The Sámi Pavilion at the Venice Biennale: Then and Now
Inuit Art Foundation | June 01, 2021
by Lisa Frenette
Since 1895, the Venice Biennale has welcomed thousands of art-loving visitors to Italy to take in the sights and sounds of artists from all around the world. From spring to fall every two years, the Biennale is home to not only contemporary visual art, but celebrates cinema, dance, music, theatre and architecture.
At this nexus of the art world, visitors can visit a number of exhibitions that suit their fancy, all housed at various pavilions. Along with the Central Pavilion located at the Giardini, the parkland hosts copious amounts of permanent national pavilions—29 to be exact. Each national pavilion is built, owned and maintained by the particular nation it is named after, showcasing art from that country. The artists that are showcased in a national pavilion for each Biennale are the choice of that particular nation. For the Nordic Pavilion—a joint representation of the Nordic countries Sweden, Norway and Finland—there have been various ways that the three countries have organized and decided which artists to include in the pavilion for each Biennale. From the pavilion’s first Biennale until 1984, each country would choose their artists, and from 1986 until 2009 the countries would alternate curating the pavilion as a whole. The years 2011 to 2015 saw the countries take turns managing and curating the pavilion, with the two countries not responsible for the pavilion using alternative venues during the Biennale. Finally in 2017, joint curation began again.
This year is proving to be a pivotal moment in time for the pavilion, as it is turning heads with its transformation into the Sámi Pavilion, in recognition and honour of the Sámi Peoples. During the many years of varying methods of curation, never had the pavilion featured Sámi artists exclusively. In order to bring the Sámi Pavilion to life, the Office for Contemporary Art Norway (OCA) has commissioned the artistic works of three Sámi artists: Pauliina Feodoroff, Máret Ánne Sara and Anders Sunna. Each artist is from the region of Sápmi (the Sámi homeland), which extends across the Nordic countries and into Russia. The exhibition is is curated by OCA Director Katya García-Antón, Sámi scholar Liisa-Rávná Finbog and Sámi nature guardian Beaska Niillas.
Looking back at the beginnings of the pavilion reveals a design that is perfectly symbolic for this momentous occasion for not only the artists themselves, but for the Sámi Peoples and other Indigenous Peoples worldwide as well.
In 1958, three architects were invited to compete for the opportunity to design the Nordic Pavilion—Klas Anshelm (Sweden), Reima Pietila (Finland) and Sverre Fehn (Norway)—but ultimately Fehn’s design was chosen. The Nordic Pavilion was built between the years 1958 and 1962, bringing Fehn’s concept into physical form.
The design of the pavilion is one of simplicity, with its large openings in the ceiling that allow light to pour in seamlessly from above. Unique to this pavilion is how it works with the surrounding nature rather than against it. Inside the structure are towering trees that literally poke through the ceiling of the pavilion, completely undisturbed by the building that surrounds them. Outside of the pavilion is another large tree, also breaking through the outer edge of the design.
While there are logistical and legal reasons why the trees were worked around—they were not permitted to be cut in order to protect the Giardini—there is a beautiful symbolism manifested from this conjunction. This element of the pavilion’s design speaks to the preservation of, and oneness with nature and the land, which makes it the perfect space to amplify the messages of the artworks within the Sámi Pavilion for this year’s Biennale. The works of Feodoroff, Sara and Sunna deal with topics important to the Sámi Peoples, such as deforestation, land and water governance and Indigenous sovereignty.
For Feodoroff, the Sámi Pavilion provides a space to bring her work as a theatre director, artist and land guardian together in her performance, Matriarchy (2022). The collaborative three-part performance, which takes place throughout different areas of the pavilion, utilizes the bright and open space to convey a message of healing, renewal and forest protection that can only be achieved by the coming together of all people in respect for each other and the land. “My work proposes ways to protect the last remaining old growth forests and let the logged areas have a time to heal. Our message is, please do not buy our land, buy our art instead,”1 says Feodoroff.
Sara, who comes from a tundra reindeer herding family, uses her art to express her family’s and her people's struggle for sovereignty and rights. Three works claim space within the Sámi Pavilion, all constructed out of reindeer parts and following Sámi practices of sustainability and reusability—the pieces are made of parts that were not used for food or clothing. These works speak to a legal battle that her brother endured for seven years with the Norwegian state in order to defend his rights to herd reindeer—an experience that many Sámi reindeer herders find themselves in. “I tell my stories through the reindeer because what happens to the reindeer also happens to us,” says Sara. Sara’s artworks symbolize the varying emotions and experiences that encapsulate the complicated and often traumatic results of colonization. The open space within the pavilion gives the three suspended pieces an unavoidable presence; a reminder that these are issues that cannot and should not be ignored.
For Sunna, the Sámi Pavilion’s ample room provides a cradle for his extensive piece Illegal Spirits of Sápmi (2022). Sunna also comes from a family of reindeer herders who have faced legal battles for more than 50 years with the Swedish authorities, who have tried to remove their herds and their registered reindeer ear marks. The piece is composed of six paintings, each representing one decade of the legal fight his family has had to endure to protect their rights to herd. Sunna burned the sixth painting to the ground, its remnants symbolizing empowerment, healing and moving forward in the next decade. The piece also includes all of the legal documents that his family has received over the years, and an audio track plays courtroom recordings. “The anger you are carrying suddenly finds a way to emerge but in a more creative form, stronger than iron. Art is that,” says Sunna.
When the Nordic Pavilion was first built, no one could have predicted that it would eventually become the home of the first all-Sámi group to be exclusively represented at the Venice Biennale, and that its design would work in perfect unison with the messages that the artists share. Within the walls of the pavilion, the push and pull between the modern and the traditional, the rigid and the fluid, the technological and the natural speaks to what the Sámi artists hope to bring attention to—healing, renewal and the reclamation of Indigenous sovereignty.
1 All quotes from “The Sámi Pavilion,” Office for Contemporary Art Norway, https://oca.no/thesamipavilion