How to be a Sami artist

Interview with Geir Tore Holm

  • Geir Tore Holm, Are you still my friend? Performance, 1999. Photo: Mona Hagen Pedersen

    Several Sami artist’s participated at this year’s documenta14. The exhibition presented issues at the peripheries of the art world, regarding minorities, indigenous art and discrimination from the lager stories of art history. Issues such as these are trending in the art world nowadays, and before embarking to Athens we were pondering whether documenta, and other institution’s, are more inclined to appreciate “indigenous art” when such art is openly critiquing political issues. Is this interest in activist art at odds with work more invested in visual appearance? That was the impression sneaking upon us, that Sami art was celebrated first and foremost when charged with more activist thought. We might be wrong, so we invited Geir Tore Holm to talk more about Sami art and its relation to activism. About good materials, skills and handcraft.

    GTH: you started talking about identity

    Vi ser på kunst: Ja, or like, what does it mean to be a Sami artist? Do you prefer to be referred to as a Sami artist?

    Yes it is fine with me. Because you must be aware that Sami people are connected somehow through a common identity more or less. It is important to be connected and to belong to something, and on the other hand you have to distance yourself, as artists often do. It’s a matter of in and out. I feel very naturally connected to the Sami art world since I am a Sami person and since I come from the far North of Norway which is also a geographical aspect. I know it within my body. And it is about physical things too, about thinking, and language, and humour, and such things. And feeling. A sensitivity to certain things, and very much a relationship to the landscape and to nature. Which is something many Sami artists have in common. Maybe more than the expression of identity, or use of specific things, like clothing, colors.

    It is very complex, as many things are. The Sami people are not a big group of people, so there’s also minority issues, indigenous people issues, many different issues. Spiritual issues, political, so many aspects. That has been my main goal, to talk about, or to show, complexity. Because I am very sceptical and afraid of simplifications.

    Many Sami artists seem to be both artists and activists. Do you think there’s even a disconnect if Sami art practice isn’t related to activism?

    I have been thinking a bit about it lately, because I also find it tricky sometimes. You can talk in a very formal way about art making and art work when it is a political action against something specific. But I think you shouldn’t be too strict, but think about what’s present, and what is the topic of the moment. Artists can be active and do their work in many different ways and layers, and that’s typical, I would say, of the Sami art world. Many Sami artists do different things, paintings, prints and poetry, music, theatre, and that’s maybe, I would say, a little bit typical.

    And maybe, when I talk about my own work too, I want to say that a more Sami way of acting is to be peaceful. Not necessarily, but maybe we do activism in other manners.

    I just read a quote where you claim that Sami visual art has been used as a tool to protect and conserve Sami culture, and that that has made the art conservative, or conserving.

    Sami artists mix between crafts and the contemporary art. This has been almost like a principal. When the traditional crafts are used you use historical elements, and that’s considered a sign of “good” Sami art. So it can be conservative, hehe. But in my opinion, it can be the opposite too. It can be very to the point. And that’s interesting for me. It’s called duodji, the Sami crafts, and the idea is that the object is something you need to make. It is very much about the awareness of what you need and what you don’t need, in fact, and how to do it in a very smart way, but not too complicated way. It is also about the knowledge and the materials you find, like the feeling of good wood. I am interested in it, but I never worked with crafts or with materials in such a way, I am kind of crappy. I use plastic and old kinds of stuff, garbage, that’s maybe one of the things that made me a little bit different.

    To break up the strict divide between art and crafts?

    Yes, and in my education in the early 90’s, it was very much breaking up, unfortunately somehow and good in another way. Maybe it was to the best, but sometimes I would like to do things more skillful, but of course, some days, some mornings, you feel lost.

    Also, it’s liberating to get away from the idea that craft is less than art. Isn’t that idea sort of a symptom of the hegemonic center oppressing women, minorities, of all ethnicities…?

    Yes, exactly.

    When craft becomes diminutized.

    Ja, I agree with you, I agree.

    Let’s talk more about the sami participation at Documenta, and about the year of “indigenous art”. Earlier this winter, OCA had a joint show in Tromsø where Maret Ánne Sara displayed a pile of reindeer heads with a Norwegian flag on top. The piece is a comment on Sara´s brother’s lawsuit with Norway, as the state demands him to slaughter a lot of his reindeers. While in April, OCA organized the seminar “Museums on Fire” in Oslo with different speakers surrounded by a scenography by Anders Sunna.

    Hehe, yes there is very much what we can call an activist style. Both from the Masi-group from 1980s, and these artists today, Maret Ánne and Anders. That’s kind of what they highlight. It seems to me that these are artists with very clear missions to communicate.

    But activist and polemic work can also seem a bit plump, like street art. And we wonder if this tendency, to favor activism, is overshadowing other artists who are less polemic or politically outspoken. One thing we want to discuss is whether the framing of Sami art as very polemic, is to negotiate it as not “real” art but as harmless and easily dismissible street art, and hence not worth taking seriously. Sami art has often been contextualised as exotic or primitive. Are we seeing the same thing now?

    Its a good idea, and a little bit rough, a new primitivism, try that! Its very rough to do it, but try to do it!

    But would you agree?

    This idea is new to me. But it’s interesting because OCA is a governmental entity. The government wants to reduce the number of reindeer in Finnmark because they find it too many. They want to make it half somehow, and he (Jovsset Ánte, Maret Ánnes’s brother) already has a very small amount of reindeer. But it’s very complicated and there are many layers we don’t know so much about, and it has this David against Goliath thing, you support the underdog. I don’t know, I wish I knew more. What we see now is maybe the interest in art that represent frictions and resistance against dominant powers.

    Máret Ánne Sara, Pile o’Sapmi, 2016

    That’s our issue too. And we are afraid to make a wrong step. However, I think Sara’s Pile o’Sapmi is very powerful.

    Yes, and it’s a little bit hard to get started with what to say. Another thing about Documenta is that they appreciate activists and activism all over. That is the goal of the artistic director, Adam Szymczyk, as well. I did kind of host him and his team when he came to Finnmark. I had a little presentation with them and I wanted to say something about time. I took them to see rock art in Alta, and I said look this is from thousands of years ago, how is it today, and what’s going on in this really big time span. Then I presented an artist from Alta, Svein Flygari Johansen, and his work about the negotiation of the ownership of land. Then I presented an old Sami historian, Odd Mathis Hætta, who for instance is talking about the Alta River and how it was a peaceful situation. And maybe, when I talk about my own work too, I want to say that a more Sami way of acting is to be peaceful. Not necessarily, but maybe we do activism in other manners.

    But now I have been moving away and then it’s like, what is a good Sami life? Street art or vegetable farming?

    Like Britta Marakat Labba, who did the embroideries of the Alta protests? That work gave a very, like you said, peaceful representation. What is impressive in her quiet depiction is the number or people. And the steadiness of her work speaks to something else.

    That is very much what I belong to, so I feel like I am not so happy with people who are so aggressive or militant. But I have learned to not have the judgement ready before hand, you can easily fall into traps. Also working with people in the the Sørfinnset village in Nordland, me, coming from the south with our contemporary art attitude and urban style, I have learned a lot to be humble and to tolerate different aesthetics and intentions. I try to be a little bit like.. but you know, its not my cup of tea, not my can of beer. But it can be interesting too, it can be action.

    We’ll try not to get trapped, and there is a trap for sure. But I really appreciate what you’re saying about this more peaceful work. I mean, that’s what I relate to.

    Yes, but maybe that’s what white people like to think about, “peaceful Samis”

    Haha, ouch. Another trap. You said white people?

    Well you could say western people. It’s about self identification and belonging. I belong to a Sami village. It´s very easy for me to identify myself as a Sami person, a person from this place. But now I have been moving away and then it’s like, what is a good Sami life? Street art or vegetable farming?

    Geir Tore Holm