The Long Hard Cold Struggle

The contemporary art presented at the Sami anniversary was as much about mobilising for future struggles as it was about celebrating the past.

Anders Sunna, We Are Still Here, 2017. Photo: Monica Anette Svorstøl.

You weren’t there, were you? In Trondheim, during the second week of February, for the celebrations marking the 100th anniversary of the first national Sami conference? You probably weren’t in Tromsø either for the Pile ó Sápmi-festival during the last week of January where many of the same artists took to the barricades during the trial of Jovsset Ánte Sara. I thought as much. But you ought to have been. Why? Because Norway may never before have seen such a mobilisation of art and culture linked to a contemporary political reality. The Sami contemporary art presented at Tråante 2017 is as much a mobilisation for future struggles as it is a celebration of past events.

The question is what, out of the various things that have happened over the course of the last hundred years, is in fact worth celebrating. One thing is the Sami languages. They are still alive. That much is abundantly clear as I walk through the airport in Tromsø on my way to Trondheim to take part in the Sami anniversary events. The Sami languages are worth celebrating. So too is Sami art. It continues to set the agendas for political and cultural resistance in Sápmi (Lapland in the native tongue). As this text was being written – on 15 February – The Nordnorsk Kunstmuseum was replaced by Sámi Dáiddamusea (Sami Art Museum) for a two-month run.

From Bergen to Tromsø

Suohpanterror, Together we rise, 2017.

For me the journey to Tråante 2017 began four months ago when I moved to Tromsø to work at the art academy there. I knew that moving from Bergen to Tromsø was to move from one commercial centre to another. But that is where the similarities end. The journey took me away from Bergen’s familiar, safe continental bourgeois feel to, well, unknown territory, to the Arctic, to a town that is less weighed down by the bourgeoisie, both politically and culturally, and to Sápmi, Sami land, without me realising what that meant.

Now I am on my way to Trondheim and Tråante to report back from the celebrations of the 100th anniversary of the first national Sami conference, wondering whether I am qualified to have any opinion at all on Sami history, culture, everyday life. Naturally, many are heading out to experience the week-long celebrations. The plane has a stopover in Bodø, and the tourists disembark before we continue south. I am not sure I’ll be able to handle this; how am I to write about and have an opinion about Sami art and about all the things that are at stake – politically, culturally and historically?

In hindsight I see that even though my doubts were very real, they were groundless. Sami art is art, pure and simple. As it says on the walls of the new Sámi Dáiddamusea in Tromsø: “There is no set of rules for Sami art. There is no fixed definition of Sami art. There is no limit to Sami art.” Nor are their any limits on who can write about Sami culture and politics. If there were, how could we hope to get anywhere?

Taking the State to court

Let’s cut back to a few weeks earlier and the Tromsø international film festival. OCA (Office for Contemporary Art Norway) launches their annual programme, A year of indigenous art and thought, and a series of short films in which five Sami artists and activists – Máret Ánne Sara, Synnøve Persen, Hans Ragnar Mathisen, Niillas Somby and Ánde Somby – relate their stories and speak about art and about Sami identity within the wider world. At the same time the young Sami reindeer herder Jovsset Ánte Sara is preparing for the second hearing of his trial: he has appealed a court ruling in an effort to keep his herd of reindeer. The State wishes to put down most of his animals in order to reduce grazing pressure on the Finnmark plateaus.

Máret Ánne Sara, Pile ó Sapmi. Photo: Iris Egilsdatter.

One of the artists portrayed in OCA’s short films is Sara’s sister, Máret Ánne Sara, who arranged a week-long art festival in support of her brother. Known as Pile ó Sápmi (A Pile of Sápmi), the festival made use of the entire city, right from Tinghuset to the artist-run exhibition venue Small Projects to public art projects, conversations and exhibitions. The list of contributors included the now-legendary group Samisk Kunstneraksjon, the anonymous art-activist collective Suohpanterror and the graffiti artist Anders Sunna. All of these artists have, at different times and through different means, tested the boundaries between activism and art.

In a conversation with OCA director Katya García-Antón at Small Projects, Máret Anne Sara answered no when asked whether she sees herself as an activist. But the question is whether it is even possible, in her case, to separate art and activism as two distinct positions from an aesthetic and artistic point of view. The work Pile ó Sápmi – which lent its name to the festival – was first shown as an artistic protest outside the court building in Tana where her brother, Jovsset Ánte Sara, initially presented his case against the State in order to keep his herd of reindeer intact.

A pile of American bison sculls (mid-1870s). Photo: Wikimedia Commons, unknown photographer.

The work consists of a heap of two hundred freshly cut-off reindeer heads with a Norwegian flag perched on top – a direct and bloody reminder that to the Sami reindeer-herding community the reindeer and Sápmi are one and the same; the animals link their history, their land and their livelihood. The work is also a direct reference to an 1870 photograph from Pile O’ Bones in South Carolina, where a huge heap of animal skulls has been piled high in the landscape – a result of the systematic slaughter of the buffalo and its attendant damage to the livelihoods of the indigenous people in much of the USA. Máret Ánne Sara regards both cases as examples of systematic control of indigenous peoples. In other words it is not just a symbolic gesture, but a reminder that the local struggle of this indigenous people has global parallels.

A tool for promoting rights

However, the struggle is also national in scope, and by being visibly present during the film festival and the court case, the state-funded OCA organisation has positioned itself right in the middle of an ongoing conflict between the Sami population and the State. Especially since the 1970s and the Alta Dam protests (1978-82), Sami art has been actively used as a tool for the fight for Sami rights – a fight where the adversary has generally been the State. It is this conflict, and OCA’s recognition of the line that can be traced through art history from the 1970s to the present day, that elevates Sami activist art out of its national and local context and into the global art arena.

The art scenes of urban southern Norway have generally regarded Sami art with mildly indulgent indifference. The reason may have been that Sami art has not gone Norwegian. It has proven resistant to normalisation and adaptation to the discourses that have influenced contemporary art, possibly with the exception of the postcolonial discourse which has, quite naturally, been particularly central for Sami artists. It is no longer a secret that a range of Sami artists will be represented at the German exhibition Documenta 14, which will open in Athens in April and in Kassel later in June, and after the poignant articulation of the Sami struggle seen in recent weeks it looks as if the Documenta curators and OCA are in fact right: the most up-to-the-minute art in Norway today is made on the outskirts and in the margins, and this experience corresponds with the overall thinking on the global art scene today.

Suohpanterror, Shoot Me, performance. Photo: Monica Anette Svorstøl.

A central presence

During Pile ó Sápmi and at OCA’s programme of film shorts, the presence of Niillas Somby was absolutely central. We don’t have many political activists in Norway who have lost an arm in an attempt at blowing up public property, been charged with terrorism, gone on hunger strike and escaped prison to go to Canada in order to live in exile with indigenous tribes for several years.

After the Alta protests, activism may appear to have softened somewhat. In his short film and in a conversation with Anders Sunna at Small Projects, Somby expressed the view that the establishment of the Sami Parliament in 1989 was a victory with certain shortcomings: “If the Sami Parliament had real political power Jovsset Ánte would not have to sit through this trial, and I would not have to stand here badmouthing the Sami Parliament”. This scepticism regarding the political potency of the Sami Parliament is repeated in another OCA film featuring the lawyer and activist Ánde Somby, who calls it a toothless beast, stating that it is up to a new generation to give the beast real bite.

Renewed struggle

After just a few months in Tromsø the sheer artistic power associated with the Sami situation is striking, and the journey south to Trondheim only serves to reinforce this impression. Is this the result of a passing infatuation with a new part of the country, or has a genuine new perspective, founded in professional insight in art, revealed itself to me? The cultural gap between Tromsø and Trondheim certainly seems to have closed in. During Tråante 2017 there seems to be widespread agreement that the anniversary celebrations in Trondheim mark a historic occasion. The celebrations are seen as a reclamation of the South Sami region, i.e. the part of Sápmi located south of the Polar Circle. And perhaps the underlying hope is that this occasion can serve as a call for renewed political mobilisation that can raise up the Sami Parliament as an institution with real political power.

Geir Tore Holm and Elina Waage Mikalsen. Photo: Monica A. Svorstøl.

However, the key parts of the contemporary art programme shown at Tråante 2017 had a different objective: a queering af Sápmi. This is partly about feminist and gender perspectives, but it has wider-ranging implications than that, including an intensified struggle for the right to a distinctive cultural identity and against normalisation (going Norwegian or Swedish) – for seeing difference as valuable and as something worth fighting for.

This is particularly evident in the exhibition Show Me Colour, arranged by the Sami Centre for Contemporary Art in co-operation with Trøndelag Centre for Contemporary Art (TSSK). Here “the Sámi condition” is addressed in various ways and through various devices by the anonymous Sami artist-activist collective Suohpanterror (Lasso terror), Sami Girl Gang, Marita Isobel Solberg (the newly appointed director of the Sami Art Museum), Anders Sunna and Geir Tore Holm and Elina Waage Mikalsen. The posters created by Suohpanterror are a mixture of hacktivist aesthetics and propaganda with de-colonial agendas, and Anders Sunna’s graffiti works, paintings and installations seem more intent on arming than on animating Sápmi.

Sami Girl Gang, performance. Photo: Monica Anette Svorstøl.

Outside the art centre Sunna painted a piece live during a concert featuring Sofia Jannok, who is one of Sápmi’s most important and most politically explicit artists. Sami Girl Gang (Silje Figenschou Thoresen and Carola Grahn) have a more disarming, yet overtly gender political and feminist project that applies a commercial girl-power tactic. Geir Tore Holm most obviously approaches the kind of spiritual de-colonialisation that Niillas Somby advocates, and this holds true in his exhibition at the artist-run exhibition venue RAKE as well as in his performance with Elina Waage Mikalsen at TSSK. Holm allows the experience of the primordial force of Sami existence to remain beneath the surface in his low-key exhibition and in his collaboration with Mikalsen where Holm, speaking Norwegian and Sami, presents a kind of meditation on life, death and the grave on top of Mikalsen’s improvised soundscapes. Geir Tore Holm may be what one might call an artist’s artist, perhaps equally much due to his demeanour as his art; they are two sides of the same coin, permeated by subtle humour and desperation in equal measure. The exhibition at RAKE is about the sun, but it appears only in a small photograph. The sculptural and spatial interventions are also small in scale, offering little to hold on to, while the artist himself is portrayed in a vast projection, shown in close-up, windswept and cold as he waits for the sun which seems to refuse to come out.

More than an anniversary

The art programme during the anniversary week has no overall curatorial framework; the individual projects have set out their own parameters on what they wish to discuss and how. Even though it may at times seem as if Sami art is dominated by the aforementioned historic-activist approach, we also find media-based and material-based art represented here, perhaps most clearly in the Sami Artist Union’s wide-ranging exhibition Áigemátki (Journey in Time), a juried exhibition that focuses on members of the union. The exhibition is solid, showing interesting and even important works.

Even so, the festival atmosphere and the intensity of the performative and activist works are too dominant to allow the more traditional visual arts to have real impact. The Swedish-Sami poet Timimie Marak certainly owned Kunsthall Trondheim during her spoken word performance, where she, standing beneath Claire Fontaine’s neon work Foreigners Everywhere, delved deep into her own experiences of violence, mental colonisation and gender struggles. It was suddenly very fitting that one of Fontaines signs features the title of her work translated into South Sami.

Timimie Märak at Kunsthall Trondheim. Photo: Arne Skaug Olsen.

What is happening in Sápmi in 2017 is more than just a retrospective anniversary. Sami art activism is perhaps particularly important as a model for new generations of artists. There is an obvious aesthetic kinship between the seventies activism seen in artists such as Hans Ragnar Mathisen, Arvid Sveen and Synnøve Persen and the new activism exemplified by Máret Ánne Sara and Anders Sunna. But where the previous generation’s struggle was related to history, the official policy of Norwegianisation, and the protests against the Alta Dam and the confrontation with the police this entailed, the new struggle is against a less violent state, represented by bureaucracy and regulatory bodies. It is a State which normalizes, equalises and gnaws at the foundation of the Sami identity and way of life – as in the case of the current trial of Jovsset Ánte Sara versus the State.

During Tråante one of the most high-profile Sami artists of the last forty years, Synnøve Persen, was presented at the hotel Scandic Lerkendal in a trade fair booth outside the conference rooms where Sami questions were on the agenda. Artistically this setting may have lacked elegance, but politically it was exactly right. Her monochrome paintings are so striking in their references to the Sami colours that it would be silly to talk about them as monochromes in the traditional art historical sense. Persen will be among the contributors to Documenta 14, and regardless of whether she will show these paintings or her sketches for a Sami flag it will be interesting to see what Documenta does for these works and whether the tides of history will be as strongly felt in Kassel as at Tråante 2017.

Whatever the case may be, 2017 will see a new chapter in the history of Sami and activist art. Tråante 2017 and Pile ó Sápmi demonstrate that this celebration of a hundred years of struggle is equally much a starting point for new struggles. As Ánde Somby summed up the situation at Small Projects: “The hard, cold struggle is our home”. The fight of the Sami has only just begun, and artists hold a central position in that battle – in regional history writing, but also in new, international networks.

Synnøve Persen, Who’s Afraid: Gii balla, part of the project Show Me Colour, 2017. Photo: Arne Skaug Olsen.