A story in sheep's clothing Fårhold - An Exhibition at Nordatlantisk Hus
From the introduction to this exhibition, we find out that “on the Faroe Islands sheep are a permanent part of the landscape;” that “no matter where you go, there’s always a likelihood you’ll meet the four-legged woolly creatures.” This has had a significant influence on visual artist Anita Køtlum Petersen, whose works are shown this week at the North Atlantic House, in Odense Harbour.
Outside the Faroe Islands, the relationship humans have with sheep depends on a few very important factors, one of which is economic class. My home country (Romania), for instance, is a deeply fragmented place, where the richest might keep a small flock of beautiful, well-fed sheep, as a quirky addition to a summer villa in the mountainside. The same mountainside sees herds of thousands of sheep, cared for by two shepherds and a few dogs, living in harsh conditions for months, away from “civilization.” These are also beautiful animals, but their individual, fluffy cuteness disappears in the mass of slightly dirty, thistle-tangled wool. From pets, they become a source of income.
The shepherds have always seemed to be the most miserable people – if you drive across the mountains on national Romanian roads, you’ll see them, moving their herd to higher pastures, in spring, or bringing them down in the valleys again in the autumn, as part of the transhumance. Their life in the mountain farmhouses must be very hard and of poor quality. “That’s silly,” my parents assure me, with a bit of strangely placed envy in their tone; “They choose this work – they make good money in salary from the sheep owners and even keep some of the wool and cheese they make. Besides, what else can they do?” Those are two conflicting scenarios, and it doesn't clarify whether they are truly miserable and trapped in a job their fathers and grandfathers did before them, or happy, according to some definition of happiness I’ll never understand. They seem busy, so we never speak to them, to find out – we did once, when we saw a sheep, standing still, lost from the herd ahead of it, and met the shepherd down the road, walking back to get it. “We saw it, just uphill, maybe one kilometre,” my dad said. The shepherd just smiled, nodded and waved, and seemed relieved. I recognised immediately the inspiration for the overused biblical parable, but I also felt very moved by the care and worry of that man, and what I previously perceived as misery was promptly replaced by the dignity and satisfaction of a job well done.
Petersen’s sheep probably have different stories, and there’s a good chance their portraits tell some of them. In dark, gloomy tones or colourful shades; in small flocks or individually occupying the canvas – almost all maintain eye contact, reaching out from a frame without a definite background: nature, regardless of shape, is looking you in the eye. Just look back!
The exhibition is closed between Christmas and New Year, but it's open on Friday 27th December!Link to the event
Elena has an MA in American Studies from SDU, and currently works as Features Editor for arts and culture publication PETRIe. She is interested in visual culture and contemporary art, design an...