CARE, COMMUNITY, AND APOCALYPTIC TIMES.

A REFLECTION ON ART, CURATORIAL PRACTICE AND DECOLONIZATION.

When Alex [1] first reached out to me, asking if I wanted to contribute to the Pacific Basin Insititute Series on “Decolonizing Art and Curatorial Practice”, my immediate reaction was yes, even if I had no idea what I would talk about.

For some context, I don’t consider myself to be a curator despite multiple positions in which I have had to curate. Nor do I especially connect with the idea of art, or more to the point, I don’t see myself as particularly connected to the art world.

Nevertheless, my work with Indigenous aesthetic practices – both as a practitioner but also a scholar of – has offered me both the space and opportunity to reflect on art and curatorial practices, but from an Indigenous Sámi perspective, and it this perspective that informs today’s reflection.

Now, thinking about what could be todays topic, I kept coming back to one specific thought. Whenever I do panels and talks about Indigenous art, curatorship and/or decolonization, and whenever I give interviews on my own practices or exhibitions that I have curated or otherwise been connected with, one question always looms – for better or for worse.

“Why has Indigenous art had such huge success and/or impact internationally?”

I don’t claim to have a final answer, and I’m not sure there really is one, but I do have a theory.

Though not a tested and tried line of inquiry, my theory is based on my own experience and reflection, condensed into three very specific factors – which incidentally also gave the title for this essay.

The theory is based on the notion of care, of community, and finally, of apocalypse, and how these three seems to be connected.

In the following, I’ll try to walk you through all of these three, starting with the latter, or ‘apocalypse’.

APOCALYPSE

Imagining the Apocalypse, Courtesy of Brigitte Werner, of Pixabay

The apocalypse has a peculiar presence in popular culture – from films about the end of days, to books and literature on Armageddon, creating the assumed certainty of knowing that the world lives on, but that it might not do so forever. A thought I think we have all come closer to in the last few years with both the pandemic, increasing climate change, and wars that somehow feel a little more closer to home.

Amongst ourselves, and by ourselves I am referring to Indigenous communities, the idea of the apocalypse is one we all intimately know and live with because there is a tendency to think that the Indigenous apocalypse, if contemplated seriously, has already happened.[2]

After all, colonization is, if you think about it, a war waged on both our bodies, our minds, as well as on our lands, the goal of which has been the utter destruction of the former two and the enslavement of the latter.

And although colonization failed in erasing Indigenous peoples, the process of it did have repercussions: Epistemicide, or the colonial killing of knowledge, genocide, forced relocations and the spatial distancing of people from land, the alienation between people and kin – both human, non-human and spiritual – are just some of these consequences.

And yet, in establishing our present, and indeed any age after ‘first contact’ as an apocalyptic age, we must also make room to contemplate how, even in the midst of ongoing cataclysmic events, Indigenous peoples, against all odds, continue to survive and thrive.

Because as peoples, we retain our cultural practices and epistemological competencies, asserting both spiritual and ontological values and meanings into everyday life.

‘Leading Family to Safety, Sunna Kitti

The joy then, of maintaining our ways of being (or ontology), of knowing (or epistemology) and doing (our axiology), is never subsumed by the bitterness of knowing that at one point, our world, as we knew it, ended.

So rather than simply perpetuating the bitterness of our colonial experience, reinforcing the image of ourselves as victims or characters in need of saving, we must also focus on the joy of our resistance and our continued survival.

Because it is precisely this ability, our survivance, that is at the core of how we as peoples collectively engage in a process of Indigenous becoming.

And our survivance, is nothing more or less than, and I quote

an active sense of presence, the continuance of native stories, not a mere reaction, or a survivable name. Native survivance stories are renunciations of dominance, tragedy and victimry. [3]

And here I want to invite you all to share in a reflection.

While it is indeed the case that apocalypse, in popular culture, has come to be synonymous with catastrophic, often used to denote the end of the world, the etymology of apocalypse signifies something very different.

From the Greek word, apokalupsis, meaning to disclose or reveal, apocalypse as a term is actually not intended to describe catastrophic events.

In fact, as it has been conceptualized by scholars of Old Testament critique and interpretation, an apocalypse is, and I quote,

» intended to interpret present, earthly circumstances in light of the supernatural world and of the future» [4]

In this sense, how we understand and employ apocalypse as both a word and a concept, is layered in assemblages that cross between, together, and even contrarily, enduring in fluidity, generating a world of multiplicities, or perhaps better yet, a multitude of worlds – even when such worlds may be other than seen.

So to speak of the Native apocalypse, engender the understanding of inherent duplexity – a doubleness of both meaning and function.

GEAŽIDEAMI AND THE PRACTICE OF THE THAALEHTJIMMIE.

Now, in most colonial context, where power relations are asymmetrical, favoring the colonizer on account of the colonized, the latter often develop extremely sophisticated systems that while visually may seem to ascertain to colonial demands in reality does anything but.

In response to the violences that come with the process of colonization, Indigenous communities have in other words developed ways to include ideas and values that are hidden or only referred to obliquely, never intended to be understood by those in the dominant culture, ensuring that cultural practices and beliefs remain in ways that are invisible to the colonial gaze, but scream loudly to the colonized. [5]

In a Sámi context, we see this in the geažideami.

Though there is no direct translation, the word itself implies context, acknowledging that everything is layered; so, something is always contextual and a site of multiple meanings, stories, and understandings. [6]

The geažideami thus encourage a deliberate plurality of meanings, which in turn develop a proficiency of multiple languages as it were, ensuring that the ontological conflict between colonizer and colonized is immediately discerned and acknowledged – not by the former, but the latter, which, again, is how so many cultural competencies and knowledges have been kept alive, even after they were banned by the colonial governments.

This is expressed, for instance, in the South Saami practice of tjaalehtjimmie.

The three inversed crosses seen in this image, have multiple possibilities as to meaning. It may be understood as the three sister goddesses Sarahkka, Juksahkka and Uksahkka; it may be interpreted to mean the holy trinity of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit; or, it may be understood to signify the maker pr wearers continued practice of Sámi religion.

Initially an iconographic language expressed through beadings and embroidery, the tjaalehtjimmie embed both concepts, ideas and stories that build upon rich teachings of Sámi ways of being, knowing and doing. The embroideries born of the tjaalehtjimmie thus concretize values and knowledge into visual expressions that write down and impart these values and knowledges to a broader audience – even if there are strict regulations as to who may learn the language and how it is distributed. [7]

Primarily practiced by women, the tjaalehtjimmie actually expanded during colonization; especially during the colonial drive to erase both the knowledge and the practice of Sámi religion after the 16th century, which culminated in the massive effort to collect, destroy, and remove the Sámi drums from Sápmi.

And just to expand on this, as a marker of both spatial perspectives on land as well as the many various layers of reality in the Sámi world[s] of existence and other-than-seen-realities, the drums functioned in various ways. On the one hand it was a mapping that bridged the material world, human and non-human life, and the world of spirits and ancestors, [8] . On the other hand, it was a collection of knowledge and an archive containing information about the practice of Sámi ritual life.

With the removal of the drums, the colonial government hoped to destroy the information contained within the drums and force a break in the continuance of Sámi religious practice. And, this might have easily been the case. If found with the drums, or found to have practiced Sámi religion, punishment would range from heavy fines, to public whipping, or in worst case, execution.

Still, the information contained in the drums survived by being transferred to the tjaalehtjimmie – even if it went though some slight changes. [9]

Inversed crosses in groupings of three for instance, was adapted into the tjaalehtjimmie to signify the three sister goddesses that govern all human life.

Now, to missionaries and other colonial agents, this symbol was assumed to represent the holy trinity; the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, but in actual fact, it represented a vital part of Sámi ritual practice, and what’s more, it was also employed as an external signal.

The inversed crosses, far from representing an allegiance to the Church and the Christian belief, was a way of publicly stating that you rejected said institution. In this way, those that continued to practice Sámi religion would know one another, recognizing when it was safe to openly talk about your beliefs and when you needed to keep it hidden.

Engaging in the double perspective of geažideami, in other words, is actually an important tool of survivance; accentuating the degree to which the Sámi people have maintained knowledge as well as cultural, and spiritual values despite having experience colonization.

The geažideami thus ensures that to fully understand a phenomenon, a process, an object, or a practice, it is not enough to have verbal information. Nor does visual or tactile interaction alone assert the full spectrum of meanings.

Indeed, full understanding only comes when you have geažideami – or context.

TO MANAGE AND THE SÁMI UNDERSTANDING OF SOVEREIGNTY.

Now, I’ve given you the word and a specific example from my own people, but Indigenous peoples across the world has often had similar forms of doubleness in their culture.

And it is this doubleness I see when Indigenous people use the term apocalypse, because while it refers to catastrophe in line with popular culture, referencing colonization and the harm if inflicted, it also reminds us that we as peoples continue to exist, and that apocalypse can also be a revelation, where external pressure forces us to adapt, and in the process, develop and create.

Not that I in any way intend for this to be some sort of defense, arguing the benefits of colonization. On the contrary, I am highlighting the diverse and ingenious ways that Indigenous peoples, despite colonization, has managed.

And when I say that Indigenous people have managed, I am really speaking to a specific process of Indigenous sovereignty that has a complex history within the Sámi community.

If there is a Sámi word for sovereignty, then it is to manage, or to ‘birget’, because this word reflects that in order to have a good life and to be a valued member of the community, you must have balance in all things – in your personal life with your inter-personal relationships, but also to the land and waters, other than human beings, and to spirits. [10]

This state of being is called birgejupmi, and it describes the maintenance of a good life. [11]

COMMUNITY

Community then, which is the second word of this talk, is the very foundation of our sovereignty as a people, and as such it is a very complex term.

As with most Indigenous worldviews, at the core of a Sámi ontology we find a deep connection between the land and its people. This bond of kinship is intimately rooted in and facilitated by our cultural practices, our languages, our knowledge systems, and our spiritual beliefs.  

Our languages hold many concepts that embody this interaction between people, lands, and entities. Siida, which is how we name community, is one such term.

Most historians would define the siida as a social structure dividing territories and ownership of those territories between groups of people. And while not entirely incorrect, it is an understanding based on a Western worldview where land is property and may thus be owned.

If we re-shift the understanding of siida to a Sámi ontological framework, however, the social structure of the siida is better explained as clan-based territories; use of the resources within a territory thus relied on whether or not you could claim lineage within a clan. Not in the sense of ownership, but in order to create balance and sustainable use of resources.

From my Tjidtjie’s [mothers] sijte (or siida), a South Saami coastal community where the primary livelihood used to be fishing.

What I mean by that is that living in and off the area in the siida, facilitated for people to gradually learn to manage said area without exhausting the natural resources. [12] They learned to know the land, the lakes and the rivers. They learned the presence of other beings, and they learned to live with these beings; those that do not speak as well as those that do not breathe.

In our language, we distinguish between the former, luondu as animals and the latter, such as jávri, which means lake, or Eana, the Earth). But whether these beings are luondu, jávri, or Eana, they are still morally sensible and capable of subjective will because the rivers will run, the Earth will move, and the Wind will blow. [13]

In this way, siida is not only a word for community. It is also a processual term that reflect that community is formed and produced into being as a sphere of existence that we share with all to come (our decendants) and all who have already been (our ancestors), as well as beings that do not speak, or breathe, and the spirits.

Together, it is these encounters between people, land, and beings within the siida that ensures a good life, or birgejupmi, and it is from here that the Sámi have learned to care for all of their relations, inspiring a philosophy that might be termed a duty of care.

CARE

Which is where we get into the third and final word of the day, care.

Now, as a concept, care remains ambivalent in both significance and ontology, meaning that how we understand the term may be vastly different. 

In a Sámi context, care is an essential component in many philosophies, but especially the philosophy of gift-giving – and I’ll talk a bit about this philosophy to explain the Sami notion of care.

As I have already stated, the worlds we live in and besides are created through an intricate web of connections that extend from many and complex relations between and to people, land, waters, various beings, and other spiritual entities.

These relations are what makes up the social structure of the world – and as an extension of that, the siida.

So this nexus of connections are what define, not only the community, but also the place of the individual within said community, and these connections may manifest through the practice of gift-giving. [14]

The gift, however, take on many shapes; it can be a physical object, but it can also be a song, a dream or a whisper on the wind. The resources of the land is also a gift, given in return to what has been offered.

So no matter the form, the intent behind a gift is always to make the receiver aware that they are part of a nexus of connections, a world-of-relations, and that they are responsible for maintaining these relations in a good way, which connects back to the idea of birgejupmi, or the good life.

In turn, this presumes the responsibility of the recipient to act accordingly by respecting those relations and honoring them.

This is a relational accountability, and it is the backbone in what is essentially a system of kinship.

This system of kinship – the act of making your relations kin – is not singular to a Sámi context and indeed, it is a basic principle in many Indigenous philosophies.

In the Lakota and Dakota philosophy of Turtle Island for instance, we find the ‘Mitakuye Oyasin’ meaning, ‘all my kin’ or ‘we are all related’. [15] In the Wiradjuri philosophy of (what is now known as) Australia, there is the ‘yindyamarra’, a way of life where everything is respected. [16]

And in Sámi we have the guelmiedahke.

GUELMIEDAHKE

The guelmiehdakhe as it is expressed in the tjaalehtjimmie.

Today, the direct translation of the word is ‘mirror’ or something that reflects.

Nevertheless, as a component of the tjaalehtjimmie, guelmiehdahke has the specific meaning of ‘reciprocity in all our relations’, which encourage a ‘duty of care’, calling upon our responsibilities as human beings, living on Eana (Earth), to honour and acknowledge all our relations and their subjective will. [17]

Put in a slightly different way, the guelmiedahke is an expression of the fact that we are not alone in the world, and that for every choice we make, we do not feel the consequence of that choice alone.

So as opposed to the Western world that idealize the individual, in a Sámi world, what matters is the collective because it is the collective that feels the impact of the individual.

RESHIFTING, OR INDIGENIZING, ART AND CURATORIAL PRACTICE.

Having gone through all of these terms and concepts, if I now connect care, community, and apocalypse to art, curatorial practice and decolonization– a specific landscape emerges.

It is a landscape in which the collective community is the foundation of your sovereignty; where it is the whole of something rather than single aspects that is afforded due consideration.

It is a landscape where the care you offer to others is informed by the recognition that we are already involved in and together with land and waters, with the sky and the horizon, with other humans and spiritual entities, with other animals and living organisms; as such, what happens to them, also happens to you.

It is a landscape that recognize the subjective will of all things; consequently, it creates the understanding that when you inflict your will on others, you are also subjugating their will, which in turn kill the bonds of kinship that create the community we live in, and so the worlds that we exist in.

To try to translate this into art, curatorship and decolonization, consider this; As a practitioner, or an artist, what you create is an expression of the world you live in; an extension of the system of kinship that you as well as your art takes place in.

When you curate art, you thus need to maintain a good balance that honor the place of the artwork in this system, as well as your own place in it – keeping in mind that the curatorial choices you make, is also choices made on behalf of something or someone else.

To decolonize, in the same vein, is to recognize how institutions and colonial structures have targeted systems of kinship, and in fact that their very establishment was often born from such targeted destruction. Consequently, you need to work to reassert systems of kinship, returning art and/or objects to their place in said systems.

Whether we are speaking on art, curatorial practice or decolonization, the values of an Indigenous world, as I have laid them out during in this reflection, is as such worth adapting.

Not only because these values allow for a private and professional practice that take care very seriously. And not only because these values celebrate belonging to something that goes beyond self-serving interest.

But also, because it is these values that in the onset of colonization taught us that while apocalypse might be the end of the world as it was known, those values also allowed Indigenous people to respond to apocalyptic times as something that reveals or disclose new ways of living that might be incorporated into the old, enriching our ways of being, and of knowing and of doing.

And I think, when someone asks me why Indigenous art has had such huge success and/or impact internationally, deep down they know the answer to that lies in our notions of care, of community, and of apocalyptic times.

If the pandemic, the climate change and the wars around the world has given us anything, it is this; we are at the brink of a necessary change.

Society cannot survive in its present state, but colonial structures, imperial glorifications and capitalistic ideals are often unchanging, static, and ironically, frozen in time.

So, when these systems see the possibility of an apocalypse on the horizon, they only see the catastrophic consequence to their unchanging structures.

But the people that live in these times, perhaps sense that there is something more behind; that apocalypse can be a revelation.

And because the apocalypse that we might be facing world wide has revealed that change is needed, who better to look to, than the very people who once faced such change and survived it.

‘De chipping’, Sunna Kitti.

The Image connected to the text at the beginning is courtesy of  Pixabay and Stefan Keller

[1] Alexandra Chang, Associate Professor of Practice with the Art History program at the Department of Arts, Culture and Media at Rutgers University/Newark.

[2] Grace Dillon. 2012. Walking the Clouds: An Anthology of Indigenous Science Fiction. University of Arizona Press, pp. 8.

[3] Gerald Vizenor. 2008. The Aesthetics of Survivance. Survivance. Narratives of Native Presence, 1-23. University of Nebraska Press, p. 1

[4] Scott M. Lewis. 2004. The Mother of All Theology. Paulist Press, pp. 17. 

[5] Kristin Jernsletten 2011, ‘The hidden children of Eve : Sámi poetics : guovtti ilmmi gaskkas’. Doctoral Thesis, Tromsø: University of Tromsø, pp. 22

[6] Anna Lydia Svalastog, Shawn Wilson, Harald Gaski, Kate Senior, and Richard Chenhall. 2022. ‘Double Perspective in the Colonial Present’. Social Theory & Health 20 (2): 215–36, pp. 220.

[7] Maja Dunfjeld Aagård. 1989. Symbolinnhold i Sørsamiskornamentikk’, Oslo: Statens Lærerhøgskole i forming. p. 153 ; JorunnJernsletten. 2009. Bissie dajve:relasjoner mellom folkog landskap i Voengel-Njaarke sïjte. Tromsø: Universitetet i Tromsø, p. 124.

[8] Pentikäinen, Juha. 1987. ‘The Shamanic Drum as a Cognitive Map: The Historical and
Semiotic Study of the Saami Drum in Rome.’ In Mythology and Cosmic Order, edited
by René Gothóni and Juha Pentikäinen, 17-36. Helsinki: Finnish Literature Society.

[9] Jernsletten 2009, p. 33

[10] Nilsson, Ragnhild. 2021. Att bearkadidh: Om samiskt självbestämmande och samisk självkonstituering. Stockholm: Statsvetenskapliga institutionen, Stockholms universitet, pp. 149.

[11] Jelena Porsanger. 2012. “Indigenous Sámi religion : general considerations about relationship.”
Gland: IUCN, cop. p. 39.

[12] Gunvor Guttorm. 2011. “Árbediehtu (Sami traditional knowledge) – as a concept and in practice.” in Working with traditional knowledge / edited by Jelena Porsanger, Gunvor Guttorm. 59-76. p. 60

[13] Sara, Mikkel Nils. 2009. ‘Siida and Traditional Sami Reindeer Herding Knowledge.(General Articles)’. Northern Review (Whitehorse), no. 30: 153.

[14] Rauna Kuokkanen. 2007. Reshaping the University : responsibility, indigenous epistemes, and the logic of the
gift. Vancouver: UBC Press, p. 65

[15] Nick Estes, 2019. Our History is the Future: Standing Rock Versus the Dakota Access Pipeline, and the Long Tradition of Indigenous Resistance. London: Verso Books. p. 12.

[16] Bernard Sullivan, 2016. Yindyamarra Yambuwan: Respecting Everything. Bathurst: Charles Sturt University.

[17] Dunfjeld Aagård 1989, p.90 , Jernsletten 2009, p. 168.

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