Jessie Kleemann

Artist Spotlight: Kalaaleq performance artist and poet Jesse Kleemann activates language, land, and body as material. 

ᓴᖅᑭᑎᑦᑎᓂᖅ ᓄᓇᖃᖅᑳᖅᓯᒪᔪᑦ ᐱᒋᔭᖏᑦ ᒐᕙᒪᓕᕆᔨᓂᒃ ᖃᐅᔨᑎᑦᑎᔩᑦ
Several containers of seal blubber hang from beams as part of Kleemann’s installation at the National Gallery of Denmark.

Jessie Kleemann is a poet and visual, performance, and theatre artist based in Copenhagen. Born in Upernavik in the northwest of Kalaallit Nunaat, Kleemann regularly explores Kalaallit identity, tradition, and relationships to land and language in her work. 

Several containers of seal blubber hang from beams as part of Kleemann’s installation at the National Gallery of Denmark.

Trained at the Tuukkaq Theatre in Fjaltring (northern Jutland, Denmark), and at the Greenland Art School in Nuuk, (where she later served as Director), Kleemann’s work moves between traditional Inuit performance practices and contemporary approaches influenced by a variety of cultures and movements. Kleemann’s intense presence as a performance artist often relies on integrating traditional elements of mask dance with more experimental body art practices, regularly working with blubber, beads, rope, the Arctic landscape and her own nude body. She describes this hybrid method of working as a way of activating Kalaallit cultural practices: treating them as living, thriving ways of encountering the world and attending to the nuances and shifts in contemporary Inuit identities. In working with these materials in relation to her own body, she interrogates their Indigenous and colonial histories—and the complexities of memory, commodification, spirituality and violence they hold.

A notable example of Kleemann’s untangling of culture, trade, subsistence, exploitation, climate and colonization is her ongoing work with seal blubber, including the 2012 installation ORSOQ, which was shown at the Liverpool Biennial and acquired by the National Gallery of Denmark in 2020. Celebrating seal fat as an element of traditional Inuit food and food systems, exploring histories of stigmatization of traditional foods, and addressing its prominence as a trade commodity sought after by the Danish, English and Portuguese to be used as lamp fuel, the installation incorporates bottles of rendered seal blubber to tell a story about climate, resources, land, tradition and inherited narratives about what it means to be “civilized.”

In her practice as a poet, Kleemann takes up similar themes. Like much of her poetry, her most recent collection of poems from 2021, Arkhticós Dolorôs (Arctic Pain), moves between English, Danish and Kalaallisut languages. These shifts in language correspond to an exploration of questions of translation, colonization, climate and the other major cross-cultural challenges of this moment, firm in the belief that Inuit language, culture and knowledge have an important role to play in how we move forward.