The Alta action that forms the starting point of the exhibition Let the River Flow. The Sovereign Will and the Making of a New Worldliness at Office for Contemporary Art Norway (OCA) in Oslo, lasted from 1978 to 1982. Joined by sympathisers from all over Norway, and gradually by international activists too, Norwegian Sami people sought to prevent the damming of the Alta watercourse in the Finmark region. This protracted incident is a historic example of the conflict between the interests of indigenous people and environmentalists on the one hand and industrial society and national authorities on the other, and the conflict was sufficiently large in scope to attract international attention. Even though the Sami eventually lost, the conflict – which reached a zenith with the hunger strike outside the Norwegian parliament in 1979 – launched a process that placed Sami interests higher on the political agendas of Norway. In the years that followed, the Norwegian authorities made several concessions to Sami interests, culminating in the establishment of the Sami Parliament of Norway in 1989. The foreword of the catalogue of this exhibition informs us that the Sami are once again finding their culture under siege.
OCA’s work with the Sami began in 2015 when director Katya García-Antón launched Thinking at the Edge of the World, a programme dedicated to Sami and Northern Norwegian culture. The first public manifestation of this work arrived in 2016 with the establishment of a ‘pilot office’ in Tromsø. This was followed by a conference in Svalbard and a symposium dedicated to Sami art and activism in Karasjok, where the Documenta 14 publication South as a State of Mind was launched. Eight Sami artists were then invited to take part in the exhibitions in Kassel and Athens. The year 2017 marked the centenary of the first Sami assembly, which took place in Tråante (Trondheim), and OCA arranged the symposium Museums on Fire! One of the key concerns of this symposium was the study of the opportunities for creating what García-Antón called a “non-colonialist museum”. Let the River Flow continues this focus by being a very concrete, hands-on way of managing indigenous art within the framework of an institutional exhibition. All this makes it relevant to ask – as indeed the 2017 seminar did – about the risks faced by Sami culture when it lets itself be mediated by art professionals who take on the role as champions of native peoples.
Much of the art presented in the exhibition dates from the 1970s or 1980s, featuring traditional techniques and subjects that have to do with Sami culture and history or the landscape of Northern Norway. These range from Josef Halse’s and Arvid Sveen’s gouache paintings via prints by Synnøve Persen, Rannveig Persen and Trygve Lund Guttormsen to sculptures and set designs by Aage Gaup, and also includes ‘crafts’ by Catarina Utsi and Rose-Marie Huuva, Jon Ole Andersen and Iver Jåks. Moreover, the exhibition includes textile works by Berit Marit Hætta, embroideries by Britta Marakatt-Labba and collages by Hans Ragnar Mathisen. To establish a link to the international indigenous peoples’ movements and contemporary art, the show incorporates a text work by artist and activist Jimmie Durham in which he offers an anecdotal account of his connection to Sápmi. Curator García-Antón has also included a large canvas painting by Maria Thereza Alves, depicting the collapse of a Brazil mining dam that burst in 2015, polluting the Rio Doce river. A reprint of the third issue of Charta 79 et manifest, a journal published by the Sami action group during the Alta campaign, marks the inauguration of The Nomadic Library, a project overseen by Tanya Busse and Joar Nango focusing on countercultural publishing initiatives in the Barents region.
A “child of the sun” – that’s how Sami writer, musician and artist Nils-Aslak Valkepää describes himself in an interview with Swedish radio from 1992. The interview is incorporated alongside his composition Loddesinfonija (The Bird Symphony, 1992) in Elin Már Vister Øyen’s sound walk-kit Singing along to whooper swans – talking with the rocks – Goase Dušše revisited. Loddesinfonija offers us a taste of the sonic setting of reindeer herding: a compilation of distinctive bird song is gradually supplemented by the sounds of running water, bells and joik. The epithet ‘Child of the Sun’ refers to a lifestyle that harmoniously echoes the cycles of nature. Vister Øyen’s appropriation of the work of Valkepää and the way she frames this material is symptomatic of the exhibition’s pedagogical ambition: Let the River Flow invests heavily in the idea of the traditional Sami lifestyle as a valuable corrective to modern life.
The somewhat didactic framework is made manifest in the exhibition design created by A-lab (Káre R. Anti) and Torsteinsen Design. In the catalogue they explain how they were inspired by the focus on reuse, recycling and utility in Sami architecture. An airy arrangement of wall-modules dangling from the ceiling radiates out from the centre of the room. Incorporated into some of them are glass cases displaying various craft items. Others showcase paintings, prints, textile images and books. When grazed, the modules begin to sway softly. Under the wide staircase leading up to the offices on the second floor is a cinema with a curtain done in the colours of the Sami flag. On the floor around the projector, which stands on a pedestal in the middle of the room, reindeer traps offer places to sit or lie down. The interior is intended to remind you of a lavvu – a Sami tent. This theme park-like arrangement makes tangible the institution’s paternalistic leanings.
The idea of the Sami as a people in need of protection is related to the image of the Sami as tender creatures of nature – yet still with plenty of chutzpah. We find this schematic type reflected in Mai-Lis and Elle Márjá Eira’s Don’t Fuck with Me. The work presents historical documentation of an event where fifteen Sami women occupied the prime minister’s office in connection with the Alta campaign, juxtaposing this footage with interviews conducted with the participants today, almost 40 years later. This portrait film, ranking among the more subtle and affecting features of the exhibition’s section of contemporary art, is screened back to back with a video showing four young women (one of them possibly a transvestite) in traditional sami clothing moving through the city in slow motion to the sound of techno music and then proceeding to perform a sort of wrestle-dance with some men in black suits in front of the parliament. The choreography may be seen as an homage to the hunger strikers and office squatters of the Alta action, but it also elicits what might be termed the ambivalence of the oppositional stance: the protesting body is an actionist tool used towards specific political aims, but it can also appear as an emblem of pure posturing and attitude, exemplified here by the use of the banal symbolism and self-absorbed poses of the music video genre.
Against the state
Despite this ambivalence, the exhibition casts the Sami in the role of heroic opposition figures – after all, we are dealing with the legacy of the Alta action here. It is difficult to see Sami identity absent this antagonism against a majority culture. A recent issue that inscribes itself in the ongoing conflict between Sami and national interests is the legal battle between Jovsset Ánte Sara and the Norwegian state: since 2014, the state has demanded that Ante must cull large parts of his reindeer herd in order to ease the grazing pressure on the area. The state lost at the first two judicial levels, but the Supreme Court ruled in their favour. The case has attracted media attention, helped considerably by the fact that the sister of the plaintiff, artist Máret Ánne Sara, commented on the process with the work series Pile ò Sàpmi – initially a heap of reindeer heads displayed in front of the various buildings where the trial took place, and later expanded to include a vast curtain made of reindeer skulls presented at last year’s Documenta. The curtain-version was, incidentally, recently purchased by the National Museum. In Let the River Flow, the skulls appear again in the form of a necklace, Pile ò Sàpmi Power Necklace.
Sara’s necklace sees the concept of resistance taking on what might be called ‘talismanic’ form: it becomes an image of the struggle as a portable reservoir. However, the jewellery format also indicates that we are dealing with an accessory, a decorative appendage. Deactivation is a prerequisite for finding one’s way into archives such as the National Museum, there becoming part of the collective history of culture. However, Sara’s Power Necklace also conducts a form of self-critique, reminding us that the Sami identity is, in its “artified” incarnation, likely to be reduced to hollow markers. The stairwell holds a slab of stone bearing the inscription “elva” (meaning “river”) in partly erased red capitals – a relic from the Alta campaign where the stone helped spell out the campaign slogan “let the river live”. Here, at OCA’s premises at Grünerløkka in Oslo, the stone becomes an almost overly overt image of resistance divorced from its activating syntax. At one level, the exhibition appears as an archive of such unmoored objects, an effect of the loss of context that the transition into the museum institution entails. The ephemeral exhibition architecture – however successful in terms of purely display-technical criteria – is a poor substitute for an operational context.
Let the River Flow insists on the place of Sami art among the new museologies that seek to expand the art historical canon to take on a truly global perspective. Yet at the same time, Sami art challenges this movement, it is claimed. The emphasis on the non-reconciliatory aspects is understandable; that is one way of maintaining an antagonism that helps define all things Sami. In order to compensate for adapting to the culture it wishes to differentiate itself from, emphasis is placed on the narrative depicting the Sami as a proud and noble with a special link to nature, locked in an everlasting struggle against an increasingly diffuse, bureaucratic and only seemingly accommodating colonial power. In what ways is the struggle against the state a virtue and boon for the Sami community today? Does the real point of the struggle reside in its unifying and identity-forming effects rather than in any practical political objectives?
The cognitive dissonance of the institution
The term “Duodji” is often considered synonymous with Sami crafts, but if one is to believe OCA, this is a fallacy that testifies to the limitations of the modern western perspective. Duodji, the catalogue states, should be understood as an activity and as a frame of mind. In addition to being a personal mode of expression, the concept of duodji embodies a worldview. Such insistence on incompatible differences in perspective between Norwegian and Sami culture is symptomatic. The Sami have a holistic outlook on life that contrasts with modern society’s differentiating set-up. But I see nothing to prevent me from ascribing similar properties to non-Sami craftsmanship; properties that are about more than pure technique and materiality. The fact that one becomes a conduit for a cultural tradition and, by extension, of the values and outlook of that culture, is surely a central part of the universal appeal of all handicrafts? If there is one thing that a museum framework such as OCA does, it is to emphasise the individual object’s specificity and aesthetic qualities at the expense of its function as part of a ritual practice. Pointing out this duality in the communication may be pedantic, but it does demonstrate the cognitive dissonance of this – in its own words – decolonized institution.
The paradoxical task of on the one hand preserving indigenous culture as a unique and irreducible continuum and, on the other, positing this culture and its manifestations inside the museum apparatus is the curse of decolonial institutional critique. Perhaps it requires – if the objective is to increase the visibility and influence of Sami culture without leeching out its autonomy and integrity – a more radical model of resource transfer that does not push the Sami into a compromising dialogue with the institution’s museological taxonomies, aestheticising display techniques and well-meaning instrumentalism. Or perhaps the entrenchment of the Sami as suppliers of mindfulness, eco-criticism and reified postcolonial outrage is the price to be paid for a truly global art history.