Indigenous Monument

The Sámi Pavilion is a historical recognition of indigenous soveregnity, and a surprisingly traditional approach to the idea of a pavilion.

Anders Sunna, Illegal Spirits of Sápmi, 2022. Photo: Michael Miller.

When Sámi art exploded at Documenta 14 (2017), it was part of an exhibition which aimed to reverse established hierarchies and imagine contemporary art in a radically different way – something I, for one, think it was surprisingly successful in doing. The key was that, contrary to a lot of politically ambitious art, it didn’t speak from a position of authority, but rather addressed viewers as intellectual equals with the ability to unlearn habitual truths. An unusual attempt to unite the struggle for social justice with the ideal of radical equality, to my mind. 

Anders Sunna, Máret Ánne Sara, Pauliina Feodoroff
59th International Art Exhibition La Biennale di Venezia, The Sámi Pavilion, Venice

During the past five years, both subaltern positions and art that speaks directly to the viewer’s imagination – that aims to expand rather than define what we should think and feel, show and say – have almost become staples in contemporary art. This is certainly true of the 59th Venice Biennial, with its mild claim to challenge Western, male canon. At the same time, it is as if the threads woven together in Kassel and Athens five years ago have been pulled apart again, lending traction to a view of art which fetishises imagination, romanticises exclusion, and doesn’t mind educating the supposedly lesser minds of viewers.

Thus, transforming the Nordic Pavilion into a Sámi Pavillion for the Venice Biennial didn’t just feel like a logical next step for the Office of Contemporary Art Norway – whose longstanding collaboration with Sámi artists was, of course, partly behind the large Sámi participation at Documenta 14 – but also seemed to have the potential to overthrow historical truths and undermine the representative function of the pavilion system. When it was announced that the political hard-liners Anders Sunna and Máret Ánne Sara (as well as Pauliina Feodoroff, whom I was less familiar with) would participate, I sensed a strong curatorial approach that could become an important exhibition in the history of the biennial.

Which it did. Albeit not in the way which I had hoped. During the inauguration, the president of Norway’s Sámi Parliament, Silje Karine Muotka, emphasised how the Sámi are threatened both by climate change and by the expansion of green energy which, in effect, constitutes a new form of “green colonialism” which adversely impacts the Sámi way of life. Thus, the Sámi Pavilion is not only an historical recognition of Indigenous sovereignty, but it comes at a time when such recognition appears to be more urgent than ever. Indeed, this might be part of the problem, since it seems to me that curator Katya Gárcia-Ánton hasn’t done enough to counter the representativeness that is, arguably, a less attractive aspect of national pavilions. Why? Because it renders art monumental, cautious, and predictable. Which is exactly what happens at the Sámi Pavilion.

To me, it’s surprising that Gárcia-Ánton decided to stick to choosing one artist from each of the three countries behind the pavilion, since this seems to thwart the idea of advocating a holistic and borderless alternative to nationalism. I can recall several past versions of the pavilion that have done more to play down the presence of national political interests. That might have been possible here, too, had the selection not so tightly adhered to Sámi identity as the overriding organisational principle. And since Sunna, Sara, and Feodoroff have such disparate styles, the whole falls apart into three separate sections that don’t really speak with each other except on certain thematic issues such as reindeer husbandry.

Máret Ánne Sara, Du-ššan-ahttanu-ššan, 2022. Photo: Michael Miller.

Of course, this does not mean that the Sámi Pavilion completely lacks aesthetically cohesive elements. For example, the three artists have all worked with collage-like and fragmented forms, albeit in different mediums, and are also partial to traditional materials such as wood and animal parts. The presentation has a kind of nomadic form, as if it could be quickly disassembled and moved away. There’s a lot of space between the works. A painting installation by Sunna sits in the far end of the building; opposite hangs a collection of ominous looking sculptures by Sara, and next to them Feodoroff has installed two monitors evoking a temporary camp site with leftover material stowed on the floor behind them.

After a while, I smelled something coming from two of Sara’s sculptures hanging freely from the ceiling. They are made of white reindeer sinew and look like floating revelations or vertical clouds. Beautiful. As I approached them, I noticed that one had an acrid smell, like urine, while the other had an inviting scent. The first is meant to convey feelings of stress and anxiety whereas the second is meant to convey hope. I think it works surprisingly well, perhaps because during the preview days I walked around the biennial feeling like a hunted animal, which made me all the more receptive to the work’s olfactory impulses. When I leaned forward to take in the hopeful scent, I was filled with a sense of peace and reassurance. It was as if a soft hand were placed against my cheek, promising that everything was going to be alright, that everything would work out.

Anders Sunna, Illegal Spirits of Sápmi, 2022. Photo: Michael Miller.

Sunna’s street art-inspired paintings with their grinning skulls and Nazi uniforms offer quite a more chilling experience. The work is about his family’s fifty-year conflict with the Swedish state, and is presented in five chapters from the 1970s until today. One painting per decade has been installed in a custom-built wooden construction that also holds binders with thousands of documents from legal disputes surrounding reindeer husbandry. Even though it can be difficult to decipher every detail of the paintings (or, for that matter, to read all the documents) it is easy to grasp the main features of a story about the abuse of state and municipal power. Sunna offers an effective narrative without nuance. I wonder if any contemporary artist has done more to counteract the stereotype of the Sámi as good-hearted nature guardians, and how comfortable he is with the pavilion’s theme of ​a holistic art “repairing” the trauma of colonialism.

A politics of healing is most clearly confirmed by the third participant, theatre director and activist Paulina Feodoroff, whose contribution feels weaker and more elusive than the others. This may be partly due to the fact that her performance work was not shown during the press days, during which the only works on view were two rather arbitrarily edited films about attempts to repair the damage to pastures and fishing waters caused by industrial logging. Feodoroff’s works provide a more collectivist entry point to the pavilion’s theme. Unfortunately, they don’t function very well either as informational films or as works of art.

Máret Ánne Sara, Gutted – Gávogálši, 2022 (foreground) & Sara Ale suova sielu sáiget, 2022 (background). Photo: Michael Miller.

However, Feodoroff is also participating with a conceptual work in which she auctions off views of landscapes in Sápmi. If I understand correctly, buyers will pay to visit a certain area a certain number of times while the actual legal rights to the land are transferred to the Sámi. In this way, patrons can make a concrete contribution to Sámi reparations. The work is easy to sympathise with, but it also introduces a notion of artistic altruism that seems to speak to the pavilion’s imagined audience: not a community of equals, but an enlightened elite who reverently bow to their new masters, the Sámi, who will teach them the coveted virtues (modesty, humility) that will distinguish them from ordinary people. Is there any safer way to be celebrated in contemporary art than to allow people to bask in the splendour of their own complacency?

So, it seems almost inevitable that the Sámi pavilion will be seen as a great success and an important recognition of Indigenous culture. Yet, I cannot shake the feeling that this could have been one of the most engaging and urgent exhibitions at this year’s biennale if there had just been enough will or imagination to fully realise the project’s potential. To me, it comes across too much like a self-fulfilling crowning of established positions and achievements, and too little as an attempt to imagine new and open-ended possibilities for contemporary (Sámi) art in the 2020s. Which seems like a surprisingly traditional approach to the idea of a pavilion.

Pauliina Feodoroff, Matriarchy, 2022. Photo: Michael Miller.