I am sitting in a homely pizzeria in Jokkmokk, a Swedish town tucked just north of the Arctic Circle, talking to Anders Sunna, a Sámi artist whose small studio is a couple of blocks away. The Sámis are the indigenous people of the far north of the Scandinavian peninsula, whose presence also stretches into north-western parts of Russia. It is mid-February, and cold.
Our meal is welcome respite from the vicious conditions. I ask Sunna, who seems not at all discomfited, what is the coldest winter he can remember. It was in the 1990s, he replies, “when it reached minus 48 degrees”. No, argues our bus driver who is eating with us; it was actually minus 51. “Ah yes,” recalls Sunna. “I remember, my thermometer did not go that low.” It is impossible, given the absolute absence of drama in his voice, to know if this is a joke.
What is it like to wander around town when it is hovering around the minus 50s, I ask him. “It affects your eyes,” he says flatly. “It is very difficult to blink.”
It is hard to resist detecting some metaphorical shade in his answer. Sunna is one of three Sámi artists who are working this spring and summer to keep our eyes very much fixed on their part of the world. He and his colleagues Máret Ánne Sara and Pauliina Feodoroff, from the Norwegian and Finnish parts of Sápmi respectively, as their homeland is now known in preference to the colonial term “Lapland”, have been selected to show their work in the Nordic Pavilion at this year’s Venice Biennale.
The artists’ work takes an unblinking look at the threats faced by their people. It is powerful, accessible and sharply political: anyone expecting folkloric quaintness will be startled by its polemical bite. Curator Katya García-Antón, director of the Office for Contemporary Art Norway, describes the three as “leaders of their generation”, who are striving to defend and promote the Sámi way of life and of looking at the world.
It is not news that the Sámis have been at odds with the governments of the countries in which their lands lie and, some would say, with modernity itself. The once-nomadic Sámi people, today numbering between 50,000 and 100,000 (there is no official register), have historically made their living from fishing, hunting and gathering, many of them through reindeer husbandry. They were largely ignored by the Scandinavians who settled in the south, until the 19th century, when they were subjected to forced assimilation policies.
These caused religious and cultural clashes, and more recently there have been economically based conflicts. Sámi holistic beliefs centre on the need to respect and live in harmony with the region’s natural resources. But these have been trammelled in recent years by the rapid development of mining and wind and hydropower projects. The initiatives have been labelled as a kind of “green colonialism”, a ruinous, little-reported consequence of climate change.
There is a history of active resistance against the efforts of all types of “settlers” to destroy Sámi ways, the most recent example of which was the Áltá Action, a protest against the construction of a hydroelectric power plant in the far north of Norway. That movement, which lasted from the 1970s to early 1980s, ultimately failed. But it prompted a new law protecting Sámi language and culture in 1987 and the establishment of a Sámi parliament two years later. Here is the irony: greater attention than ever is paid today to the Sámi cause. There are truth and reconciliation commissions dealing with Nordic colonialism under way or planned in all three countries, and Queen Sonja of Norway is due to inaugurate the pavilion in Venice. But all of that is because the threat to the Sámi people has become existential.
Inside his studio, Sunna shows me a painting to which he is putting the finishing touches and which he will be bringing to Venice. It shows a confrontation between Sámi reindeer herders and the Swedish authorities. Sunna’s family are regarded as “outlaws”, he says, for their defence of ancestral herding practices, and against eviction.
The struggle has been played out in courtrooms as well as in the wild. There have been physical threats to his family, says Sunna. “My uncle was threatened in a forest, a car stopped in front of him with its headlights on and a man came up to him with a knife in his hand.” It sounds like the Wild West, I say. “It is the Wild West,” he replies instantly. “It’s a war. No one has been killed yet, but it is a war.”
The painting, which combines satirical portraits of mocking legislators with a macabre line-drawing of a skull — think of a George Grosz/Jean-Michel Basquiat mash-up — will form part of an installation in Venice, which will echo the courtrooms in which the Sunna family has tried, and failed, to defend its rights. Audio extracts from the trials will play in the background, “almost like a wind”, says the artist.
Sunna believes the assault on Sámi herding rights is a de facto attempt slowly to wipe out their way of life. “They want us to make Volvo cars outside Gothenburg,” he says. I ask him whether, after all these years of struggle, he ever feels like giving up. “No! It is impossible. We will never give up. We have grown up with this conflict. We don’t know anything else.”
About 450km north of Jokkmokk lies the Norwegian village of Kautokeino, a Sámi cultural centre and the site of Máret Ánne Sara’s studio. Sara is among the most lauded of all Sámi artists, thanks largely to her striking work “Pile o’Sápmi” (2016-20) which turned heads at 2017’s documenta 14 exhibition in Kassel, Germany.
The hanging of 400 reindeer skulls, each with a bullet hole in its centre, was another comment on the treatment of herders by government authorities and chronicled another protracted battle to defend Sámi rights. Sara was drawing attention to the plight of her younger brother, Jovsset Ánte, who faced bankruptcy when he was forced to cull half of his herd to free land for “green” economic initiatives.
After two court hearings which found in his favour, the case was heard by the Norwegian Supreme Court in 2017, which found against him. Sara marked that occasion by hanging “Pile o’Sápmi” in the open air outside the Norwegian parliament in Oslo. The final court defeat left the family “devastated”, says Sara. “It was a political edict: ‘The government knows what is best for you, we are doing this for your own benefit.’ But we spent five years on this case, and invested a lot of ourselves in it, financially, emotionally and spiritually.”
But the impact of “Pile o’Sápmi” did not go unnoticed, and the work was bought by Norway’s new national museum, where it will be displayed with prominence in the entrance hall when the museum opens in June. Sara’s own conditions for its sale included that she write her own text to accompany the work and that the piece should travel back to Sápmi whenever it is not on display.
Sara’s Venice work will act as a coda to the events that inspired “Pile o’Sápmi”. She doesn’t want to give away too much about it, but the presence of a handful of reindeer-calf carcasses in her studio does not suggest that there will be an unequivocally joyous ending.
Both Sunna and Sara recognise the importance of their work appearing in the Biennale as a political act, a way of countering the threats faced by Sámi culture. “It is difficult to talk about these things in a political way. Art takes the back way,” Sunna says, swerving his hand in a sinuous zigzag. “You are getting out these feelings that are inside you.”
Sara, a former journalist and author, also finds greater potential in the communicative power of her art than in other forms. Speaking at a launch for the pavilion at London’s Institute of Contemporary Arts last month, she says her reaction when she was asked to exhibit in Venice “was not an immediate, happy ‘Yes!’ Why should we be screaming out loud, tearing our souls apart, for show? I had to have a deeply felt conversation with myself.”
But she also says the traditional values of the Sámi people, placing human concerns on an equal footing with those of animals and nature, now threatened as never before, can help the world at large.
“I get so many questions from museums, who are desperate because the world is in such a very difficult place. Strategies are failing. And we are trying to figure out what is the deepest treasure we can offer for this crisis.” Her message for her Venice audience is clear, and fulfils art’s highest imperative: expect to think about the world in a new way, and don’t look away.
April 23-November 27, oca.no