I recently spoke to Sámi artist and post-doctoral researcher Liisa-Rávná Finbog, one of the two Indigenous co-curators for the 2022 Venice Biennale Sámi Pavilion. In true Indigenous fashion, our conversation unexpectedly became a communal conversation when her roommate and Sámi Pavilion Poet-in-Residence, Timimie Gassko Märak, joined in on the Zoom call!
Though we are separated by oceans and continents, their experiences as Indigenous women in general but also in the art world were deeply reminiscent of my own experience as an Inuk artist and academic. Read more in this two-part interview!
Napatsi Folger: Hi, I'm super excited to chat with you about the Sámi Pavilion at the Venice Biennale. We'd love to hear about your curatorial approach.
Liisa-Rávná Finbog: When I was asked to join as a curator, I was kind of hesitant, because I don't think of myself as a curator. I asked if they understood who they were asking, because I'm doing very different things from what you typically see in the more Western art scene. But that's why they wanted me, because they wanted someone centred in Sámi methodologies and philosophies, who works in that space, as a starting point.
The pavilion is very much presented as a Sámi sovereign space. And to make it a Sámi sovereign space, it's not enough to show Sámi art because galleries all over the world have shown Sámi art. What would make this Sámi Pavilion stand out is essentially where both myself and the other Sámi co-curator came in. It's always been really difficult to work in colonial institutions, because people have good intentions but to have a good intention is not necessarily the same as doing good on that intention.
Beaska Niillas is the other Sámi co-curator. We've had a lot of discussions about what our role is in this project. Very early on, I started to talk about what is the methodology, what is the frame of what we're doing? How do we centre the work? How do we involve Sámi concepts and knowledge?
Beaska and I had this discussion about what does it mean to be an Indigenous curator for such a project, and we both very strongly felt that we have to become caretakers, sort of protectors, ensuring that the artists to the least degree possible are exposed to the conflicts and the difficulties, and the complex layers of trying to insert Sámi ways of knowing, being and doing into the Biennale, which has historically been and is still a very colonial space.
Liisa-Rávná Finbog speaking at the 2022 Venice Biennale (centre) COURTESY THE OFFICE OF CONTEMPORARY ART NORWAY PHOTO MICHAEL MILLER
I don't think that's unique. Whenever an Indigenous person goes into a situation—whether that be as an artist or as a curator—at some point you have to face that question: “What am I doing, who am I doing this for?” That was really important, to have that security and comfort in knowing that we are doing this for our community. That's what has shaped my role in this and to be to be totally honest, I'm fucking exhausted. I just want to sleep.
NF: That is a big job to take on.
LRF: No matter which institution you work with, if they are not Indigenous and marked by the colonial reality of our everyday life, we don't always see eye to eye and they don't really understand what the difficulty is and the hurt that they can inflict when they don't understand where you're coming from…
Timimie Gassko Märak: …They buy our pieces of culture as art. So yes, they buy our pieces of culture as art and frame everything that is culture as art. So what we do as something natural as a part of our lives, like in the same way that you need a knife to be able to cut something, we need these words, or these art pieces to communicate these feelings or actions happening toward us. Our living and surviving is something that they see as just art.
LRF: …and something they can claim.
TGM: Exactly. So it's very hard to do anything art-wise that will not become an exotification in itself, when the view is always colonial.
LRF: Indigenous stereotypes and tropes are very much alive.
TGM: Yes! When our words and actions are filtered through the colonial view we cannot just have a conversation and talk but we have to explain every nuance and justification for our existence.
NF: Right, like that commodification of culture?
TGM: Exactly. So there are not enough connection points. But we have been raised to act like them, to be able to pass without being exotified all the time. Like, if you show up in modern Western clothing though, they usually say, “but you're wearing normal clothes,” and our Sámi clothes then become objects of tradition and become a kind of art form rather than practical and functional clothing.
It's been very hard for me to understand some of the choices being made because it's an institution saying that we want to have a Sámi Pavilion, with Sámi curators and Sámi artists. And we also want to present the oral tradition of Sápmi, but then having the Queen from Norway opening the exhibition. To me royalty is royalty and you have to work with what you have, you have to understand your position and your context. And the context is supposed to be Indigenous. So it's a cultural clash, both between Indigenous and non-Indigenous, but also between community and institution.
NF: Have there been any opportunities to address and express those thoughts and feelings? Or is it hindering you because of the presentation of installations and art at the Biennale?
TGM: It feels like it always comes back to the idea that “you should be grateful for this opportunity.” Even if it goes to shit, we're going to look good as artists who have been at this big event, and it's going to be awesome and only if you do things according to these rules, then it will turn out good. It's very different to say we want to have Sámi arts and artists, but if you say you want to have a Sámi pavilion and a Sámi space–
Paullina Feodoroff Installation and Performance COURTESY THE OFFICE OF CONTEMPORARY ART NORWAY PHOTO MICHAEL MILLER
LRF: There’s the difference between having space for Sámi art and a Sámi sovereign space.
NF: Do you think it's genuinely possible to have a sovereign Sámi space at a colonial institution like an international art exhibition?
LRF: I think the only way it is possible is if the people working with us have a deep understanding of what it is we're actually talking about, because sovereignty doesn't mean to own your land for Indigenous people. Sovereignty is the space and place and time to live within your culture, the way that your culture is supposed to be lived in. It's to connect with your relations, it's to be able to live within the system of kinship that shaped your culture and your homeland. So that's a deeply spiritual connection that is embedded in our bodies and so we carry it with us wherever we go.
We don't necessarily need to live in our homeland to be connected to our homes and to our lands and to our waters. Because you carry it within yourself. Home is transformed into being through connections with your relations, it’s not necessarily a place but the experiences you share about that place within yourself and with your relations. You can suddenly be transported home even if you are in the middle of a city far away, just by sitting in a room other Sámi people who share the same connections and experience as you. People outside of Indigenous communities don't always understand this way of looking at sovereignty. We use the word sovereignty, but that's really not what we're meaning. We have our own words for what we see as the ability to be Sámi and live as a Sámi person; we have names for that in our own languages, we can name that in our tongue. Because no matter how good the intentions of non-Indigenous people and institutions are, we are always forced to work with ourselves and our experiences as the alternative option to the norm. We have to go in and talk around the concept of sovereignty and re-conceptualize it and expand on it to make it fit with Sámi ways of being.
Land back is really not about taking the land back. It's about reactivating the relations that shape our communities. That's what land back means to us. It's the ability to forge connections with the land and the waters and spirits and each other. When people or institutions talk about decolonization like, “We are going to decolonize, or we're going to diversify,” they are always centering themselves in the colonial structure. I don't talk about “decolonizing” because that's not what I do. What I do is indigenize the spaces that I come into, I embed myself in an Indigenous way of understanding the world, and then I act accordingly.
So that means that to have a sovereign Indigenous space in Venice during the Biennale is absolutely a possibility. But to reach that point, we need to have a collaboration where non-Indigenous people step back. Sometimes it's not about taking centre stage and being at the forefront. Sometimes it's actually about taking a step back and saying, “I don't know this, you do. So that's why you're going to lead.”
Read Part II of this interview next week at IAQ Online!