologies of Suta’s plate in a different light. The birds and four-legged animals on the plate’s rim relate to the puffins and reindeer used to make the parkas, yet their aesthetic harmony belies the colonial networks of extraction that displaced ecosystems. Indeed, rather than engaging in subsistence sealing to provide for his community, the Inuk hunter of Suta’s plate may be instead an agent of “transgressive environmental histories,” pursuing fur seals to cater to a voracious global demand that intertwined not merely communities indigenous to the Bering and the Baltic, but even those of Tierra del Fuego and beyond.(John Soluri, “Fur Sealing and Unsettled Sovereignties,” in Crossing Empires: Taking U.S. History into Transimperial Terrain, eds. Kristin L. Hoganson and Jay Sexton (Durham, NC and London: Duke University Press, 2020), 25–45.)

Towards Entangled Art Histories

The extractive and exploitative practices of Baltic entanglement with Bering ecologies iniatated an eco-colonial framework that Baltic Germans would later apply at home.(Bart Pushaw, “Living Stones and Other Beings: Earthen Ecologies within Baltic Visual Culture, 1860–1915,” Kunstiteaduslikke Uurimusi vol. 27, no. 1-3 (2018), 107–129.) While Alaskan Natives would escape the claws of Russian imperial rule decades before Latvians or Estonians, a distinct part of their material culture remained (and remains) in collections around the Baltic Sea.(On one such collection, see Pirjo Varjola, ed., The Etholén Collection. The Ethnographic Alaskan Collection of Adolf Etholén and his contemporaries in the National Museum of Finland (Helsinki: National Board of Antiquities of Finland, 1990).)

What might this history bring to bear on the production of our painted Inuk seal hunter on an object literally stamped with the appellation of “Baltic art” (Baltars) in 1926? Amid the rampant calls to decolonize art historical practice is the elevation of, and serious engagement with, Native forms of knowledge. Menadelook’s visual production attests to a modernist manifestation of living relationships among ontologies. In the aftermath of the colonial disruption and displacement of  Native Alaskan material culture, Suta’s plate does not merely respond to polar pop, but participates in a legacy of making the Bering visible in the Baltic. Complicit in exploitative exoticism, the plate is nonetheless embedded in Inuit epistemologies.(Igloliorte, “Curating Inuit Qaujimajatuqangit.”) Over the ensuing century, artistic practices in the Baltic have increasingly sought to expand definitions of selfhood and identity, of material connections and ecological emplacements. But this expanded understanding—often aligned with the global turn in modern and contemporary art—is not as novel as it may seem. Indeed, comparing Menadelook’s self-portrait and Suta’s plate reminds us that Indigenous epistemologies have shaped not only the art history of the region, but also the material and economic networks that enabled global cultural exchanges to take place across the Baltic, Eurasia, and North America. Indigenous knowledges, in other words, are already at the root of global contemporaneity, in the art world and beyond. We have only to look for them, and respect their claims—not to a separate art history, but to the history we share today.

Bart Pushaw
Bart Pushaw is a Postdoctoral Fellow in the international research group “The Art of Nordic Colonialism: Writing Transcultural Art Histories” at the University of Copenhagen. He received his PhD from the University of Maryland. His research and curatorial work focus on race, settler colonialism, and gender within global modernisms between 1750 and 1950. He is preparing a manuscript on the cultivation of Indigenous visual literacies across the colonial Arctic. His writing has appeared in Kunstiteaduslikke Uurimusi, Kunst og Kultur, International Journal for History, Culture, and Modernity and forthcoming in Critical Interventions: Journal of African Art History and Visual Culture. Other recent publications investigate the global currency of nineteenth-century Latin American history painting, interwar Sámi printmakers, and the queering of Eastern European modernism.