Activist countries

the Nordic countries give their place to the native artists of the European Arctic

When the first Venice Biennale took place in 1895, nationalism was at its height in Europe and colonial empires were still in the making. Emulating the world’s fairs of the 19th century, the grounds of the Biennale were divided between the national pavilions. Even today, a group of mostly Western countries occupy permanent posts in the Giardini, while newcomers must seek temporary accommodation elsewhere. The shows are commissioned by government agencies and the performers are expected to “represent” their country.

This year, the three artists selected to exhibit in the Nordic pavilion, shared since 1962 by the three countries of Norway, Sweden and Finland, claim an alternative “sovereignty”. The airy concrete space designed by Norwegian architect Sverre Fehn is renamed the Sámi Pavilion, after the approximately 80,000 indigenous peoples who live in the Arctic region of Europe. Living and working on different sides of the Nordic national borders, artists Pauliina Feodoroff, Máret Ánne Sara and Anders Sunna are all Sámi and have dedicated themselves to “advocating Sámi perspectives”, says pavilion curator and co-curator Katya García- Anthony.

The three artists of the Sami pavilion Máret Ánne Sara, Anders Sunna and Pauliina Feodoroff Photo: Marta Buso, OCA

She describes the Sami Pavilion project as the culmination of an eight-year “decolonial journey” undertaken by her own organization, the Office for Contemporary Art Norway (OCA), since becoming its director in 2014. Funded by the Norwegian Ministries of Culture and Foreign Affairs, its mission is to support and promote Norwegian artists internationally. Under the direction of García-Antón, he extended this mission to Sápmi, the name used by the Sámi people to designate their homeland.

“Our institution was the same as so many others, who had never really bothered to accumulate knowledge and make a connection,” she says. It began with a series of visits by Sami artists, scholars and community leaders to the far north. This “relationship and trust” paved the way for various projects highlighting Sámi art and culture and led to the inclusion of eight Sámi artists, including Máret Ánne Sara, in Documenta 14 exhibitions in Athens and Kassel. . For a Nordic art scene that had long neglected Sámi practitioners, Documenta was a “shock” and a “wake-up call,” remembers García-Antón.

Legal battles

In Kassel, Sara presented an installation designed to shock: Stack of Sápmi, a curtain of reindeer skulls. It was part of his multi-year campaign to draw attention to his brother’s legal battle with the state of Norway. As a young reindeer herder, he challenged the government-set quota on reindeer slaughter – a legal requirement that led to bankruptcy and the loss of a centuries-old Sami livelihood for him and his peers. Three trials, which ended in defeat in the Oslo Supreme Court, sparked a “dramatic crisis” in the family and wider Sami reindeer herding community, Sara says.

A herd of Sami reindeer Michael Miller, OCA

She describes Stack of Sápmi such as his “artistic lawsuit” against authorities who slaughtered Sami reindeer while developing industry on ancestral lands, disrupting their migratory routes. The work aimed to expose “Norway’s ongoing structural colonization and its invisible functioning in the light of day”, she says, decades after the official end of its brutal state policy aimed at assimilating the Sami.

For Sara, a former journalist and novelist, art was “the best language to create a broad and lasting debate” around her brother’s case and to “reclaim reality from our point of view”. And in the aftermath of the Supreme Court’s overwhelming verdict, it has once again become a means of “showing hope”. This change is reflected in his sculptural installation for Venice, which focuses on the bodies of reindeer calves as symbols of rebirth, and on the stomachs of reindeer, evoking the importance of “visceral feeling” and other forms of communication. non-verbal.

Issues of reindeer herding rights and injustice recur in Anders Sunna’s cycle of six narrative paintings, depicting his own family’s 50-year struggle to maintain their livelihoods in the face of draconian legislation. Each canvas is dedicated to a decade of legal challenges against Swedish authorities as the Sunna family resisted state attempts to remove their herds and registered reindeer brands. When Sunna was a child, “our family had 300 to 400 police notifications against us,” he says. Almost all of their “30 or 40” trials ended in defeat. The reams of legal documents will now be displayed and made accessible to visitors in the Sámi pavilion, while a parallel soundscape will incorporate audio recordings from the courtrooms.

The installation is the result of a collective effort, as Sunna’s brothers and uncles helped build the cabinets that will house the paintings and her children photocopied the papers. “This is the greatest opportunity for our family to get [our story] get out and maybe change something,” he says. Despite the toll of a marathon legal dispute, they found a kind of “mental relief” through his protest-fueled art, he adds. “It was easier to live with when we started having that voice.”

Sara’s and Sunna’s works bear witness to Sami society’s cultural and spiritual connection to reindeer and its wider sense of kinship with the natural world. The idea that “what happens to the land happens to the people” is common to the three artists of the Sami pavilion, explains García-Antón. In Venice, this message will be more explicit in the work of Pauliina Feodoroff, theater director and guardian of the lands in the Finnish part of Sápmi. She has combined creative practice with environmental and political activism through projects such as the play CO2lonialNATIONimagining a northern truth and reconciliation process, and the restoration of river systems with the Snowchange Cooperative, a community-led non-profit organization fighting climate change in the Arctic.

Theater director and activist Pauliina Feodoroff, whose work concerns the protection of fragile forests from intensive logging Michael Miller, OCA

Feodoroff is currently engaged in an attempt to protect fragile ancient forests from intensive industrial logging, a cause she hopes to amplify by using the Biennale’s “megaphone.” A series of video views of threatened forest landscapes will be shown and later offered for auction in an unusual bid. Collectors and institutions can acquire the rights to see and visit the land, which Feodoroff and his collaborators will buy with the proceeds, in order to protect them.

collective strength

A simulated landscape auction will also be presented live in the pavilion by Feodoroff and a group of dancers. A meditation on the violence of colonial encounters, the performance suggests the possibility of purifying colonized bodies through the collective strength of women.

Feodoroff admits that she is “terrified” by the art world scene that is the Biennale, but she foresees that the spotlight will have real and positive consequences in Sápmi. Referring to the latest austere report published by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, she said: “If I continue [my work] locally, these lands will not be protected on the scale they need.

Ultimately, fundraising for the forests is a fight for the future of a “living entity” that coexisted with the Sami people for centuries before the arrival of Norse industry. “We would be so ashamed to let [our ancestors] down, to be the ones who were last,” Feodoroff says.


Artists: Pauliina Feodoroff, Máret Ánne Sara and Anders Sunna

Organizers: Katya García-Antón, Liisa-Rávná Finbog and Beaska Niillas; Norway Office for Contemporary Art

Or: Nordic Pavilion, Giardini