Laura Burocco reflects praises the presence of the Nordic Pavilion (Sami) as one of those that was able to dismantle the deeply and historically rooted nation-state reflection at the Venice Biennale.
For the 59th edition of the Venice International Art Exhibition, the Nordic Pavilion (Norway, Sweden and Finland) turned into the Sami Pavilion in recognition of the Sami sovereignty movement. The pavilion featured Pauliina Feodoroff, Máret Ánne Sara and Anders Sunna, three indigenous artists originally from the region of Sápmi, a territory that includes the north of Norway, Sweden, Finland and most of Russia’s Kola Peninsula.
Although the difficulties in making this recognition effective within a highly structured power system such as the Venice Biennale are evident, the debut not only has a strong symbolic value but also becomes a concrete practice able to subvert the colonial imposition of the nation-state borders that dismisses the Sámi land and culture. This decolonial practice has extended to the 2022 edition of aabaakwad in synergy with the Sami Pavilion.
aabaakwad was created in 2018 to respond to the mismatch between the growth of interest in indigenous art and its knowledge. Its aim is to provide an international space for indigenous artists, curators and thinkers to reflect on art by those who create, heal and write about it. All the speakers share no-white ancestry, each of them introduce themselves presenting their own maternal and paternal family lineage. One rule is made immediately clear: no questions from the public. This is a space of listening, to be shared by people who want to embrace each other’s stories, and to create a safe space for survival strategies in the art world. It is an oasis of care, against the frenetic—and often cynic—rhythm of the biennial.
If the topic of the Nation-state has been raised in many Venetian talks and presentations, the Sami Pavilion and aabaakawd were able to dismantle it. The dialogues—disregarding the places from where the speakers came from—create a common thread of transits and feelings. Although the four days’ atmosphere was of joy, tears and suffering were also encountered in a space of healing. While the denunciation of coloniality inherent in the territory of the Venice Biennale permeates the converse, the issues relating to the notion of nation-state were directly addressed during the conversations ‘What is nation?‘ and Beyond Nation in National contexts. A shared remark by all the speakers is that, instead of nationality, what creates a bond between people is the sharing of common experiences capable of establishing a sense of belonging and commonality. To this extent, the Sami pavilion seems to be turned into a common tool for all beyond the Sápmi lands.
Since its debut in 1962, it is the first time that the Nordic Pavilion has been entirely represented by native people, confirming a presence that is spreading in the art world, frequently critically questioned during aabaakwad’s conversations. In 2017, the 57th edition of the Venice Biennale, curated by the French Christine Macel, included a Shaman Pavilion. Although the curatorial text continued to be imbued with a Eurocentric interpretation characterized by a certain obsession with indigeneity—often linked with the European need for an ‘exorcising spirituality’ able to purify its colonial past and guilt—, it was undeniably a space of visibility. In the same edition, the New Zealand pavilion presented Lisa Reihana from the Maori people, while in 2022 it presented Paradise Camps by Yuki Kihara, an artist of Japanese and Samoan descent, proudly part of the ʻthird gender’ Fa’afafine community. The project unravels colonial histories intersecting with gender politics and environment concerns, featuring a cast of Sāmoan Fa’afafine, and repurposing paintings by Paul Gauguin that are believed to have been inspired by Sāmoan people. Ironically, as the artist remarked, “the value of an artwork of the painter is three times the GDP of my [Kihara] country”. Despite this, the artist does not allow themselves to be discouraged, but, on the contrary, they regain the fame of the old white European male artist turning him into a beacon not only for their [Fa’afafine] own work but for the denounce of gender and colonial subordination which, without the conqueror, it might never have existed. In the artist’s words: “Maybe I am just using him as a catalyst to get what I want”.
Again in Venice, in 2019 the Canada Pavilion presented the Isuma collective, whose members are originally from the Inuit people, while Richard Bell, an aboriginal artist, brought his project No tin shack. Bell’s performance was presented during the aabaakwad talk Biennials and Art Interventions as the artwork of Brett Graham and Rachael Rakena during the Venice Biennale in 2007.
If the Sami pavilion and aabaakwad represent the resilience against an imposed idea of identity linked to the superstructure of national membership, the dialogues established between black and indigenous art practitioners constitute a powerful response inside the western art system. While the discussion of decolonization in Europe does not seem to move from a theoretical level, both the Decolonizing the Museum and Inside/Outside Curating in Global context conversations carry it to a concrete level.
The first one, which featured native indigenous curators and collectives, highlighted the importance of multilingual multi-ethnic collaboration and the right to speak in an intercultural space. It presents the work of the Powerhouse-Galang Indigenous-led Think Tank, as a collective and sovereign space, and the launch of their Galang Volume 01. The volume is a rich collection, gathering together transcribed conversations, notes, reflections, and essays written by the members of the TT. One of the experiences presented is the digital Sāmoan Art-Museum performance inspired by the Sámi Dáiddamusea. It links the museum to the land, and the discussion of repatriation to the respect due to the elders and the ancestors, but also as the urgency for the future generations. The second panel opened the meeting by presenting the speakers’ curatorial practices as no-white practitioners in the art world, touching on the issues of writing, repatriation, and ancestry. It made clear an undoubted difficulty in the working (and personal) experience of these people facing the artworld power structure. But it also made clear the difficulties of inclusion related to language issues. The panel had no presentations from indigenous Latin American curators and artists. Among the Brazilians may be mentioned: Sueli Maxakali, Daiara Tukano, Denilson Baniwa, Naine Terana, Sandra Benites, who in recent years have represented a powerful response to the extermination policy of indigenous peoples and the Amazon rainforest by the Brazilian government. Shortly after aabaakwad, Benites resigned from her position as curator at the MASP in São Paulo declaring that “her presence seemed to be more in the service of an image of a diverse museum than an interest in her work itself”.
If aabaakwad’s successful aim is to facilitate contacts through informal, accessible and intercultural dialogue, the initiative reflects the challenges linked with the complexity of multilingualism; a central theme of the debate on decolonization. In this case, it is not only a matter of considering the imbalance of power between the native languages and the language of the colonizer, but also the domination of the English language in the production of knowledge. If providing translation might be logistically and financially complex, the value of the experience of translation, as a movement of commuting between worlds, must be pursued to bring stories of domination and resistance into dialogue. This potentiality was made evident by the intervention of Naine Terena and Gustavo Caboco into the Cosmologyscapes talk as the sole representative of the Latin American region.
Both artists and curators, in a consecutive translation, brought to the public the practices of resistance of indigenous artists and collectives from Brazil. Caboco started presenting the sacred Tupinambá Mantle, produced during the pandemic which, through thread and feathers, symbolizes the bond of indigenous stories and ended his presentation by evocating the presence of avó (grandpa) Macunaíma observing the encounter. The presentation pays tribute to the late Jaider Esbell, exhibited at the Arsenale, where it is obscured and overwhelmed by the—albeit beautiful—installation by Delcy Morelos. Esbell, originally from the Macuxi people, appears on the documentary Amazonia Cosmos together with the late vovó (grandma) Bernardina. He was responsible for the major indigenous curatorship at the 34 São Paulo Biennale and the concomitant Moquém_Surarî exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in São Paulo in 2021. This spiritual presence becomes even more significant in the light of his words shortly before his death in which, commenting on his participation in the São Paulo Biennale, he heavily denounced the unfair power relations and the perpetration of situations of coloniality and abuse of the western art world.
Caboco, who defined the Venice Biennale as a barulhento place—literally, a noisy place, a space of desconforto de fala, of speech discomfort—brings to the attention the different relation Europe has with Covid, which already seems to be part of the past. The pandemic, like an accelerator of the governmental plans, left an impressive number of deaths around the Brazilian indigenous communities and the elders, whose loss is deeply felt. He reminds us that the Venice Biennale already existed when the frontiers between Guiana and Brazil were established by the colonizer in 1905 and the responsibility of knowledge transmission.
As frequently remarked by indigenous artists, the communal, in opposition to the individual authorship of the western art world, is the landmark of the indigenous contemporary art in Brazil. The multiplicity of indigenous cosmologies is placed in opposition to the cosmo-agonia, cosmo-agony, of the western excluding world, as conceived by Esbell. Naine Terena’s speech opened by thanking the elders and their knowledge, as the force behind the possibilities to be now in the space the indigenous artists are occupying. She brought dreams, central in the Amerindian indigenous cosmologies, to the conversation, as elements that materialize actions of daily life. The presentations, while in dialogue with those of the other parentes (relatives) open for many and multiple forms of relating to the world and the space that the Venice Biennial represents for each of the presenters. It gives space to urges that are shared, and manifest themselves in unique forms related to each person and da/os parentes trajectory.
Finally, every evening aabaakwad presented a series of performances organized in collaboration with Ocean Space, a center for exhibitions, research and public programs located in the Church of San Lorenzo in Venice. If the venue is a deconsecrated church it is instead interesting to see how aabaakwad was held in a Catholic cultural center. There is no doubt the space can easily accommodate a large group of speakers, facilitating a communal and convivial space, but the contrast remains when thinking about the violent processes of evangelization of indigenous peoples by European missionaries. Think of the intervention The story of the history which points to another story by artist Gian Spina in the busy street Rua da Consolação in downtown São Paolo in 2013. He stained, with a red tint, a huge fresco depicting a missionary evangelizing two indigenous youths.
Or the occupation of chatolic spaces in Venice may imply, again, an inversion of the western imposed order.