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The Case for Creating a Saami Art Museum

A playful experiment performed at Norway’s Nordnorsk Kunstmuseum earlier this year saw the entire premises temporarily transformed into a museum dedicated to Saami art. Now there’s a push underway to create something longer lasting.

Written by Kevin McGwin Published on Read time Approx. 6 minutes
Marita isobel solberg nordnorsk kunstmuseum
Marita Isobel Solberg takes a moment during her brief stint as director of Sámi Dáiddamusea to ruminate about Saami art.Photo Courtesy Nordnorsk Kunstmuseum/Sámi Dáiddamusea

When Nordnorsk Kunstmuseum, an art museum in Tromso, Norway, recently brought down the curtain on its exhibition “There Is No,” it marked a return to reality for Saami art.

That reality – one in which there is no permanent museum devoted to Saami art – was suspended for two months earlier in the year, when, starting in February, the museum cleared its entire premises to make way for the temporary Sámi Dáiddamusea.

Inside the museum building, the overnight makeover involved replacing all of the items on display with Saami works from the past century. Likewise, outside the building, all traces of what had been the Nordnorsk Kunstmuseum were swapped out. Online, the museum’s website redirected to a site for Sámi Dáiddamusea. All of this was done without the museum telling a soul ahead of time.

And when Nordnorsk Kunstmuseum reappeared in April, it featured something new: “There Is No,” a major temporary exhibit that featured the works of more than 60 Saami artists stretching back over the past century. “Of course it was a stunt,” said Marita Isobel Solberg, a performance artist who served as director of Sámi Dáiddamusea during its brief existence. “But it was also a way for us to show, hey, this is possible. There may not be a Saami art museum all the time, but, for this brief period, there was one.”

Items from the Sámi Dáiddamágasiidna on display in Tromso, Norway. (Photo Courtesy Nordnorsk Kunstmuseum/Sámi Dáiddamusea)

The pieces used to create Sámi Dáiddamusea came from Sámi Dáiddamágasiidna, which, at over 1,300 items and growing, is the world’s largest collection of Saami art. Yet it has no permanent exhibition space. Plans to build a museum for it have been pursued for four decades with varying levels of enthusiasm, according to Solberg. The attention Sámi Dáiddamusea and “There Is No” received among people in northern Norway, she added, has breathed new life into those efforts.

But it has also stirred up an old discussion about where Saami art belongs. While Nordnorsk Kunstmuseum, Solberg admits, “has room for everybody,” including Saami artists, some believe placing Saami art alongside pieces from other Norwegian artists portrays an inaccurate picture of their place in the country’s art history.

“We haven’t been a part of the story before,” she said. “Saami art hasn’t been a chapter of the Norwegian art story. Greater representation in Norwegian museums would give us a chapter, but our own museum would allow us to be able to tell Sapmi’s art story on its own.”

Sapmi, the traditional homeland of the Saami, is not devoid of art institutions. Items from Sámi Dáiddamágasiidna, for example, can be seen in the building where Norway’s Saami parliament meets. There is also a center for Saami contemporary art, which serves as an exhibition space for Saami works as well as works produced by artists from other Indigenous groups. However, none of them, according to Janerik Lundstrom, the director of the Sámi Dáiddaguovddáš contemporary art center, carries the weight among non-Saami that a permanent museum would.

“It’s not a matter of either/or,” he said. “Majority cultural institutions still haven’t recognized the Saami artistic and cultural experience to a large extent. In that respect, a museum can complement the work of existing institutions.”

The Nordnorsk Kunstmuseum temporarily changed its name to Sámi Dáiddamusea. (Photo Courtesy Nordnorsk Kunstmuseum/Sámi Dáiddamusea)

Wrapping your head around art can be difficult. And for that reason, making the case for a new public arts institution is harder still. But Solberg suggests the temporary nature of Sámi Dáiddamusea and “There Is No” may offer inspiration for alternate ways of creating something permanent that doesn’t necessarily involve the expense of a roof, four walls and a fixed address.

“The important thing that a museum does is create a meeting place,” she said. “Maybe a pop-up museum would be a more effective way to bring our art to the people. If you’re at one location, the people have to come to you. And then what happens if they don’t come?”

Part of the answer to that question can be found in Nuuk, Greenland. There, the city’s Katuaq cultural center has been a fixture of the national arts scene since it opened its doors in 1997, giving the country its first permanent performance space. The building’s two performance stages are frequently used for all manner of activities, but because there is a cinema and cafe in the building, a dark stage does not mean an empty building.

Moreover, as the site of frequent conferences and meetings, most people in Nuuk, according to Julia Pars, Katuaq’s director, have a reason to visit the building every now and again.

“How Katuaq is used has changed over time,” said Pars. “The stages are still central, but by holding an event in the foyer, for example, we use the building in unintended ways. The challenge is to avoid looking at how the building is being used now and instead try to plan for what it’s going to be needed for in 20 or 30 years.”

Nuuk’s Katuaq is a hard-to-miss element of Greenland’s cultural scene. (Photo Courtesy of Katuaq)

Art and culture remain central to Katuaq’s purpose, but today that extends beyond the basic purpose of giving performers a place where they can stand in front of an audience.

In part, this is because Katuaq, as a building, is so hard to miss. A snaking wooden structure prominently located in the central part of the city, everything about it, from its location to the broad expanse of its facade, is a physical reminder of Greenlandic culture. As an institution, according to Pars, Katuaq has been galvanizing.

“It goes without saying that what every artist wants most is a place to perform,” she said. “And, in that respect, Katuaq’s biggest asset is its facilities. But you also have to keep in mind that, before Katuaq, people in Greenland were less aware of how strong their culture was. Katuaq has given people a place to perform, but it has also given them a catalyst to discover their culture.”

In 2008, the Taseralik cultural center opened in the Greenlandic city of Sisimiut. Although it operates on the same mixed-used principle as Katuaq, Pars said that it avoided the Nuuk facility’s “need to try to be everything at the same time.”

This, according to Pars, has meant being able to include something as basic as storage rooms. That, she said, was in hindsight a big oversight.

Another thing Katuaq struggles to do without is rehearsal space, according to Laakkuluk W. Bathory, an actor and singer with Nunavut’s Qaggiavuut Project. As a performer and native of Greenland, Bathory is both familiar with how Katuaq benefits the country’s artists and where there is room for improvement. But as one of the driving forces behind the Qaggiavuut Project’s campaign to raise funds for a similar facility in Iqaluit, in the Canadian territory of Nunavut, she’s also well versed in the importance of cultural centers to northern Indigenous people.

Like Solberg and Pars, she said that performance spaces allow a community to make its culture visible to itself and others. For Nunavut, Bathory said, the need is especially acute; Iqaluit is the only Canadian capital city without a permanent performing arts center, giving the impression among people living there that the rest of the country sees the territory as not only geographically remote, but also something of a cultural backwater.

“It feeds into the colonial attitude that the Arctic is a frontier, and that, if you live there, you just make do with what you have,” she said.

In addition to helping boost community self-esteem, the planned cultural center will be a place where artists can meet other artists and where elder performers can teach traditions to younger generations, according to Bathory.

Qaggiavuut already organizes performances and provides arts training, but formalizing them in an institution, the organization argues, will go a long way toward reversing the damage done by missionaries who suppressed native arts.

“Artists are going to create and perform,” Bathory said. “Their works exist, but that doesn’t mean the knowledge behind them will get passed on. Contrary to its name, a performing arts center isn’t just about performing. It’s also about training and learning.”

On July 1, Qaggiavuut began raising funds for a facility that, like Katuaq, will be as much a community center as it is a performing arts center. If all goes according to plan, construction will get underway in 2019, to coincide with the 20th anniversary of the founding of Nunavut.

Initially, Qaggiavuut hoped the center could open its doors by then. The group said that is now unlikely, but, echoing Pars, Bathory said she’s not hung up on the present.

“We’re looking to build a place that will be useful to Nunavut for generations to come. When we get started is less important than just getting started.”

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