A First Spark

OCA’s symposium Museums on Fire launched an urgent conversation about indigenous art and the colonial heritage of art institutions even if it only occasionally caught real fire.

Carola Grahn, 48h In(digenous) space, 2017, screen dump.

No punches were pulled when Office for Contemporary Art Norway (OCA) hosted the symposium Museums on Fire in Oslo. The participants were seated in beanbag chairs in a small fenced-off area in the centre of the room while the rest of the premises, had been transformed into a dark, dense forest with pine needles strewn across the floor. Among the trees stood a mannequin crowned by a reindeer skull, a Kalashnikov and hand grenades dangling over its shoulders. At the other end of the room towered a gallows with a queue ticket dispenser. The floor and walls were covered in stencilled reindeer skeletons and human skulls wearing traditional Sami dress. A poster bore the legend “Norway, I’m your father” underneath a drawing of Darth Vader wearing a traditional Sami hat. The message couldn’t be clearer: a comfortable, safely fenced-off centre is surrounded by a dark wilderness haunted by ghosts who are just waiting to strike back.

The dramatic “scenography”, which will remain in place at OCA until mid-June, is the work of the Swedish-Sami artist Anders Sunna. My initial response to its revolution-infused iconography, laced with the cheap jokes and punch lines of street art, was rather lukewarm. In a text provided inside the room Sunna states that he is often encouraged to dial down his works, to be less emotional, but that he wishes to test the boundaries for how far he can go. This statement made me ask myself what kind of normative view of art underpinned my own immediate assessment, and in this sense the “scenography” could not possibly have been any more successful, for the aim of Museums on Fire was precisely to challenge the established institutions and conventions of art.

Anders Sunna, detail from the scenography for OCA’s symposium Museums on Fire, 2017. Photo: OCA / Magne Risnes.

The museum construct is closely linked to colonial history, partly through its collections, which are often based on loot, but also with its academic silos that separate out Western art from ethnographic artefacts. Artists who belong to peoples who have been victims of this history face a difficult dilemma: Are they best served by standing outside of the system, or should they aim for greater visibility and agenda-setting authority from inside the institutions, thereby running the risk of being subsumed by a system that has not yet cast off its colonial heritage? The question asked at the beginning of the symposium was whether it is even possible to change such structures. “What would a non-colonial museum look like, feel like, sound like?” We never really got an answer to this question. However, the programme did offer several enlightening insights into the practical issues associated with encounters between artists from indigenous people and art institutions.

Most of the symposium participants – whether from the Nordic countries, Canada, the USA or Australia – descended from indigenous peoples and were either artists or academics specialising in the presentation of art by indigenous people. Anne May Olli talked about the many years of effort devoted to setting up a national museum to house the Sami art collection. Olli is director of the RiddoDuottarMuseat, which comprises four local Sami museums in the West Finnmark region and a collection of Sami art and artefacts that still have no permanent home after forty years of struggle. Olli compared the bureaucratic process with the relatively short span of time required to set up the Northern Norway Art Museum (Nordnorsk Kunstmuseum). The Northern Norway Art Museum was itself temporarily renamed Sámi Dáiddamusea earlier this year in an endeavour to call attention to the situation.

Anders Sunna, detail from the scenography for OCA’s symposium Museums on Fire, 2017. Photo: OCA / Magne Risnes.

Olli hinted that the process involved deliberate underfunding and delaying tactics on the part of state authorities. “Art reflects society; does this mean that showing art is a threat?” she asked rhetorically. It is hard to believe that the matter is as simple as that, but given that there were no-one present to contradict or add further nuances to Olli’s statements, they were left unopposed. For example, are there not differences of opinion within the Sami scene regarding the role of Sami art on the Norwegian and Nordic art scenes? The symposium might have benefited from paving the way for more in-depth discussions about the Nordic situation and the principles that underpin it.

This was made all the clearer by the fact that the Canadian participants represented different approaches to a much greater extent than the Nordic contingent, and only after the talk given by artist and curator Gerald McMaster did Museums on Fire begin to take on some of the heated atmosphere that the title promised. McMaster’s presentation of the presence of artists of indigenous descent in Canadian art museums was infused by the idea that it was possible to change institutions from within. He regarded native art as part of the national Canadian art, contrasting inclusive art policies up against the former “reservation approach” where cultural conservation led to social segregation in actual practice. However, McMaster’s view of the Canadian situation was strongly opposed by fellow Canadian Duane Linklater, who was highly critical of the conditions imposed by the politics of inclusion. “I always ask myself what I am getting implicated in when I get involved with art institutions,” he said, stating that he believed that the system was to the especial detriment of female indigenous artists.

Duane Linklater. Foto: OCA / Magne Risnes.

Even so, Museums on Fire was at its very best when the contributors went beyond their respective regional challenges to address the question of what indigenous art and politics are or can be. Is it a question of a shared, common identity in the struggle against authorities and majority cultures, or does it concern exemplary approaches to nature, cultural trade and land rights? To indigenous people these issues are often one and the same. Perhaps artistic practices that shake up established ideas about the ownership and use of land offer some of the best takes on how to achieve the “decolonisation of the art world, standing for a decolonisation of society at large” that OCA’s director, Katya García-Antón, expressed a wish to see in her introduction.

The symposium provided excellent examples of such practices, for example in the story related by Raven Chacon (from the art collective Postcommodity) about an intervention in a museum in Sydney where they took out part of the floor in the museum’s basement in order to uncover the soil on which the museum was built – and ended up in a dispute with the museum management about the right to the cut-out piece of floor. Another example of this kind of intervention could be found on the OCA website, which was taken over by Carola Grahn and her 48h In(digenous) space for the duration of the symposium. For a little while the institution’s digital interface consisted of reindeer rotating against a glittering starry sky.

Even though one might have wanted the presentations at Museums on Fire to be followed by more in-depth discussions, the simple fact that this conversation about indigenous art took place in Oslo was a breakthrough in its own right. The increasing awareness of the issues concerning Sápmi and northern Norway is not just important to those who work in the region, but to the entire Norwegian art scene.

Museums on Fire. Photo: OCA / Magne Risnes.