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Three Sámi artists have been invited to transform the Nordic pavilion into a Sámi Pavillion at the Venice Biennale in 2022. Amongst the artists is Dáiddadállus initiator, Máret Ánne Sara. On this occasion, Dáiddadállus communicator, Ánne Kátjá Gaup, had a talk with kurator for the Nordic Pavilion (now Sámi pavilion), Katya García-Antón, member of the curatorial group, about the Venice Biennale and Indigenous art in this defined western art scene.

What does the Venice Biennale mean to art, and what do you think it will have to say for Sámi art?

-La Biennale di Venezia is the grand lady of biennials in the world. It´s first edition was dedicated to the arts in 1895, since then it has also created separate biannual editions for film, dance and architecture . The art biennial became increasingly international throughout the 20th century and increasingly influential in the art world; it created interest in the visual arts and positioned Venice as a mecca to experience the most innovative arts of the world. It´s influence led to the creation of other biennials across the world, in particular I would mention the Sao Paolo Biennial created in 1951, the India Triennial launched in 1968 and the Havanna Biennial in 1984). Particularly since the 1980s there has been a biennial boom world-wide, specially in the global south, so that today there are about 300 across the globe.

Of those 300 art biennials in the world I mentioned earlier, only a handful are Indigenous art biennials. Notable amongst these is the Abadakone quinquennial run by National Gallery of Art Canada (its third edition was in 2019). In addition Sydney Biennial in 2020 was an Indigenous centred Biennial with the title NIRIN, curated by WIradjuri artist and curator Brook Andrews (but its not an Indigenous Biennial per se)

Despite this biennial fever, La Biennale de Venezia remains the most influential, a place to see art from all over the world, to be updated on the latest artistic concerns, and a place of debating and networking, amongst art world professionals and global influencers.

Each Biennial consists of a main exhibition – curated by a prestigious international curator. In 2022 it will be curated by the influential NY based, Italian curator Cecilia Alemani. In addition the Bienniale also consists of national pavilions. Originally they were all housed in the Giardini, the gardens of the Biennial. The Nordic Pavilion was built in the early 60s, its one of the most beautiful pavilions, it is situated centrally, on the main avenue, in the Giardini, it is a prime location, flanked on the left by the Danish Pavilion, in front by the Russian Pavilion and behind by the USA Pavilion, a few steps up the main avenue are the German, French, British and Japanese Pavilions.

Initially national representations were only presented in national pavilions in the Giardini, but today around 100 countries have national representations in total, between Giardini pavilions, and dedicated areas within the general exhibition, and also outside as satellite pavilions held in palazzos in the city of Venice.

Prestigious awards are a given for each edition, a Golden Lion Award to the best pavilion and a Silver Lion award to best upcoming artist in the general exhibition. No award has as yet been given to an Indigenous artist or pavilion.

There is not to date a permanent Indigenous Pavilion in the Giardini or outside. However there has been Indigenous representation in the recent history of the Biennial, the most notable of which were Lisa Reihana in the Aotearoa/New Zealand Pavilion in 2017 in the central exhibition, Nicolas Galanin in the Native American Pavilion 2017 as a satellite project in the city of Venice; in the Giardini itself, Tracy Moffat in the Australian Pavilion 2017, Isuma in the Canada Pavilion 2019, and an installation by Outi Pieski presented as a part of a project by the Miracle Workers Collective presented in the Finnish Pavilion in 2019. In this way the Biennale is beginning to contribute to bringing Indigenous art practice and Indigenous concerns, knowledge and awareness, to a broad audience.

However 2022 will be the first time a national pavilion is exclusively dedicated to present Sámi artists, and the first time the Sámi people are recognised as a nation in a national pavilion internationally.

Overall I hope you can see that La Biennale di Venezia is the most prestigious, well known and influential art biennale in the world, producing and spreading awareness about art, engaging new audiences around the world, and showcasing artists to a network of visiting art professionals the biennials. Millions of art world audiences follow the biennial digitally, and the 2019 Biennale received physical audiences of 500,000 visitors (including Italian and international visitors).

It is a tremendous privilege and honour to be selected for this Biennale, to be written into its history and so enter into the narrative of global art history. Each artist is well funded, have a dedicated team of professionals at their service to enable the production, installation, global communication and dissemination of their work. Their selection into the Biennale gives each artist a unique chance to make new work, to connect with new global audiences, and to use the biennale as a huge loud-speaker to the world regarding their art, their stories and concerns.

Why did you invite exactly these artists?
– Before answering this I want to say that a lot of consideration was given to this choice. We in OCA have been preparing for this specific project since 2016. The Sámi art field is tremendously strong and varied with different forms of art practices engaging with different concerns. This is extraordinary given the challenges Sápmi faces today. There are a number powerful artists who could have been chosen both of the older generation and the younger one. However, one thing which was important for us was to work with a younger generation, the generation who are responsible for defining the near future, a generation dedicated to addressing urgent issues of concern for Sápmi right now, that are relevant to the world right now. We also wanted artists who embodied through their art practice the expression of what Sámi sovereignty means today to them, and that in this way resonate and connect with the very same at a global Indigenous level. We thought this conviction and creative power would resonate within but also well beyond the global Indigenous art world.

By appointing Máret Ánne Sara with Anders Sunna and Pauliina Feodoroff to transform the Nordic pavilion into the Sámi pavilion, we in OCA Norway – the commissioner of the Nordic Pavilion for the Biennale Arte 2022 – aim to draw attention to the excellence of these Sámi artists, as well as the international relevance of their individual and collective histories. Their art emphasises the urgent situation experienced today by many Sámi – and other Indigenous people worldwide – concerning self-determination, deforestation, land and water governance. Specifically these Sámi artists engage with the struggle to maintain the reindeer herding and fishing that are central to their existence. The artists reflect upon these concerns by drawing from Sámi ways of being and knowing, producing work of great power. This makes them extraordinary within the art world of today.

Katya García-Antón, Director of Office of Contemporary Art Norway and member of the curatorial group in 2022 says:

‘The global pandemic, the impact of climate change and worldwide calls for decolonisation are leading us all to focus on alternative possibilities for our future and that of our planet. At this pivotal moment, it is vital to consider Indigenous ways of relating to the environment and to each other. The artworks of Feodoroff, Sara and Sunna in the Sámi Pavilion present compelling visions of how these relationships operate, from a Sámi perspective. As leading voices of their generation, these artists’ works counter the impact of colonialism upon their lives and, in so doing, connect with the experiences shared by so many people, Indigenous and non-Indigenous, in our world today.’

What do you think of Máret Ánne´s work?
-Máret Á Sara is a brilliant story-teller, and all her works are great communicators of the stories she wants to tell. She brings conviction, personal testimony, factual data and resistance as well as aesthetic and poetic qualities into her works. Her artistic practice is highly committed to resisting and transforming situations she experiences as being unjust. Her experiences are personal, as we have seen from works such as Pile o´Sapmi, and carry the strength of that personal commitment. In Pile o´Sápmi her form of expression was also collective, where she summons the solidarity of others in her community in order to challenge an unjust situation.

In addition the works find common ground with the experience of other Indigenous people experiencing similar situations of injustice globally. Her art work is both specific and locally situated as well as global and internationally relevant. It resonates powerfully today with the calls for decolonisation in the Nordic region and globally.

She brings an experimental approach to materials, a deep interest in Sámi knowledges (whether they be material, of the natural environment, in livelihood practices and spiritual, all of which are encompassed in duodji) with an existential consideration of where we stand today as individuals and as a community in the world.

Death is often at the background of her work, but I believe she is not a fatalist or a pessimist, quite the contrary I believe she is a fighter, an innovator and a visionary for offering alternative perspectives to build a more just future, a social justice that must be forged not just for Sámi people but for the world at large.

All these qualities make her extraordinary, and a leading voice amongst her Sámi peers as well as a voice to be heard in the global art world today.

What is the idea behind a Sami pavilion?
– The transformation of the Nordic Pavilion into the Sámi Pavilion is an act of Indigenous sovereignty that highlights the relationship of the artists to their homeland Sápmi, an area that pre-dates the concept of the Nordic region, and presents a pavilion that encompasses all of the lands and people of what was originally a borderless region.

It is a symbolic reversal of colonial claims that have sought to erase Sámi land and culture. It is a historic first in Biennial history in Venice or elsewhere. It is the first time a pavilion exclusively presents Sámi artists, and the first time that a pavilion recognises the Sámi as a nation in an international pavilion.

The calls for climate urgency and decolonisation in the art world have grown in strength over the last years globally. We are now at a moment in time where it is unacceptable to ignore these calls. The call is to decolonise and transform and Indigenise the art world are interlinked with climate urgency. This means biennials but it also means art institutions, art markets, art critique, art professionals need to engage with them and transform. The proposal of the Sámi Pavilion is a response to this call from an Indigenous perspective.

Three Sámi artists have been selected to take a lead in the pavilion to transform it. In addition a curatorial group is put together including to leading Sámi voices in Sámi academia Liisa-Ravna Finbog (who is preparing a PhD in museology from an Indigenous perspective) and Sámi traditional knowledge bearer Beaska Niillas, working with myself. We will be assisted by Sámi artist and OCA Project Officer Raisa Porsanger, and Norwegian art historian and OCA Project Officer Liv Brissach. Together this group endeavour to centre Sámi and Indigenous perspectives in our thinking, method and practice.

Each artist was asked to choose a person from the Sámi community to be a discussion partner, providing them on a 1:1 basis with council where needed. They have all chosen elders in their communities, Pauliina Feodoroff, will be guided by Sámi educator and professor emerita Asta M. Balto, Máret Ánne by reindeer herder and Sámi knowledge bearer Káren E. M. Utsi and Anders Sunna by Sámi professor of law and juoigi (practitioner of joik, the Sámi musical practice) Ánde Somby. And this seems specially important as it emphasizes the relevance of elders as knowledge bearers and transmitters of that knowledge to younger generations

The entire project benefits from the council of two Indigenous peers who have tremendous local and global experience of working in the art world centring Indigenous perspectives. Anishinaabe a curator Wanda Nanibush and Wiradjuri artist and curator Brook Andrews (see press kit). They have both visited Sápmi (in 2019) in one of OCA´s visitor programmes and in connection with Dáiddadállu´s SapmiToo, so they are well versed with Sámi practices and concerns.

There will be a few other ways we will endeavour to centre Sámi and Indigenous knowledge, thinking and methods in our project, from mediation to publication, but more information on this will be released at a later stage.