Sami Stories to See


By Tanya Silverman

Photo by Eileen Travell, Scandinavia House/The American-Scandinavian Foundation, 2014.

Stories of the Sami people are not typically a topic that American audiences would attest to great expertise. So, to frame an American exhibit about the identity of the indigenous group from Norway, Finland, Sweden, and Russia’s Kola peninsula, curators chose a theme generally familiar to our national consciousness: the constitution.

An introductory informational poster at Sami Stories: Art and Identity of the Arctic People in NYC’s Scandinavia House indicates how Norway has the second oldest constitution, after the US.

“It’s the 200th anniversary of the Norwegian constitution,” Charis Gullickson, curator from the Norway Northern Art Museum, explains their reasoning to open the Sami Stories exhibit in 2014.

In the course of our phone interview, she continues that in 1988, a new article was added to the governmental document, granting the Sami rights to function as a people separate people from Norwegian law. The following year was when the Sami Parliament started in Norway, and because it still operates today, 2014 marks its 25th anniversary.

Giettka (Cradle). Finnmark, circa 1900s. Wood, skin, cotton, silver.  Tromso University Museum.

Pieces physically present at Sami Stories include a mix of traditional handicraft (duodji) and artwork from contemporary techniques. Patrons curious about their greater background can answer their interests through a few different means: studying textual posters, watching explanatory video installations, dialing into the respective audio-guide telephone tour, or even reading essays from the box-set catalog.The rooms themselves are curated in a simple, easily approachable manner, allowing the patron the liberty to determine their level of further factual involvement.

Of the duodji category, there’s a shaman’s drum from the 17th century. The instrument is created from pine, skin, copper, and leather, and marked with symbols. The drums are incredibly rare, Gullickson says, because many were destroyed, so she hopes the relic’s authenticity will surprise audiences. Background information about Sami shamanism being forced underground due to state-induced Christianization efforts, and a revival during the ‘70s, are presented through a poster’s text on the wall nearby.

Photo by Eileen Travell, Scandinavia House/The American-Scandinavian Foundation, 2014.

Another example of duodji is an array of gahpir, or colorful caps. These traditional garments also entail a narrative of cultural repression, as Gullickson explains that in the past, Norway forbid Sami to wear their clothing.

“Sami today are proud of wearing their costumes,” she notes.

The gahpir hats, made of wool, silk, and cotton, were created specifically for the exhibit; they hang on strings stationed in front of mirrors so that visitors of all ages can try them on.

Buollanoaivi (Mount Palopaa), by Marja Helander. 2001. From the series Modern Nomads. Photograph on Aluminum. The Sami Collections, Karasjok.

As for modern artwork, there’s Modern Nomads, a short series of color prints by Marja Helander. These shots capture staged scenes of the artist clad in contemporary office or athletic attire while posing amidst white, snowy landscapes that feature dark power lines or pale birch trees. Overt yet humorous, they look like a semi-sarcastic, ironic visual statement to comment on Helander’s half-Sami, half-Finnish heritage. Another photographic series is Arvid Sveen’s Mythical Landscape, which documents the area’s environment, and presents jagged rock formations or evergreen horizons lining a shallow lake through bold, glossy, black-and-white prints.

Reindeer are a prominent motif throughout the new and old objects of Sami Stories. One glass display case holds a reindeer milk scoop carved out of birch wood, and another has a reindeer harness created from rope, wool, birch, and skin from the animal itself. Also there are woodcut prints by John Savio–the first Norwegian Sami to receive a formal art education–that depict reindeer herds or a human using a harness to pull a single reindeer by the antlers.

Antler Spin, by Aslaug Julissen. 2006. Mixed Media. The Sami Collections, Karasjok. Photo by Eileen Travell, Scandinavia House/The American-Scandinavian Foundation, 2014.

Real reindeer antlers are also available for view, where several of these velvety, twisty organs are attached as support beams to mount a central hairy black sphere. It’s a sculpture by Aslaug Juliussen.

“She’s so used to slaughtering reindeer–it’s a natural part of her life,” Gullickson says of Julissen. The curator adds that the Norwegian Sami artist “is not interested in doing traditional art carvings” or older types of crafts, but rather incorporates aspects of husbandry and history in her artistic endeavors.

History hangs horizontally on the wall behind the spherical sculpture, which is a noticeable 78-foot long cloth that wraps around most of the room and then winds into the adjacent one. It’s a narrative piece by Britta Marakatt Labba, a textile artist who grew up in a Swedish Sami reindeer herding family. Over the course of four years, Labba sewed several narratives and symbols into the cloth: Sami constellations, mythical folk tales, a dramatized historical episode about cultural rebellion, and some snowy landscapes with running reindeer.

These stoic Arctic creatures are represented all throughout the exhibit, but Gullickson addresses that while the animals are important aspect of the culture, patrons should not get the impression that every Sami person works in reindeer herding. A poster there points out that in Norway, although it is a livelihood reserved exclusively for the Sami, reindeer “herders have never constituted more than 10 percent” of the population. Gullickson adds that fishing is also paramount.

Ahkku 448 vuorkkat (Grandmother’s 448 Treasures), by Rose-Marie Huuva. 2006. Collage, Textile, and Canvas. The Sami Collections, Karasjok.

The curator also cares for the visitors to focus mainly on Sami stories rather than the concept of Sami artists, not to view the contributors in an exotic manner. She indicates that one featured photographer, Norwegian Arvid Sveen, is actually not of the heritage. Out of the whole exhibit, Gullickson hopes that viewers will receive a proper introduction to Sami culture, visual art being one of the best ways to educate people.

The entire gallery is organized in a way that, however aesthetically appealing the works of arts and crafts may be, visitors cannot just take them as at face value. Instead, they will gain some understanding of their exemplifications of cultural identity, language, landscapes, folklore, and history.