With Sámi Pavilion, Three Indigenous Artists Hope to Highlight the Ongoing Struggles of Their People at the Venice Biennale
While hurtling for miles and miles across the vast frozen Lake Inari in far northern Finland on a sled driven by reindeer herders on snowmobiles, the landscape opens up to an ethereal vista. Clusters of reindeer trot across the ice in search of food among the snow-laden pines encircling the lake. To all appearances, it is a pristine paradise. But this area is situated in the heartland of Europe’s only Indigenous people, the Sámi, and it is the site of a long and bitter cultural, political, and ecological struggle over land use rights and guardianship.
In this Arctic region, which already intimately feels the accelerated impact of our climate crisis, large swathes of the old-growth surrounding forest have been decimated by aggressive commercial logging for pulp over the past 50 years. This, in turn, has affected the habitat of the reindeer, which feed off lichen that grows on the trees.
Photographic portraits of this haunting landscape and its Indigenous guardians will feature in the performance project that the Sámi artist and activist Pauliina Feodoroff will present during the 2022 Venice Biennale in the Giardini as part of the Nordic Pavilion, which this year has been transformed into the Sámi Pavilion. Her aim is to draw international support for protecting Sámi lands. “It’s hard to think when we’re witnessing such a beautiful day in such quiet, how strong a battle is going on all the time, from each square meter, from each tree, how strong interests are colliding here,” Feodoroff told a group of visiting reporters, bundled in winter survival suits, as they ate reindeer soup and warmed themselves around a fire amid temperatures of around minus 15 degrees Fahrenheit.
Feodoroff is one of three Indigenous artists—the other two are Máret Ánne Sara and Anders Sunna—who will represent Finland, Norway, and Sweden in an unprecedented Sámi takeover of the Nordic pavilion at the Venice Biennale, one of the art world’s main events, with its own complicated history of colonialism.
Katya García-Antón, commissioner and co-curator of the pavilion, called it “a historic moment of decolonization,” adding, “It’s also a very strong story about the ongoing struggles that Sámi society is experiencing today.”
The Sámi’s struggles are related to climate change and land dispossession for mineral extraction, dam building, and the creation of wind turbine farms, among other things. The three artists are staking their claim for the future of their people and share a common message based on Sámi notions of kinship with the land: what happens to the land happens to the people. “Many of those operations are actually funded by European countries so it’s important to realize that the colonialism ongoing today in Norway is deeply connected to Europe,” García-Antón added.
The semi-nomadic Sámi, who number roughly 100,000 across northern Norway, Finland, Sweden, and Russia’s Kola Peninsula (an area they call Sápmi), have been subjected to colonization by all four countries for hundreds of years. They have been forcibly removed from their ancestral lands, seen their culture and language suppressed, and witnessed the persecution of their noaidis, or spiritual shamans.
Although the Nordic Sámi now have their own parliaments and Scandinavian states have recognized some Indigenous rights, racism against them remains rife and the Sámi still have little say over what happens on their land or to their land. Some of these issues are highlighted by the three pavilion artists, for whom art is a last resort in their fight for justice. “We don’t have so many means of resistance,” said Siljá Somby, a Sámi parliamentarian and filmmaker. “Art becomes a way to resist and make sure that the truth will come out.
Sunna, an artist and reindeer herder from the Swedish part of Sápmi, will use his platform at Venice to present a large-scale painting installation detailing 50 years of legal battles between his family and the Swedish authorities, largely around reindeer herding rights. Sunna has created a series of six collaged paintings, each depicting a decade of his family’s ordeals, set within cabinets that will contain some 10,000 photocopied documents of all the court cases. The final, sixth painting will point toward the future. A related sonic landscape will also be on display.
“We have been to trial 30 or 40 times and almost never won anything,” Sunna said in his studio in the Swedish town of Jokkmokk, where two paintings from the Venice series hung on the wall. One depicted a forest standoff, police cars and reindeer against an ominous red dripping sky. “This is from a moment in 2002 when we had heard that they were going to steal our reindeers, this Sámi village that had forced us away,” he explained. “The mayor has a camera and had some other fellows with him who wanted to draw knives against us, but the police came and tried to calm the situation.”
Sara, from Norwegian Sápmi, has also experienced clashes with the state over her family’s reindeer herding. Sara participated in Documenta 14 in 2017, exhibiting a monumental curtain of reindeer skulls as part of a four-year campaign titled Pile O’Sápmi around her brother’s ultimately unsuccessful legal fight to prevent the forced culling of his herd. The work has been purchased by the new National Museum of Oslo, where it will confront visitors in the entrance once the doors open in June. “If my work at Documenta was addressing and making visible this maelstrom of Nordic colonialism, Venice is really the aftermath of this,” she said in her studio in Kautokeino, Norway, surrounded by amorphous hanging sculptures.
These are among the works she will show at Venice: a series of sculptures made from reindeer stomachs that speak of the burden of emotional trauma carried by the Sámi, but also celebrate their culture, wisdom, and values—the reindeer being central to the Sámi cosmology and creation story. Sara’s work also connects to the Sámi notion of duodji, which crudely translates as “craft” but embodies a philosophy of life based on a belief in the indivisibility of humans, animals, and nature.
“When I work with the stomach, it’s a combination of knowledge and experiences,” she said. “It’s on the one hand, as if I was standing in the kitchen, preparing intestines for food. On the other, it’s techniques that I learned from my grandparents and parents about traditional handicraft.”
There are many layers of complexity to the Sámi struggle, which pits traditional Indigenous values and expertise against modern Scandinavian practices. The Nordic states enforce regular reindeer culls, ostensibly to prevent overgrazing, and stringent wildlife laws protect predators such as wolverines and eagles which prey on reindeer calves. But compensation for these losses depends on providing proof and the carcasses are often hard to locate. Likewise, state efforts to increase renewable energy through wind turbines disrupt the reindeers’ centuries-old migration routes since the animals tend to avoid the turbines. The Sámi argue that they, not the Nordic governments, are best placed to maintain the ecological balance based on their ancient knowledge systems, which have maintained balance for centuries prior.
The three artists hope that by shining a light on the challenges facing the Sámi at Venice the Nordic states, which are seen internationally as flag bearers for human rights, will be shamed into taking action to protect the rights and culture of their own Indigenous citizens.
“It’s often very easy for Norway, Sweden, and Finland to be the best in the class regarding human rights and Indigenous rights but then these three artists come and tell a totally different story on how they are treated, and that’s very revealing,” said Beaska Niillas, a co-curator of the pavilion, as well as a land guardian and Norwegian Sámi parliament member.
The issue of land is especially close to Feodoroff’s heart since her family in Finnish and Russian Sápmi suffered losses during the early 20th century as part of Soviet collectivization and in the postwar changes in state borders and forced relocations. Much of that land has been devastated by polluting nickel mines. In addition to the photographic portraits of what she calls “land(person)scapes,” she plans to eventually auction off these works with the rights to visit the land every five years.
She hopes to raise enough money to buy privately owned land formerly inhabited by Sámi people so it can be responsibly managed by the Sámi collectively. “It is an act of desperation,” Feodoroff said. “It’s outrageous that we have to buy our own land back. And it’s outrageous that we have to heal the damages that somebody else has done.”
Feodoroff’s Venice presentation will also involve a three-part performance with eight female dancers titled Matriarchy. The first part, First Contact references the brutal power dynamic that resulted from the earliest encounters between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples; the second, Auction, enacts an auction using the photographic portraits as props; and the final part, also titled Matriarchy, focuses on purging the colonized female body in order to reconnect with its surroundings. The whole project can be viewed in opposition to the narrative of land representation in Western painting as a symbol of status, an entity to be conquered, or a romantic wilderness.
Out on the Norwegian tundra, Nils Peder Gaup, a reindeer herder and Sámi politician, echoed the concerns that the artists will address in their works. With global warming, herders are having to buy food for their animals because fluctuating temperatures create layers of ice and snow that trap the moss the reindeer eat. The interdependence between mankind and nature has never been stronger. “Normally the reindeer feed you, but now we have to feed them,” said Peder Gaup, as he watched his herd, some nibbling food pellets from a trough and others pawing the icy ground for moss on the windswept hilltop.
The Sámi Pavilion will offer visitors a reminder of alternative, harmonious ways of living with the land, a sharp contrast for how contemporary capitalist societies have treated the Earth’s most remote regions as an uninhabited outback ripe for exploitation. “They call this area the wilderness of Norway,” said Peder Gaup. “But it isn’t—we’re here. It’s not a wilderness for us.”