A Sámi Artist’s Call for Ancestral Return

ST IVES, England — The Sámi tradition of duodji has no direct English translation. It suggests a holistic craft practice that incorporates not only artisanal techniques, but also notions of identity, philosophies of making, and sacred ritual. In Sápmi — the region inhabited by Indigenous Sámi people that spans parts of Norway, Sweden, Finland, and Russia — duodji practices were marginalized in the wake of 19th-century Scandinavian colonization and nation-building. By challenging the distinction between contemporary art and craft, Sámi artist Outi Pieski destabilizes the inherently colonial artistic hierarchy and attempts to open routes back to duodji, to Sámi ways of life that have been eroded and oppressed.

Pieski’s solo exhibition at Tate St Ives rotates around three hanging installations made of hand-knotted tassels traditionally used in Sámi shawl-making, including a new work produced by the artist during her residency at Porthmeor Studios in the same town earlier this year. One installation, “Beavvit – Rising Together II” (2021), was made in collaboration with other Sámi craftswomen and resembles a glowing sun, suggesting the hopeful renewal and healing offered by working in community.

The exhibition offers a rare opportunity to see these textile works alongside Pieski’s paintings and research-based multimedia installations. Many of her pieces combine exquisitely subtle acrylic paintings of Sápmi’s landscapes with tassels, ruffles, or beading, interweaving duodji techniques with a more recognizably Western art practice. 

However, Pieski’s paintings go beyond colonial approaches to representing landscapes. Her practice presents Sápmi not as an uninhabited wilderness or a no man’s land ripe for colonization, but as a unique ecosystem closely interconnected with the Sámi people’s environmental and cultural labor. In “Rástegáisa lágalaš riektesubjeaktan II/Sacred Mountain Rástegáisa as a Legal Person II” (2018), Pieski builds up layers of delicate painterly gestures to suggest the windswept lower slopes of a mountain sacred in Sámi cosmology, located in the Norwegian part of Sápmi. Pieski celebrates the mountain’s identity in both Sámi and Western systems by adorning it with tassels from a Sámi shawl appliquéd to the surface of the painting, imbuing the site with a “personhood” that recent proposals to develop the nearby area have denied it.

In the final room of the exhibition, bright colors and bold graphics capture viewers’ attention through a collection of vitrines, photographs, videos, and wallpapers referencing Pop art. “Máttaráhku Ládjogahpir – Foremother’s Hat of Pride” (2017–21) is an interdisciplinary project produced in collaboration with archaeologist Eeva-Kristiina Nylander, exploring the legacy of ládjogahpir, colorful horned headdresses traditionally worn by Sámi women. Following the arrival of a missionary Christian movement in the 19th century, these hats were banned and demonized as symbols of female power. Surviving ládjogahpir were collected as ethnographic objects; according to Nylander, 58 hats are still held in European museum collections, but only a handful are kept in Sápmi. Pieski and Nylander have created an inventory of the surviving ládjogahpir and run workshops with Sámi women to create new versions of these traditional headdresses, which they see as symbols of a just society that prospered before the colonial violence of heteropatriarchy. 

Through their research and accompanying texts, Pieski and Nylander call for the “rematriation” of Sámi objects to their original cultural and geographical context. The term avoids the patriarchal and colonial connotations of “repatriation,” while also acknowledging Sámi cosmology in which male spirits are associated with the sky and female spirits with the earth. 

Throughout this show, Pieski strives toward intersectional and decolonial ecofeminism, understanding equality for oppressed groups as essential for environmental justice and vice versa. A vivid celebration of Indigenous female power, her solo exhibition embodies the deep relationship between a landscape and its people.

Outi Pieski continues at Tate St Ives (Porthmeor Beach, Saint Ives, United Kingdom) through May 6. The exhibition is curated by Tate St Ives Director Anne Barlow, with Assistant Curator Giles Jackson.

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