SÁPMI, Norway, Sweden, and Finland — Sámi artist Pauliina Feodoroff says that “to be Indigenous is to be site-specific.” For centuries, colonial governments have deliberately represented the site-specific Indigenous landscapes of the European Arctic as empty wildernesses. In reality, these are the ancestral lands of the Sámi people. Far from empty, they are ecologically diverse sites of culture, care, and collective endeavor.
At this year’s Venice Biennale, the Nordic Pavilion will be transformed for the first time into the Sámi Pavilion. The project undermines the nationalistic structure behind the Biennale, instead recognizing the sovereignty and cultural cohesion of Sápmi, the Sámi cultural region, which covers much of the northernmost areas of Norway, Sweden, and Finland, as well as part of Russia. The three contributing artists — Pauliina Feodoroff, Máret Ánne Sara, and Anders Sunna — draw attention to the ongoing colonial oppression and discrimination experienced by Indigenous Sámi under local and national governments across the Nordic region.
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Feodoroff’s family members are Skolt Sámi reindeer herders, originally from the part of Sápmi within the Russian border. They were pushed into Finland after World War II, into a reputedly toxic area ravaged by mining and fallout from Chernobyl. Feodoroff’s work for the Sámi Pavilion will combine performance and video installations to explore non-colonial modes of physical expression, emphasizing the close relationship between the body and landscape in Sámi culture.
Feodoroff has no artist studio; instead she sees the landscapes with which she works as her expanded studio. Her creative practice is inseparable from her work as a land defender. She explains that the Finnish government treats Sámi ancestral land as a “resource to exploit and sell piece by piece to any market that needs it.” In particular, she laments and resists the logging of old, slow-growth forests for one of Finland’s key exports: toilet paper. The bathos is not lost on Feodoroff and local Sámi reindeer herders, who are bypassed by the transaction, gaining nothing but a degraded landscape and poorer survival rates for their reindeer.
To protect and restore remaining old-growth forests, Feodoroff is attempting to use the art market to buy back land to be owned and managed collectively by Sámi people. Purchasing one of her works is framed as a contract through which the collector buys the right to visit an area of land in Sápmi; in return, the artist pledges to protect that land. The artist’s message is: “Do not buy our land, buy our art instead.”
In 2015, the Norwegian government introduced mass reindeer culling quotas for Sámi herders, hitting younger herders such as artist Máret Ánne Sara’s brother particularly hard. Throughout a lengthy and expensive legal process, Sara has supported her brother’s appeal against the ruling, showing solidarity and resistance through her artistic project “Pile o’Sápmi” (2016-ongoing). In 2016, Sara piled 200 reindeer heads outside the Inner Finnmark District Court and topped the pile with a Norwegian flag. The work refers to the 19th-century white settler policy of controlling the Indigenous population of Canada by slaughtering millions of buffalo and piling their bones in enormous heaps. “My work is intended to be a public, artistic trial,” says Sara. She wants to hold the Norwegian government to account for repeating devastating colonial events in a nation that takes pride in its record on democracy and human rights.
Sara’s work emphasizes that reindeer herding is at the heart of both Sámi culture and the complex ecologies of Sápmi. Her installation for the Sámi Pavilion incorporates preserved dead reindeer calves as bittersweet symbols of both loss and hope, as well as dried and inflated reindeer stomachs. Sara is interested in the stomach as both a psychical and physical site for processing environmental stimuli and emotions, subverting the Cartesian brain/body divide. The work strikes at some of the problematic binaries of Western culture while continuing to highlight the colonial, industrial-scale environmental management being practiced by the Norwegian government.
Anders Sunna’s painting and sound installations speak directly to his own history. “My paintings tell stories of what happened to my family,” he says. “Today our family has no rights at all, we have lost everything.” Located on the Swedish side of Sápmi, Sunna’s family has been refused its ancestral right to herd reindeer because of the competing interests of local Swedish landowners as well as the disinterest, racism, and corruption of governmental and judicial systems. Sunna’s family has been practicing what he describes as “guerrilla reindeer herding” for 50 years.
Sunna’s paintings borrow motifs from international protest movements, news footage of riots, and his artistic origins as a graffitist. His move into the fine art world is helping to bring his family’s story to an international audience. For the 2022 Venice Biennale, he has created five paintings depicting episodes from the last five decades of the Sunna family’s struggles. A sixth painting has been burned in a ritual act; only its remains will be presented. The work acknowledges a potential future of death for the Sámi, yet it keeps alive the possibility of hope, which might rise like a phoenix from the ashes. Sunna tells stories of oppression and even despair in the face of relentless attacks on his family’s rights, but he also hopes for a better future for the next generation.
Before I visited Sápmi to meet the Sámi Pavilion artists in February 2022, I felt disillusioned with the power of the art world to enact change; despite countless artworks raising awareness of climate breakdown, for example, society has failed to make meaningful changes. But across Sápmi, I met individuals who believed in the capacity for art — and for the Venice Biennale — to make a difference. Many Sámi artists, activists, and politicians argue that greater international visibility will push the Nordic governments to change their discriminatory policies under both internal and external pressures.
The stories told in the Sámi Pavilion have rarely been presented on an international stage; and though often deeply personal, they speak to issues that affect us all. The Arctic is warming four times faster than the rest of the world; it is a litmus test for our environmental future. Indigenous knowledge and Indigenous land management could lead us toward a safer ecological future; it is therefore deeply unjust that Sámi people must be on the frontline of climate breakdown, while also suffering from racial injustice and discrimination. Perhaps by “filling the information gap and reclaiming reality,” as Máret Ánne Sara puts it, the Biennale can indeed create change, and lead to these Arctic people and places being treated with the respect they deserve.
The Sámi Pavilion is part of the 59th International Art Exhibition of La Biennale di Venezia, on view from April 23-November 27. The Biennale was curated by Katya García-Antón, Liisa-Rávná Finbog, and Beaska Niillas.