Monday, 8 February 2010

Atuagagdliutit – Colourful News

The history of printing in Greenland is short: the printing press was only introduced by the Danish in the nineteenth century.

One of the earliest publications was Atuagagdliutit, a newspaper established by Dr Hans Rink in 1861. Rink, a distinguished Danish geographer, was concerned about the vulnerable status of Greenlandic culture under Danish rule. Atuagagdliutit was edited by a Greenlander, Rasmus Bertelsen, and attempted to give Greenlanders responsibility for developing an independent cultural awareness. News of Australian gold mines and Danish foreign policy was interspersed with the tales of the Arabian nights, dare-devil hunting exploits, and Inuit legends.

Since many ‘readers’ were illiterate, the newspaper prioritised illustration. It numbers among the world’s earliest illustrated newspapers, and the very first to feature colour images. While there are some lively wood cuts, lithographs predominate, at first hand-coloured and later printed in colour. Some illustrations were provided by the tireless printer, Lars Møller, who also edited the paper from 1874 until 1921. Many more images were created by Aron of Kangeq, an artist held in great esteem in Greenland, and sadly little known elsewhere.

With its mix of news and whimsy, Atuagagdliutit is perhaps most akin in spirit to the contemporary blog. While the illustrations are astonishing, the production alone should be considered a huge achievement. The printing office was ill-equipped and atmospheric conditions made the processes even more complex than were usual in the period. Ink behaves temperamentally in cold conditions. The printing required dampened paper, but in winter the water in the paper would freeze. In addition, the translation of official texts from Danish to Greenlandic caused challenges as Greenlandic, with its highly specialised vocabulary, had few terms to express the complexities of Danish government and European fashion. Even the paper’s title is a neologism meaning ‘distributed reading matter’ or ‘free newspaper’.

Despite these challenges Atuagagdliutit was issued monthly, although only distributed once a year to the most distant settlements. Copies were passed around until they fell apart, illustrations were torn out and used to decorate homes, and the text pages were frequently used as plugs in muzzle loading guns. The anthropologist Frederica de Laguna’s account of her experiences in Umannaq in the 1920s may give another clue to the destination of many of these artfully printed pages:

‘The W.C. was the usual type of wooden outhouse… for toilet paper, there were some numbers of a Greenland magazine. I snitched a few pages. It was printed in Eskimo, and contained a poem, news from the east coast, two historical articles, and one about Nero and Agrippina (how funny it was to see these Roman names with Eskimo prefixes and suffixes) …’

Very few examples of this extraordinary publication survive.

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