For the more than 370 million indigenous people living today, the ability to live on and care for their ancestral land is essential to their physical and cultural survival. This ability, however, is continually endangered by the nefarious practices of colonial states that threaten their traditional and sustainable ways of life for their own economic gain - and indigenous people are fighting back.
One such individual is Sámi artist Anders Sunna whose work Area Infected draws attention to the Swedish government’s abuses of his people and their traditional practice of reindeer herding. Through this piece, he explores the intergenerational trauma that marks the lives of countless Sámi.
The Sámi are a people indigenous to Sápmi - an area in northern Europe encompassing the Kola Peninsula in Russia and parts of northern Scandinavia, including Sweden. As one article notes, while Sweden is widely regarded as a prosperous and “progressive” state, very few people are aware that this comfort is contingent upon the oppression of the Sámi people and the exploitation of their ancestral land.
“People say that in Sweden we live in a democratic society, which I do not experience. I'm stateless in a dictatorship,” says Sunna, discussing the history behind Area Infected.
At a young age, Sunna realized that art offered a way to deal with the pain that he felt from living under colonial oppression, helping himself to cope while simultaneously educating others about the injustices facing the Sámi. He found that images, unlike words, are direct, making an immediate emotional impression upon the viewer. Indeed, even a brief look at Area Infected, a piece that recounts the conflict spurred by the Reindeer Herding Act of 1971, reveals the severity of the situation in Sápmi and the demand for action to be taken.
Reindeer herding has long been a foundational element of Sámi culture. However, with the expansion of neighboring countries into Sápmi came forced cultural assimilation, racial discrimination, and resource exploitation that increasingly threatened traditional Sámi ways of life, particularly the practice of reindeer husbandry. The 1971 law, another in a long line of Swedish attempts to regulate Sámi culture, resulted in conflict, brutality, and ultimately the forced relocation of Sunna’s family. Years later, Sunna took to the canvas to channel his anger.
The resulting mixed media artwork is an expressive collage of people, objects, animals, and landscapes - fragments of memory and trauma inflicted by the Swedish government and passed down through generations of Sámi. Dripping paint and splashes of red create a visceral viewing experience that speaks to the cruelty of the events that it depicts, as dark planes of color bring forward unsettling imagery in a manner that condenses decades of conflict and trauma into one harrowing artwork. Like much of his art, it does not shy away from the violence of reality, choosing instead to portray his lived experiences as they are - raw and unapologetic.
Though some have criticized his politically charged artworks for their brutality, Sunna is determined to draw attention to the injustices facing the Sámi people and the voracious exploitation of their land and animals, echoing the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals on Peace, Justice, and Strong Institutions, Life on Land, and Climate Action.
“Swedes in general know so incredibly little about the Sámi that you have to be clear in order for the message to get through,” explains Sunna, explaining why work like his is necessary.
In 2022, Sunna and two fellow artists will represent the Sámi at the Venice Biennale, where, for the very first time, they will be recognized as a nation. “Having this happen now means a lot to Sápmi, but being able to represent Sápmi is also important to my own work as an artist,” Sunna said in an interview with Kunstkritikk.
The inclusion of Sámi voices at a world-renowned exhibition is a significant step towards decolonisation and the liberation of indigenous peoples everywhere. While there remains work to be done, people like Sunna will continue to tell his story and to use his art as a vehicle for positive change.