documenta 14, arguably the world’s largest—and most debated—recurring contemporary art exhibition, held every five years, unfolded between Athens, Greece, and Kassel, Germany, for 163 days from April to September 2017. With overlapping timelines and a double contribution from each artist, documenta 14 attempted to reconfigure and dismantle the conventions of the quinquennial and also comment on and activate the relationship between the two cities and nations. A series of texts found in the exhibition’s companion reader, Documents of Empire/Documents of Decoloniality, offers a possible cypher with which we could attempt to decode the exhibition’s structural labyrinth. From the Indian Act to the Treaty of Waitangi, these primary sources suggest documenta 14 is imbued with an overarching impulse to unsettle. The Sámi Act is one of these texts.
In 1978, the Sámi Artist Group (Britta Marakatt-Labba, Keviselie/Hans Ragnar Mathisen, Synnøve Persen), established a collective in the village of Máze(Masi), Norway. After studying and practicing in the South of Norway and Sweden, these artists returned to their ancestral land with the artistic and political imperative to “reclaim the human worth and pride belonging to Indigenous peoples and to build a nation: Sápmi.” The group’s work at documenta 14 captured the Sámi’s (ongoing) struggle for sovereignty and self-determination.
Installation view of works from the series Sámi Flag Project (1977) by Synnøve Persen at the EMST—National Museum of Contemporary Art, Athens, Greece, for documenta 14Photo Mathias Völzke
Synnøve Persen’s tricolour, red- yellow-blue flag pieces invoke untold histories of flags as both the primary props in the performance of dispossession and as flags flown in resistance. Persen’s stitched flag was flown during the 1981 protests over the planned construction of a hydroelectric dam and the ensuing hunger strike at the Norwegian Parliament. Persen’s work was complimented by Britta Marakatt-Labba’s delicate embroideries depicting Sámi cosmology and history. The map, as another colonial tool, is reworked by Keviselie/Hans Ragnar Mathisen. For almost six decades, Keviselie has collected Sámi place names and reinscribed maps to offer a geographical path through the Sámi homeland that extends across Norway, Sweden, Finland and Russia. Architect-artist Joar Nango presented the installation-performance European Everything, created in collaboration with various artists and craftspeople. Extending Nango’s long-term research on self-sufficiency, vernacular architecture and DIY self-reliance, the travelling theatre was developed in a scrapyard in the Eleonas area of Athens, with participation from trash collectors and local Roma and migrant communities. The work acts as an ever-evolving platform by hosting a variety of performers, for instance, Roma theatre artists exploring the potentialities of borderless feminist states through futuristic plays.
Máret Ánne Sara’s ongoing installation project Pile o’ Sápmi exhibits Sámi resilience and reuse, employing the skulls of 200 culled reindeer heads (complete with the violent markers of bullet holes). First installed in February 2016 outside the Indre Finnmark District Court, Pile o’ Sápmi accompanied the legal proceedings initiated by the artist’s brother, Jovsset Ánte Sara, against the Norwegian government in response to the forced cull that amounted to bankruptcy for Sámi herders. Sara won the trial, with a verdict confirming that per the European Convention on Human Rights the cull violates his property rights. Unsurprisingly, the Norwegian state has appealed the case. By highlighting the circulation of objects in service of—and compromised by—empire, documenta 14 has allowed some consideration for how these works perform their roles in and through their commodification, reiteration and transformation. And while the efficacy of spectacular art events like documenta to do this work is fervently debated, the new forms of sovereignty built and activated by Sámi artists will continue to compel us to rethink the powerful potential of objects and images in the advancement of Indigenous sovereignty.
This review appeared in the Fall 2017 issue of the Inuit Art Quarterly.