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  • Janette Kerr Land of Ice

Changes in the bay

Updated: Apr 18

Saturday April 16th and a few days earlier

Suddenly the bay is emptying of ice. A large expanse of open water now presents itself and the icebergs seem to be in retreat. Overnight the large blue one that seem to be stuck fast has vanished. although there is this one lurking around the corner..


There’s a keen wind that makes it feel even colder outside, small waves sending spray over the edge of the snow.


Over the past few days I’ve been out walking – climbed up to the track leading from here to Illulisat and followed the dog sled tracks and footprints of other walkers for a while. Encountered a man and his son from the settlement out hunting Ptarmigan (met him again in the shop later in the day and asked how he’d got on – he shot one – destined for the pot). Ptarmigan are snowy white, which makes them more difficult to find, and unlike other birds, they have dense white feathering on both the tops and bottoms of its feet. And its claws grow longer.


Going off piste, I work out my own route, following broad flat rocks towards the sea avoiding the worst of the deep snow drifts and reach a high point looking down at across the bay.


Oqaastut looks tiny against the landscape. Here on the rocks I set up camp for a couple of hours and draw – not particularly good, but at least I try and it's part of the way of absorbing the place and remembering.


The sun warms me, glistening on the dark water below where large brilliant white sheets of ice float on its surface. Every so often the Eider ducks take to the air and fly in a huge flock low across the flat ice sheets to land again in the water. Every so often this is repeated the opposite way. Each time there’s the sound of fluttering wings; it’s the only sound I hear apart from the odd motorboat travelling across the bay, bringing tourists to stay for a night. From here I can see how thick the ice edge s down to the rocks. I’m told that in May all the snow will be gone, but right now it’s difficult to believe that.


Below there are tiny footprints crossing the snow, probably from an Arctic fox.


It’s Easter weekend and the priest has been busy. The bell was rung twice yesterday – once for morning and once for late afternoon services. I don’t think anyone went for the morning session. The day before I went to the service with Roswitha (atheist that I am). It’s Lutheran or maybe Protestant. The priest spent most of the time reading in Greenlandic from the bible. The hymn singing in between was lovely – lots of harmonies; I even recognised one of the tunes from school morning assemblies.


In Nuuk there are two statues; standing on a high hill is a statue of the Danish-Norwegian missionary Hans Egede, in clerical dress and ruff. The statue of Egede is regularly vandalised.


Sent in early 1800s to bring colonial power and values to the Inuit population, who had their own religion and beliefs, this spiritual and moral dominance of the Protestant missionary is challenged by an alternative monument, which rises from the water, just below the church and hill where the missionary stands.



The red granite statue of Sassuma Arnaa (called The Mother of the Sea), erected in 2007 by the municipality, stands just at the high tide limit. As in the myth, she is surrounded by seal, walrus, and other sea creatures of which she is the keeper and ruler. A man stands beside this supernatural being, combing her long hair. According to the myth, a shaman has to mediate when the mighty mother of the sea becomes so angry at the bad behaviour of humans that she keeps the animals of the sea in the depths refusing to release them, so the hunting for food is bad. At high tide she disappears, reappearing as it ebbs. The shaman temporarily manages to assuage Sassuma Arnaa’s wrath; once the tangles of filth, caused by humans, have been combed away, the animals can be released and again become prey.


Oqaastut feels so remote from anywhere I wonder how long it took for such Danish colonial power to reach here, but in the settlement sits the abandoned colonial house, which once had a large high fence surrounding it.






Just inside the door is a small hatch where local people came to trade their furs and seal fat; they weren’t allowed to enter the house. The hatch says everything.



The house is now a protected building, but no-one here wants anything to do with it as it has bad and remembered associations, so it slowly deteriorates. It’s strange wandering around it, peering into the deserted rooms with old wooden cupboards and sleeping platforms, an ancient harmonium from which I can still get a few notes, the floor is strewn with broken panes of glass and rubbish, graffiti on the walls. I fix two solargraphic cameras in the open windows looking out to the other houses.



When I go to leave, I find the door is stuck closed, so climb out of the window. Is this a sign?


While writing this I broke off to go for a shower. I’m clean! Looking out, the sun is still shining and flakes of snow are swirling in the air. Time for coffee and then a walk before a Danish group from Iluulisat arrive and we, the artists, have been asked to each give a short presentation about what we do. Apparently there is no word for artist in Greenlandic.


The horizon of icebergs is disappearing - just a few left near the shore.




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