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Sámi Voicing Sámi by Lynn Ha

09 May 2022

This article exploring the decolonial aims of the Venice Biennale Sámi Pavilion by Courtauldian columnist Lynn Ha accompanies a video interview with Courtauld alumna Katya García-Antón available to watch on The Courtauld's Bloomberg Connects app profile. In this interview, García-Antón speaks on the experience of curating the historic Sámi Pavilion, the importance of platforming Sámi artwork, and how indigenous knowledge could help tackle climate change.

Illustration by Olivia Keable

Decolonisation has always come across as a difficult subject to me – despite being a person of colour who has a great passion for learning and writing about the relationship between ethnic minorities and art history — or perhaps because of those two very reasons. The very complicated nature of decolonisation becomes even more prominent when considering its etymology of ‘de’ — it is essentially a struggle to go back in time, to undo everything that has been established, and to reverse everything. As necessary, reassuring, and beneficial as such a reversal seems, I nonetheless find myself in a rather sceptical position in relation to decolonisation. Not because I think it was not needed, but more because I think it might be too perfect to be true, and too difficult an aim to be ever achieved. Frankly speaking, I have secretly refused to believe that decolonisation was possible. Yet, I must confess that when I first read about the 59th Venice Biennale and its change of name of the Nordic pavilion to the Sámi pavilion, I felt my longstanding scepticism and cynicism wavering: my perspective on the very prospect of decolonisation – in the art sector, specifically – unexpectedly shifting. The premise itself is astonishing. The Nordic pavilion, which has previously been a pavilion dedicated to the three countries comprising Sweden, Norway, and Finland, is changing its name temporarily for this year’s Biennale to the Sámi pavilion, after the indigenous Sámi peoples. Traditionally dispersed across the three Scandinavian countries, the cultural region is called Sámpi in the language of the Sámi peoples, which in fact is a term that stands for both the people and their land. The Sámi peoples have endured innumerable hardships in their efforts to merely maintain their way of living and protect their essential human rights. The Sámi living in northern Norway, for example, have been in a long-lasting dispute with the Norwegian government regarding their land protection. With the Norwegian government expropriating lands of the Arctic for the development of infrastructures, including mines and tunnels, the indigenous Sámi people have increasingly feared the loss of their land which is crucial for herding reindeer. Many Sámi people have traditionally been reindeer herders, with reindeer herding considered much more than a business. Indeed, it is considered a way of living with, within, and alongside nature. Because reindeer herding lies at the heart of Sámi identity, the concerns regarding reindeer protection link directly to the protection of Sámi rights and are thus shared by most Sámi people living in different national parts of Sámpi. Housing three Sámi artists – Pauliina Feodoroff (from the Finnish and Russian part of Sámpi), Máret Ánne Sara (from the Norwegian part of Sámpi), and Anders Sunna (from the Swedish part of Sámpi), all of whom are from different parts of Sámpi that are divided between four nation-states – the Sámi pavilion shows clearly how the shared concern is creatively expressed and addressed with different artistic forms. Ánne Sara works mainly with physical bodies of reindeers. Her work Pile o’Sampi, which was exhibited for the Kassel Documenta 14 in 2017, for example, displayed innumerable skulls of reindeer arrayed together in a wall formation. The piece, alongside her other pieces, refers to the rights of Sámi people with its visual motif of reindeer. In fact, Pile o’Sampi refers directly to the legal dispute that her brother, a Sámi reindeer herder, directed toward the Norwegian government’s demand to slaughter a significant number of his reindeer. At the Documenta, she shared a public discussion with curator Candice Hopkins on the piece and the ongoing struggle for protecting the rights of Sámi people. During the conversation, named The Parliament of Bodies, the artist powerfully vocalised the limitations of democracy and the societal neglection of indigenous peoples’ rights, a problem that is not confined to Norway, but rather spans the entire globe. “The colonial instinct is fierce,” Ánne Sara said, adding that “democracy is not always a good thing for minorities.” During the verdict for her brother’s first trial, in which he won the case it was acknowledged that “the Norwegian government has violated International Human Rights by such forced measure.” Ánne Sara’s work questions the entrenched colonial predisposition apparent in the workings of contemporary societal institutions.

Illustration by Olivia Keable

Similar to Ánne Sara, Anders Sunna’s work also speaks about his own family’s struggle to protect their lands for reindeer herding. Perhaps the most overtly political of the artworks included in the Sámi pavilion, his paintings and graffiti not only use satirical tones but also include figurative depictions in their aim to criticise the Swedish government and the oppressive measures imposed on Sámi people, including his own family. Moreover, climate change and global warming present enormous obstacles for Sámi people’s being. Climate change may come across to non-indigenous people as something that is merely a threat, perhaps as something looming on the horizon, yet to arrive in a truly palpable way. But for indigenous people, climate change cannot be treated as an issue of the future. It is their present. By claiming its aim to not only decolonise but also draw attention to the environmental concerns that are intimately linked to the protection of Sámi rights, the curator of the Sámi pavilion, Katya García-Antón, successfully brings the distant struggles of indigenous peoples in close proximity to a wider, non-indigenous audience. ‘The global pandemic, the impact of climate change, and worldwide calls for decolonisation are leading us all to focus on alternative possibilities for our future and that of our planet. At this pivotal moment, it is vital to consider Indigenous ways of relating to the environment and to each other’, García-Antón has stated for the Office for Contemporary Art Norway. In fact, a significant problem that Sámi people are experiencing is due to the warming of the Arctic, which reached the hottest recorded temperature of 38 degrees Celsius (100 degrees Fahrenheit) in June 2020. Whilst the warming of the Arctic reduces the amount of snow, it leads to an increased amount of rainfall. As the rainwater forms a thick layer of ice overnight, the lichen that reindeer feed on get stuck underneath it, which has on occasion left Sámi herders’ reindeer to starve. In the time of climate change — which is evidently the present — “it is very easy to lose more than… well, many, many reindeer,” Ánne Sara noted during in conversation at Kassel Documenta. One could say that the nominal change of the Nordic pavilion is a political choice, and certainly the press in the past year or so has seemed to focus on the political significance of such decolonisation at such a major art event. The renaming of the Nordic pavilion to the Sámi at the Venice Biennale is certainly premised on a political context, but this should not be surprising. Art and politics are closely linked to each other, and politics and art have in fact been intertwined for centuries, if not throughout the whole history of art. Feodoroff’s work at the Sámi pavilion is a highly political, conceptual piece — she will be holding an auction, in which collectors can bid for the right to view the forestland for which she urges protection. Artworks of societal minorities such as indigenous peoples like the Sámi are particularly more political, or rather, politically perceived, because their mere being is political: their existence a sign of protest and resistance, and of perseverance in the face of colonialist oppression. Hence, perhaps we are surprised to see such overtly political artwork because we are only now beginning to hear voices that have previously been excluded or silenced. The most important aspect to demonstrate the extent to which decolonisation at the Sámi pavilion has been successful is the fact that it is, in essence, a ‘Sámi’ pavilion. The Nordic Pavilion could have had non-indigenous artists’ artworks that ‘represent’ the Sámi people. Instead, in transforming into a ‘Sámi pavilion’, and platforming Sámi artists, the notion becomes very close to the decolonisation that I once regarded impossible: decolonisation enacted by indigenous communities themselves, where they can vocalise their own narratives and concerns with their own voices. The very fact that the voices are coming from Sámi people themselves synchronizes the fundamental operating system of the pavilion with the Sámi way of living, where the three artists will be guided by their respective elders. As though directly answering seminal decolonial academic Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak’s crucial question on postcolonialism and decolonisation, ‘Can the Subaltern speak?’, the 59th Venice Biennale provides a promising answer to the question of how indigenous peoples without nation-states can speak on an international stage. Standing as a successful and encouraging case of decolonisation, it also further shows how art can function as a weapon and a megaphone for minorities — whether those be cultural, sexual, racial, or ethnic minorities — to speak up for their own rights in a contemporary society that often lacks a stable social structure that assures their rights. Links to relevant sources:


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