BY Kevin Brazil in Profiles | 14 APR 22

The Sámi Artists Fighting For Self-Determination In Venice

For their contribution to the 59th Venice Biennale, Pauliina Feodoroff, Máret Ánne Sara and Anders Sunna address the impact of colonization on the Sámi people

BY Kevin Brazil in Profiles | 14 APR 22

In the mid-1970s, the Sámi artist Hans Ragnar Mathisen, also known as Keviselie, began producing a series of maps that depicted the ways in which the Sámi conceptualized, cartographically, the places in which they live. One of his most famous maps, which was printed in affordable editions and has become a common presence in many Sámi homes, was called Sábmi (1975–76). It shows a peninsula, shaped like an arrow, jutting out into an ocean: one side is ridged with mountains, the other speckled with lakes. Reindeer and fish dot land and sea beneath symbolic representations of the sun and moon, while the foreground is occupied by objects produced as part of the practice of duodji, the Sámi tradition of philosophically informed material culture.

Hans Ragnar Mathisen, Sábmi (Sameland), 1974–75, colour pencil on paper, 88 × 73cm. Courtesy: the artist

When the Office for Contemporary Art Norway, as commissioners of the Nordic Pavilion for the 59th Venice Biennale, decided to work with Sámi artists to rename their contribution ‘The Sámi Pavilion’, they intended to do more than, for the first time, have Norway, Sweden and Finland represented exclusively by indigenous Sámi artists. The intention of the curatorial team – OCA’s director Katya García-Antón, Sámi scholar Liisa-Rávna Finbog and Sámi land guardian Beaska Niillas – is to present the Sámi world not just a place, but like in Mathisen’s maps, as a set of historical, philosophical and geographical perspectives that can provide knowledge and interventions to benefit a global struggle against the climate crisis and environmental degradation, and to advance indigenous self-determination around the world.

Three artists will present a variety of works representing a cross-section of contemporary Sámi art practice, which they recently introduced during a press preview at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London. Anders Sunna will show a series of history paintings, one for each decade since the 1950s, documenting his family and wider community’s struggle against the Swedish state to continue their long-established reindeer-herding practices: rights enshrined in international law that Swedish governments have repeatedly failed to respect.

Anders Sunna, Area Infected, 2014, collage, 244 × 488 cm. Courtesy: the artist

Máret Ánne Sara, who lives in Guovdageaidnu, a part of Sábmi currently governed by the Norwegian state, will also present work from a practice which has long focused on the role of law in enacting colonial dispossession. Pile o’Sápmi (2016), for example, was an installation consisting of 200 reindeer heads – initially piled outside the Inner Finnmark District Court and re-exhibited the following year as skulls at documenta 14 in Kassel – in protest at the forced slaughter policies implemented by the Norwegian government. Reflecting at the ICA on the work she will show at Venice – a series of sculptures made from reindeer skin, fur and intestines – Sara said it is intended to represent what she perceives as a ‘defeat’ in her attempt to gain legal recognition for Sámi land stewardship. The project draws on the Sámi belief that the stomach and viscera are sites of embodied intellect and affective knowledge – or, in Sara’s words, ‘a brain you cannot control’.

Máret Ánne Sara, Pile o’Sápmi, outside the Indre Finnmark District Court, 2016, 200 reindeer heads, dimensions variable. Courtesy: the artist 

The pavilion will also feature work by Pauliina Feodoroff – an artist, theatre director, politician and Sámi land guardian – who is co-drafting the mandate for the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in Finland, which aims to address the impact of colonization on Sámi people. Feodoroff will present a performance entitled Matriarchy, drawing on Sámi models of matriarchal governance in which, as she explained in a discussion after the preview, ‘no one leads and everyone leads’. Her intention is for the work to prompt a dialogue that will enable those in the West to adopt decision-making processes that incorporate the needs of animals and the natural world.

Staged scene directed by Paullina Feodoroff for the book project Queering Sápmi by Elfrida Bergman and Sara Lindqvist, 2013. Photo: Sara Lindqvist

As all these artists recognize, there is a tension running through this attempt to use the Venice Biennale as a means to share Sámi knowledge. According to Feodoroff, who cited the 2022 report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, up to 50 percent of the forests on Sámi land are threatened by climate change, driven by the fossil-fuel extraction methods pursued by the Norwegian government, which is funding the Sámi Pavilion. As a reaction, Matriarchy will also feature an auction wherein art buyers can purchase the right to a view of Sámi landscapes threatened by climate crisis, with the proceeds then being used to buy the land to protect it from further exploitation. By foregrounding – and, indeed, strategically exploiting – the contradictions inherent in any attempt to achieve political change through the global art market, Feodoroff’s project suggests the Sámi Pavilion will present artists working through struggles in part unique, in part shared by all.

For additional coverage of the 59th Venice Biennale, see here.

Main image: Máret Ánne Sara, Pile o’Sápmi, 2017, installation view. Courtesy: the artist 

Kevin Brazil is a writer and critic based in London, UK. His book, What Ever Happened to Queer Happiness was published by Influx Press in 2022.