A Borderless Sápmi

Auctions of Arctic lands and thousands of letters from government authorities are among the works on view in The Sámi Pavilion in Venice.

The artists of ‘The Sámi Pavilion’ Pauliina Feodoroff, Máret Ánne Sara and Anders Sunna. Photo: Marta Buso / OCA.

Even before its opening, this year’s exhibition in the former Nordic pavilion in Venice, featuring the three artists Máret Ánne Sara, Pauliina Feodoroff, and Anders Sunna, has received plenty of attention – and for good reasons. The Sámi Pavilion, as it has been renamed for the occasion, is an historic event that manifests the recognition of Sámi artists in the Nordic countries.

Curated by the Office for Contemporary Art Norway (OCA), the initiative is in keeping with the organisation’s focus on the High North launched in 2015 by Director Katya García-Antón under the title Thinking from the Edge of the World. Perspectives from the North. Since then, OCA has arranged a number of exhibitions and conferences devoted to Sámi culture and published books on topics such as Indigenous art and Sámi political activism.

In OCA’s press release announcing the pavilion, García-Antón emphasises the value of the Sámi worldview from an environmental perspective: “This has been part of the core of Sámi perspectives since time immemorial, so it is essential that we listen to Sámi knowledge as we confront and fight against climate change.”

Although Indigenous representation is not entirely new at the Venice Biennale – as examples, the Canadian pavilion featured the Isuma Collective (Nunavut) in 2019, and New Zealand was represented by Lisa Reihana (Maori) in 2017 – this is the first time a pavilion has changed its name to honour the ethnic group represented there.

In the press release OCA describes the naming of The Sámi Pavillion as “an act of Indigenous sovereignty” on behalf of the Sámi people and a “symbolic reversal of colonial claims that have sought to erase Sámi land and culture.” It emphasises that Sápmi, the term used for the Sámi homeland, is a borderless area that predates the concept of the Nordic region.

The Pavilion of the Nordic Countries , Venice. Photo: Lindman Photography AB.

A counterpoint to colonial thinking

Marét Ánne Sara told Kunstkritikk that “having a Sámi pavilion right in the midst of the biennial, an elite world defined by a Western, imperialist, nation-state outlook, is a very special thing.” The Sámi Pavilion does not bear the name of the geographically specific Sápmi, which extends across the national borders between Norway, Sweden, Finland and the Kola Peninsula in Russia, also called Fennoscandia. “In this particular context, it feels proper and rewarding to offer a counterpoint to colonial thinking by representing a nation and philosophy without borders,” Sara said.

The pavilion offers a broad programme introducing audiences to Sámi cultural production, knowledge traditions, and perspectives on the environment and sustainability: ‘Árran 360°’ presents a new generation of Sámi filmmakers; ‘aabaakwad’ is an international gathering led by Indigenous Peoples; and the TBA21-Academy Ocean Fellowship, announced in collaboration with OCA, supports four fellows and two mentors of Indigenous backgrounds who are to study “oceanic worldviews and marine history.” Fifteen Sámi youths from all over Sápmi will act as guides, educators, and interpreters, presenting the exhibition to visitors from a young Sámi perspective. Sara hopes that the exhibition will enlighten audiences in Venice and that many more “will have their eyes opened to Sámi art and to Indigenous knowledge and thinking.”

“Humans, nature, and animals are interdependent and equal. What’s happening to the reindeer is our story as well,” Sara said recently in an interview with British newspaper The Guardian. Her most famous work, Pile o’Sápmi (2016), a stack of reindeer skulls, was first enacted outside the Indre Finnmark District Court in 2016, on the occasion of a trial that Sara’s brother brought against the Norwegian state, which had ordered him to slaughter large parts of his reindeer herd. The work has since been exhibited in many other locations, including at Documenta 14 in Kassel in 2017.

Sara has previously pointed out the inherent irony in how the state legitimises the forced culling of the family’s reindeer as a measure to control the negative environmental consequences of overgrazing, while at the same time negotiating mining opportunities in the same areas. “My language and work are still channelled via the reindeer, its body and soul,” she told Kunstkritikk. “That is the closest I get to speaking from my own.”

Máret Ánne Sara, Pile o´Sápmi, 2016. Installation outside the Inner Finnmark District Court, Tana, February 2016. Photo: Iris Egilsdatter.

Sara said that the works she is exhibiting in Venice are about the aftermath of the struggle against ongoing Norwegian and Nordic neo-colonialism addressed by Pile o’Sápmi. Beyond that, she will not reveal any specific details before the opening. “I have worked hard to find, manifest, and nurture hope. Not only for myself, but also in a collective perspective and for future generations. I think we all need that in the world we share today. Indigenous Peoples have a lot to offer in this regard, and the Venice Biennale is a platform capable of reaching many,” she said.

On behalf of the land itself

Pauliina Feodoroff is an artist, theatre director, and Sámi nature guardian with roots in both Če’vetjäu’rr (the Finnish part of Sápmi) and Suõ’nnjel (the Russian part of Sápmi). She has also served as president of the Sámi Council and co-authored the mission statement of the Finnish Truth and Reconciliation Commission in 2019. Her project for the pavilion emphasises the legal management of land and resources.

“The Sámi Parliament has cultural and linguistic say on the issues of the Sámi, but that does not extend to land use,” Feodoroff told Kunstkritikk. Even at national levels within Sápmi, Sámi bargaining rights are poorly protected, she explains. Finland has not ratified the International Labour Organization (ILO) Indigenous and Tribal Peoples Convention from 1989, and Sweden has not ratified the 2007 UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples – documents which set out minimum requirements for Indigenous Peoples in processes which affect their lives and living conditions.

Victoria Tauli-Corpus, then-chair of the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, told the Sámi Parliament in 2015: “If Sweden were to comply with the UN declaration, it would mean that the Swedish government would no longer be able to maintain that Sámi lands belong to the state.”

Pauliina Feodoroff, CO2lonialNATION, 2017. Documentation from theater performance. Photo: Ilkka Volanen.

Feodoroff explains that since prehistoric times, the traditional Sámi use of land has been organised in territorial units called Siida, each with its own Siida council. In Venice, her presentation includes the newly-commissioned work land(E)scapes, which lets observers bid on Arctic Indigenous landscapes. The winning bid bestows the right to visit the land twice physically during a period of five years, while legal ownership is transferred to the traditional Sámi owners of the area.

Paperwork mountain

Anders Sunna’s family, which works with reindeer herding, has been battling the Swedish state for more than fifty years. The mountain of paperwork has accumulated during this period is part of his contribution to the pavilion, as proof of the bureaucratic process in which the family finds itself mired. “They just send document after document, and when you have gone through all the documents and submitted your protests and appeals, they send more,” Sunna told Kunstkritikk.

Sunna has devoted much of his art to generating awareness about the situation of Sámi people in Sweden, using his own family history as an example. That history also forms the backdrop for several new paintings shown in Venice. Sunna describes his paintings as documentary in nature:

“They are about what the Swedish state has done to us. I have focused on one decade at a time and processed each of them. Particularly important focus areas include the Reindeer Husbandry Act from 1971, the forced relocation in 1986, and the forced culling that was to take place at the turn of the millennium.”

Much of the artist’s work on the exhibition has been devoted to documenting paper trails from the repeated case processing the family has undergone. In the pavilion, visitors will have the opportunity to read through the several thousand documents, either by retrieving physical copies of the Sunna family’s originals or by accessing the scanned versions digitally. “While working with these papers, I have gained insight into things I did not know before. It is important to call attention to these issues, which have not been featured in the media. The Biennale is our best and biggest chance of calling international attention to the story,” Sunna said.  

Sunna believes the visual arts and reindeer husbandry have a lot in common as professions. When he was a child he wanted to work with both, but soon found out that it was easier to just become an artist. “The state cannot intervene and say that you are not allowed to become an artist, but they can declare that you are not allowed to herd reindeer. They know their game and can also change the rules so they always win. But if you make your own game, you can play by your own rules,” he said.

The Venice Biennale opens to the public on 23 April.

Anders Sunna, Justisia är korrupt (Justitia is Corrupt), 2015. Photo: Piera Niilá Stålka.