Indigenous heritage in the spotlight: Sámi culture makes debut at Venice art show

Giardini della Biennale, Image: Moonik via Wikimedia (CC BY-SA 3.0) / The Sámi flag (Public Domain)
The Sámi flag, which was adopted in 1986, is flying high at the Giardini della Biennale in Venice. Image: Moonik (Wikimedia, CC BY-SA 3.0 & Public Domain)

The Venice Biennale is a typically “national” event. The pavilions for artists are divided by country, and the shows are commissioned by government bodies. The Biennale was, after all, first held in 1895, when European colonial identities were peaking. One exception, however, is the Nordic pavilion. For 60 years, the Nordic pavilion has been shared by Norway, Sweden, and Finland – but this year it has been renamed.

At this year’s Venice Biennale, it will be named after the indigenous people who live around Europe’s part of the Arctic, the Sámi. Historically, the Sámi have lived across the Arctic circle, with their territory stretching between the Nordic countries and Russia.

Sami flag

Governments of these states were committed to integrating the Sámi people into their countries until at least the 1960s, often through oppressive policies. In many cases, Sámi people were forced from their lands or pressured to disown their culture. The fight for Sámi rights continues to this day, as the Nordic states pressure the Indigenous communities to give up their land and culture to allow state expansion. Whilst the debates about European colonialism have gathered speed in the last couple of years, the cultural oppression that the Sámi face has remained under the radar.

Borderless people

Many people have a misleading understanding of the Sámi people. Tourists to northern Finland caused such a demand for ‘authentic’ culture that an entire dog-sledding industry popped up in the region, despite not being Sámi tradition. Similarly, workers have been told to dress up in Sámi clothing to impress tourists. These traditions are not authentic, and many Sámi see them as damaging to both their lifestyle and their land.

The Sámi are not happy about being used to promote any country’s tourism industry. “We consider ourselves a borderless people,” Maja Kristine Jåma, the Norwegian Sámi Parliament Council Member responsible for culture and climate, tells Euronews. Since the Sámi’s ancestral lands stretch across multiple countries, they have rarely been given an international voice of their own. Transforming the pavilion into a Sámi pavilion is one step towards reconciliation from the Nordic countries. Text continues beneath image.

File:Sami people north of Arctic Circle, Norway.jpg
Winter feeding ground of Sámi reindeer herd. Image: Preus Museum via Wikimedia (CC BY 2.0)

Art, culture, and heritage

This year, the pavilion will feature the work of three Sámi artists. It is an opportunity for the world to recognise different concepts of art, culture, and heritage. For the Sámi, ‘art’ is a surprisingly recent word. Within their traditional philosophy, beauty and utility are all part of the same thing.

The artistic theme for the pavilion this year is very clear: defence of Sámi heritage. Reindeer herding, for example, is a vital part of their culture, and one which has historically been suppressed. Máret Ánne Sara has designed a sculptural installation for Venice, using reindeer calves as symbols of rebirth and reindeer stomachs that evoke “gut feeling”.

Anders Sunna, one of the other artists with a spot this year, is using the opportunity to show his family’s decade long struggle against Swedish legislation. His narrative paintings highlight how Sámi families still fight to preserve their heritage of reindeer herding and land management.

For the Sámi, the displays at the Biennale are not just about the art. It is a chance to show the world that their heritage is not Nordic heritage – it is their own, distinctive identity.

Sources: Euronews, The Art Newspaper