“We are most wanted at certain times in history”: Indigenous perspectives will meet a world in crisis at the Venice Biennale

When the 59th Venice Biennale opens in April, it will mark a historic first: the Nordic Pavilion, which jointly represents the Scandinavian countries of Finland, Norway and Sweden, will temporarily be renamed the Sami Pavilion. This decision recognizes the indigenous population of Sápmi, a region that spans these three nations and the Kola Peninsula in Russia. It also signals a latent shift towards more inclusivity in a historically isolated art world, in which art labeled as “indigenous” was, for much of the past century, seen as quaint at best, and not at all. the height of the conceptual concerns of contemporary practices.

At the heart of the Giardini, three Sami artists plan to exhibit works that directly address the struggles their community faces. Yet the issues that Pauliina Feodoroff, Máret Ánne Sara and Anders Sunna focus on will also relate to broader global contexts, from the destructive impact of the climate crisis to the colonial structures that persist in governmental, legal and cultural institutions.

While this isn’t the first time Indigenous artists have participated in national pavilions, the Sami Pavilion is part of a larger transformation at the world’s most prestigious arts event. In addition to the national pavilions, this year’s main exhibition, curated by Cecilia Alemani, will also include works by Inuk artist Shuviani Ashoona, artist Yonamami Sheroanawe Hakihiiwe, as well as Britta Marakatt-Labba and the recently deceased Aage Gaup, both of whom are Sami.

During opening week, Wanda Nanibush, Curator of Indigenous Art at the Art Gallery of Ontario, Canada, who is Anishinaabe First Nations, is co-hosting an Indigenous gathering to mark the occasion. “It’s finally time for Indigenous artists to have their international moment,” she told Artnet News.

Sámi pavilion artist Anders Sunna on his homeland in the Swedish part of Sápmi. Photo Michael Miller/OCA.

Create Indigenous-led spaces

The name of a pavilion has never been changed before in recognition of the fact that the borders of nation states do not correspond to the lands on which indigenous populations live. That said, Indigenous artists have been more represented in recent years – Canada was represented by the Isuma collective from Nunavut in 2019; New Zealand showed a pavilion by Maori artist Lisa Reihana in 2017, and this year, will be represented by Samoan-Japanese artist Yuki Kiharato cite just a few examples.

Nanibush noted that the current focus on discourses surrounding the Anthropocene and non-human parents has also sparked interest in Indigenous philosophies and ways of thinking. In a broader sense, concerns about rapid global warming have also had an impact.

“We are more wanted at certain times in history than at others, usually following large protest movements,” she said. “Movements around the world against mining and climate change – this is when people are starting to look to Indigenous peoples again, including artists, for avenues, alternatives, ways to move forward.

Alanis Obomsawin and Alethea Arnaquq Baril during the

Alanis Obomsawin and Alethea Arnaquq Baril during the “Future of Indigenous Filmmaking Talk” at aabaakwad 2018. Courtesy of aabaakwad.

Nanibush is the founder of aabaakwad, an annual gathering by and with Indigenous artists and cultural workers, open to all. Started in 2018, it will take place for the fourth time during the Venice Biennale this year from April 22 to 25 in several venues, including Ocean Space and the Don Orione Cultural Center, in honor of the Sámi Pavilion. Aabaakwad, which means “he emerges after a storm” in the Anishinaabemowin language, was created out of recognition of the need for a sovereign conversation about the representation of Indigenous perspectives.

Following the 2017 biennale, when Brazilian artist Ernesto Neto’s contribution to Christine Macel’s main exhibition included work that “exhibited indigenous peoples”, as Nanibush described it, this need became painfully obvious. the work, Um Sagrado Lugar (A Sacred Place) (2017), featured the Pavilion of Shamans, a section of the exhibition in which Macel explored the relationship between art and spirituality. He reproduced a Cupixawa, the meeting place of Amazonian indigenous people Huni Kuin. During the opening days of the biennale, the space was occupied by a group of Huni Kuin dressed in traditional clothing, as part of Neto’s art. The effect was one of exoticism rather than cross-pollination.

Further, the wide range of expertise expected of Indigenous curators points to a gap in institutional research. “Many of us are invited to major museums around the world to help them learn about colonialism, but also to say who the artists are, who they should buy and show,” Nanibush said.

The Sami <a class=Museum in Karasjok. Photo: Michael Miller/OCA” width=”1024″ height=”681″ data-srcset=”https://news.artnet.com/app/news-upload/2022/04/DSC0152-1024×681.jpg 1024w, https://news.artnet.com/app/news-upload/2022/04/DSC0152-300×200.jpg 300w, https://news.artnet.com/app/news-upload/2022/04/DSC0152-50×33.jpg 50w” sizes=”(max-width: 1024px) 100vw, 1024px”/>

The Sami Museum in Karasjok. Photo: Michael Miller/OCA

The need for such voices in museums is particularly evident when it comes to discussions of restitution and how ethnological museums classify objects in their collections – this will be one of the topics discussed at the meeting this month. -this. On April 12, a sacred ceremonial drum will be returned to the Sami people from the National Museum of Denmark, where it languished in storage for centuries (it was confiscated in 1691.) Cataloged as a musical instrument by the Danish Museum, the drum spiritual use has been distorted; the Sami regard it as a living being. Its future custodian, the Sami Museum in Karasjok, northern Norway, will put it on permanent display, giving the Sami community access to an important symbol of cultural identity.

The role of art in the perception of affinities

As a relatively new undertaking, the form in which aabaakwad learnings will be made accessible is still in development. Interestingly, the very definition of who is invited to speak from an Indigenous perspective is open-ended and not limited to the categories described in the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

“I think people would reduce it to this grounding, which might be stereotypical,” Nanibush said. “For example, no African country matches the UN Declaration, but we consider that there are many cultural, ceremonial and historical commonalities with many African nations and black communities in the North American context. You cannot think of colonialism without thinking of slavery. Artist Stan Douglas, who represents Canada in Venice this year, is one of the speakers on the first day of the gathering, alongside Sonia Boyce and Zineb Sedira, who represent England and France respectively this year.

Máret Ánne Sara <i>Pile o’Sápmi / Pile o’Sápmi Supreme / Loaded – Keep Punching Our Jaws</i> at Documenta 14. © Matti Aikio” width=”1024″ height=”683″  data-srcset=”https://news.artnet.com/app/news-upload/2022/04/99887de5dceafc35a467f998a4117b53-1024×683.jpeg 1024w, https https://news.artnet.com/app/news-upload/2022/04/99887de5dceafc35a467f998a4117b53-300×200.jpeg 300w jpeg 50w” sizes=”(max-width: 1024px) 100vw, 1024px”/></p>
<p class=Sami pavilion artist Máret Ánne Sara with Pile o’Sápmi / Pile o’Sápmi Supreme / Loaded – Keep Punching Our Jaws at Documenta 14. © Matti Aikio

Ánde Somby, a Sami elder, will perform a yoik on the opening night of the event, which is a traditional musical expression of his sonic being. The artists yoik has been to Venice before; Joan Jonas included one of her recordings when she exhibited at the American Pavilion in 2015.

Somby offered another perspective on the role art can play in his community: “Indigenous rights can be summed up as the right to one’s past, present and future,” he told Artnet News. For the Sami, he said, these rights are often violated, and for the three artists in the Sami pavilion, art has become the last resort after political and legal actions have failed. Máret Ánne Sara, who showed work related to her family’s legal battles with Norwegian authorities at documenta 14, spoke of art as the only space in which she could continue her work around the challenges of animal husbandry. of Sami reindeer by the Norwegian government.

“I don’t think we looked for political artists,” said Katya García-Antón, director and chief curator of the Office for Contemporary Art, Norway, who is curator and co-curator of the Sámi Pavilion. “We looked for a generation that really spoke the voices of today… Those concerns happen to be very existential.” With all of us able to identify with fears about the current state of the world, such voices are sure to have an impact beyond the art world as well.

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