The Things We Carry is an exploration of belonging, identity and secrecy. The artwork consists of oblong pouches made of reindeer and sheep rawhide that dangle loosely on cords or rest below. These delicate vessels appear both transparent and guarded. What do they contain? What secrets are embedded within the membrane?

The exhibition is part of Kelliher-Combs’ series Idiot Strings, named after the strings designed to prevent children from losing their mittens. Through mixed media, painting, sculpture, drawing and installation, Sonya Kelliher-Combs grapples with self-definition and identity in the North. Based in Alaska, she is inspired by the relationship of her ancestors to their environment – how they used skin, fur and membrane. Through mixing materials and techniques, she questions accepted notions of beauty and the relations between traditional and modern. The symbols in her art speak to history, culture, family and the life of her people, but also speak about abuse, marginalization and the struggles of indigenous peoples.

Kelliher-Combs’ work is interesting in the context of Svalbard – a territory with no indigenous population, a place that has been internationally populated for centuries. The mining industry is coming to an end, and tourism and other economies are on the rise. Most inhabitants stay for only a few years. How does her work speak to a place where society is rapidly changing, and roots and traditions are complex, parallel and individual?

What are the rules of viability? What are the unspoken secrets? What are the things people carry? How do they define us?