OSLO — Within the circular arrangement of artworks that makes up the current exhibition at the Office for Contemporary Art Norway (OCA), under the staircase, a wool curtain in the colors of the Sámi flag opens to a cozy, dark space with reindeer hide laid out on the floor. The space is meant to evoke a lavvu, a temporary dwelling used by the Sámi (indigenous people of Northern Europe), it reminds me of the Native American tipi. Inside plays Don’t Fuck with Me (2018), a collaborative short film by Mai-Lis Eira and Elle Márjá Eira, commissioned by OCA for its group exhibition Let the River Flow. The Sovereign Will and the Making of a New Worldliness, curated by Katya García-Antón, with Antonio Cataldo.
Don’t Fuck With Me is made up of two short films — one by each of the artists —shown back to back. Set to an electronic soundtrack, Elle Márjá Eira’s film utilizes slow motion breakdowns and jump cuts to depict individuals pulling on traditional clothing then coming together to march through the streets of Oslo. They raise a banner atop a lavvu and stare down the camera with arms folded. It’s a stirring few minutes of film that makes a powerful impact even if you don’t know the history behind it — though you should. It’s a recreation of events in Oslo in 1979 when seven young Sámi people erected lavvus in front of the parliament building and staged a hunger strike. Thirty years later, OCA’s exhibition examines the events and legacy of this action. The poise of Elle Márjá Eira’s protagonists contrasts with Mai-Lis Eira’s film, to suggest the struggle continues, and there is unfinished business.
Part of a three-year-long dialogue with Sámi artists and scholars — and guided by an advisory council made up of the Sámi scholars, Professor Harald Gaski and Dr. Gunvor Guttorm — the multigenerational exhibition features work by more than two dozen, mostly Sámi artists. Let the River Flow shows how artists were at the center of the late-seventies/early-eighties Sámi resistance movement, and reflects upon the legacy of that activism.
The Sámi hunger strikes of 1979 and 1981 were dramatic events during the People’s Action against the Áltá-Guovdageaidnu Waterway (1978-1982), in opposition to the construction of a dam across the Áltá river in northern Norway. The action’s call to “let the river live” was a reaction to the anticipated impact on Sámi communities, their livelihoods, and their cultural heritage, of the flooding by the dam of large areas of Sápmi, the Sámi cultural homeland, which stretches over Norway, Sweden, Finland and Russia. Mai-Lis Eira’s section of Don’t Fuck With Me deals with another of the action’s defining events: the occupation of the Prime Minister’s office by 15 Sámi women in 1981. In this work, the artist mixes archival footage with recent interviews with three participants. One Sámi woman recalls her surprise at being led away by the police and hearing crowd members shout out that the Sámis have rights.“Hang on,” she says, “the Sámis have rights. Quite unexpected.”
There’s a tension between the two sections of the film that sets the tone for the exhibition as a whole. Mai-Lis Eira’s film hits a note of resolution. Taken together with the assemblage of newspaper cuttings and posters from the action displayed on the gallery’s back wall and artifacts documenting the rising cultural consciousness of the time—including the first version of the “Sámi Flag” (1977) by Synnøve Person — there’s a sense that the long battle was won. But other works explore a sentiment that the decolonizing process initiated by this ‘win’ has stalled.
Though unsuccessful in their immediate aim (the dam was built), the visibility of the uprising brought Sámi rights into the Norwegian political mainstream and helped lead to Norway’s being the first to ratify International Labour Organization Convention 169, which protects the rights of indigenous people, and to create a Sámi Parliament — the Norwegian government must consult the Sámi Parliament on state matters affecting Sámi interests, but is not obligated to adopt its recommendations. Norway long ago ended its policy of ‘Norwegianization,’ a system of banning Sámi languages and clothing and assimilating Sámi children by taking them from their families and sending them to boarding schools. However, despite its image abroad as a peacemaking nation and beacon of fairness, the state continues to enact colonialism by subtler means, such as demanding reindeer herd reduction on the grounds of overgrazing — even, ironically, while opening up the same land to corporate interests — which threatens their livelihoods and culture.
Reflecting on Norwegian efforts to assimilate and erase Sámi culture, artist Máret Ánne Sara made “Pile o’ Sápmi Power Necklace” (2017). This porcelain necklace of linked miniature reindeer skulls is made from powdered reindeer bones. It’s part of “Pile o’ Sápmi” (2016-ongoing), a project motivated and inspired by the trial of her younger brother, Jovseet Ante Sara, who was ordered to slaughter almost half of his reindeer herd, which he claims will force him into bankruptcy. In December, the supreme court in Oslo rejected his appeal.
Sara’s “Power Necklace,” delicate and displayed on a bust in the style of fine jewelry, may lack the macabre impact of some of her other works, but it lacks no fury (in 2016 she dumped a pile of bloodied reindeer heads crowned with a Norwegian flag in front of Indre Finnmark District Court in Sápmi; last December she presented a curtain of 400 bullet-ridden reindeer skulls in front of Oslo’s Parliament building ) With “Power Necklace,” her anguish and determination is expressed through repetition: 200 tiny reindeer heads, a bullet hole in each of their foreheads, strung together and hung.
Throughout the exhibition, there is a thread mapping the ways Sámi people are compelled to go on the offensive to defend themselves. It’s a sentiment made explicit by the title of one of the books on display, John Gustavsen’s Sámi Silent No More (1980), so named because silence is a traditional form of dissent. The cover is based on a 1979 drawing by Berit Marit Hætta of Sámi people marching with flags. “Marching is not a typical Sámi behavior,” Hætta explains in the exhibition booklet, “though during those years we were forced to adopt a language which could be understood by the Norwegian government.”
Some works also speak to a play between the cultural markers of the dominant Nordic states and the reclaiming and reviving of duodji (usually translated as “traditional handicrafts” and suppressed for much of the 20th century). The aesthetic of Rose-Marie Huuva’s “Evening Bag” (1985) and “Bracelet” (1985) is classic mid-1980s fashion, but closer inspection reveals symbols of Sámi handwork, materials the booklet tells us are datneárpu (tin thread) and sitsi (tanned reindeer hide).
The mix of art, duodji, books and archival materials is presented almost like a labyrinth, with freely hanging birch display panels spiraling across the natural-light-filled room. Wandering around, in no proscribed sequence, I felt myself pulled physically closer to works to examine exquisite details. The embroidered works of Britta Marakatt-Labba depict scenes from everyday Sámi life and spiritual reflections. Though tiny, her stitching speaks of great themes. “Nightmare” (1986) looks down from above into the sheltered space of a lavvu, where, around the edge, people are tucked up under blankets. Look closer, though, and there is a mess of rats clustered in the center, terrorizing the occupants, and even colonizing some of their sleeping spaces. The work reflects the trauma brought by the militarization of Sápmi—the land was scorched by retreating Nazis during WWII and, during the Áltá action, the region saw Norway’s largest police deployment in the post-war era.
The circularity of the exhibition’s presentation is no accident. In the booklet, Sámi/Norwegian architects Káre Anti, Fredrik and Solveig Torsteinsen, and Vidar Øverby explain that the circle form is “inspired by the Sámi calendar wheel and the cycles of nature.” Perhaps it also reflects the ongoing nature of the struggle. After the protests of ’78-82 quieted, maybe there seemed to be a kind of resolution — the Sámi Parliament was built, the declaration signed and the king apologized — but those emblems of progress have slid out of focus and lost much of their impact. The exhibition title’s tweaking of the Áltá action’s battle cry: “let the river live,” into “let the river flow,” is an extortion to not just celebrate the resistance but to push it forward and hasten the full liberation and acknowledgment of the Sámi people, their culture, and way of life.
Let the River Flow. The Sovereign Will and the Making of a New Worldliness on view at Office for Contemporary Art Norway (Nedre gate 7, 0551 Oslo) continues through June 3.