Forced into Politics

– For the Sápmi, art has always been a must. Art has paved the way for political change. So says Documenta artist Máret Ánne Sara, who is supporting her brother’s legal struggle to keep his reindeer.

Máret Ánne Sara, Pile o’ Sápmi Supreme outside Stortinget, the Norwegian Parliament, 2017. Produced by Tenthaus, Oslo. Photo: Tenthaus.

Last weekend saw the opening of the exhibition Pile o’ Sápmi Supreme in Context at gallery Tenthaus in Oslo. The exhibition has arisen out of Máret Ánne Sara’s protest against the authorities’ decision to introduce mandatory reductions to the number of reindeer herded in Finnmarksvidda in northern Norway. The herders affected by this injunction include Sara’s brother, who has taken the matter to court and won his case twice, quoting human rights. The state has appealed these verdicts, and this week the case will be brought before the Supreme Court.

At the two previous trials, held in Tana and Tromsø, Sara carried out and presented her Pile o’ Sápmi, a work of art consisting of an installation of reindeer heads as well as a programme of other art and activities where Sara invited other artists and activists to take part in the protest. The exhibition at the small artist-run gallery Tenthaus in Oslo includes a video programme, new productions, documents from the trials and, again, works by other artists. Sara hopes to provide a wider context for the case, demonstrating that it is not just a single incident, but a matter of sustained state interference in a vulnerable culture over a period of many years.

Máret Ánne Sara with a version of Pile o’ Sápmi: Porcelain necklaces made out of the ashes of reindeer bones. Photo: Andreas Breivik.

One of the drawings included in the exhibition is signed Hans Normann Dahl. Dating from 1979, the drawing shows a reindeer with large, almost naïve eyes. The animal is chained to the ground, and its antlers act as masts holding up power lines. “We can’t just discuss overgrazing,” says Máret Ánne Sara to Kunstkritikk, “the government’s ongoing industrial invasion of the pastures must also be taken into account.”

As part of the first incarnation of Pile o’Sápmi, presented outside the court in Tana, Sara placed a Norwegian flag on the top of a pile of reindeer heads. She later brought the work with her to Tromsø, and this summer she exhibited a version of the work at the international exhibition Documenta 14 in Kassel. On Tuesday and Wednesday she will present Pile o’ Sápmi outside Stortinget, the Norwegian Parliament.

Kunstkritikk met Máret Ánne Sara on a very busy Friday night, just before the opening of her exhibition at Tenthaus.

Máret Ánne Sara, Pile o´Sápmi, Tana 2016. Photo: Iris Egilsdatter.

Kunstkritikk: You have shown Pile o’ Sápmi several times, and the work has changed along the way?

Máret Ánne Sara: I wouldn’t say that it has changed; the work evolves as the case develops. Pile o’ Sápmi began as a pile of 200 heads during the trials in Tana, but I am constantly working on the theme. My younger brother, Jovsset, has spent five years on this case. He is in the process of setting up his herd and owns 115 reindeer, but the state has ordered him to butcher 38% of his herd. That’s thirty reindeer we’re talking about, and the state is taking the guy to the Supreme Court! Forcing him into bankruptcy won’t do anything to save Finnmarksvidda, but if you keep up this system you’ll certainly manage to force out the smallest herds, owned by our youngest herders, so that we see an active process of turning Sami reindeer husbandry into an old man’s game.

They say that the mandatory slaughter is intended to support the pastures and protect Sami reindeer husbandry in the future. But at the same time the same authorities expropriate the land for industrial undertakings and then go on to punish us because the grazing is reduced in scope. If the state wishes to discuss overgrazing, they must first discuss protecting the grazing areas that remain.

Then they go into the discussion claiming that we’ve been given self-determination. It’s all just smoke and mirrors, a public façade. Those of us who are actually in the industry are not heard, and if the Sameting tries to go against the authorities in consultations, they are not listened to. Calling this ‘internal self-government’ is a mockery. All this self-government amounts to is to sit around the table and argue about who gets slaughtered and who gets to stay. This unjust process of compulsion was put in place to divide us, to introduce in-fighting in our small and vulnerable society, where cooperation is the key to survival.

Máret Ánne Sara, Pile o´Sápmi, Tromsø 2017. Photo: Matti Aikio.

Isn’t overgrazing a real problem?

The state has counted all the reindeer in the Finnmark for years, and when they speak about overgrazing they can find easily locate the exact problem and target the responsible. But instead of addressing the problem in the places where it actually exists, they’ve launched a model of collective punishment that bogs down the entire industry and our culture.

Pile o’ Sápmi comprises two parts: the reindeer heads and a wider-ranging artistic programme?

Yes, I felt I needed more voices, more witnesses in order to broaden the scope of the debate. I have previously described the project as an artistic writ against a society that has failed in every aspect. I often say that unfortunately I don’t have the time to enjoy myself by fiddling with creativity and art; doing so would feel almost trivial. This matter is so deadly serious that I feel I need to drag two hundred bloody reindeer heads with me in order to be heard. We are forced to consider politics all the time. We can never simply get on with life.

In Tromsø I devoted most of my energy to the collective aspect of the project. Inviting other artists who could contribute something important to the debate. The objective was to occupy the entire town with political art so that we couldn’t be ignored, but would definitely be seen. There my own work became something of a compromise. It became smaller. I locked the heads up inside a box. The idea was to make the work more systematic, because I think the manipulation is so carefully thought out and cynical. Everything has been perfectly arranged within a democratic system.

Máret Ánne Sara, Pile o’ Sápmi, 2017, installation view. Neue Neue Galerie (Neue Hauptpost), Kassel, documenta 14. Photo: Mathias Völzke.

And then you went to Documenta…

Where I continued the systematic format from Tromsø. That winter I collected another two hundred heads. I didn’t have the time to let them bleach naturally, so I ended up with heads in two different shades. This meant that suddenly I could work with patterns. The pattern is a reference to the first draft for a Sami flag made by activists and artists in the late 1970s and to the current, official Sami flag.

At Documenta I wanted to raise the debate in a manner that enabled people to relate to it internationally. The theme became neo-colonisation in the world’s most evolved democracy. Crass colonisation is still going on today; it just takes place in more sophisticated ways through the use of political systems and legislation.

The aesthetics are quite aggressive, and I think they form a contrast to the Masi group from the 1970s. Do these modes of expression constitute two different aesthetic approaches to some of the same problems?

Work by Máret Ánne Sara and Cecilia Vicuña at Pile o’ Sápmi Supreme in Context at Tenthaus Oslo, 2017.

I have to correct you a little. Last year I came across some pictures by Arvid Sveen, who was an active illustrator at the time; he drew almost exactly the same motifs as me. I began to carry out a bit of research and discovered that Hans Ragnar Mathisen had done a Sami scream rather like the one I drew in 2013. Hans Normann Dahl also created images similar to the ones that artists drew today. I also asked Mathisen about the maps, and he said that at the time it was not possible to get support for art projects that dealt with politics. The maps were highly political, but he had to decorate them with Sami ornaments in order to raise the money to print them. This may have been a strategic choice on their part.

What are your thoughts on protesting within the art institution? Might the work become an art object rather than a political statement? Do you see an inherent danger in this?

Yes and no. I don’t feel that my work lost any power after being shown at Documenta, quite the contrary. But if I were to exhibit at a museum in Oslo, it would involve a completely different language and be perceived in a completely different way.

For the Sápmi, art has always been a must. Art has paved the way for political change. Pile o’ Sápmi began as a desperate cry for help against an assault that was carried out in silence. With Pile o’ Sápmi we have managed to break through. Art creates visibility and gives a voluble public voice to the matter. It forces discussion, and that was the purpose.