The chic young woman looks out of place crossing the Arctic tundra in her pale-blue suit and heels, surrounded by endless snow and ice and the occasional stunted tree. In this photograph and others, Marja Helander dresses up in costumes and takes pictures of herself in unusual situations, contrasting her dual life as a resident of cosmopolitan Helsinki and her roots in remote Utsjoki, Finland.
Helander is a Sámi—the indigenous people of Finland, Norway, Sweden, and Russia’s Kola Peninsula—and her 2001 self-portrait Mount Palopää is among the array of works on view in “Sámi Stories: Art and Identity of an Arctic People,” running through August 23 at Scandinavia House in New York.
“The exhibition focuses on how artists, mainly contemporary, depict important themes within Sámi history and politics,” says Charis Gullickson, who cocurated the show with Marit Anne Hauan. The emergence of the Sámi contemporary-art scene took place in the 1970s, as younger Sámis moved south to study in cities like Oslo and Copenhagen and abandoned the duodji, or craftwork, of previous generations. “Education plus exposure to other artists created a natural break with tradition,” Gullickson explains. These artists forged new identities and experimented with photography, video, sculpture, and installation.
At the same time, other artists updated Sámi methods and motifs, as seen in Britta Marakatt-Labba’s intricate embroidery on white linen in the exhibition. The Crows (1981) fancifully portrays a protest against the planned construction of a dam near Máze, Norway, with clouds of black birds transforming into policemen as they reach the ground, attacking peaceful demonstrators. Iver Jåks merges minimalist forms and shamanism—an important part of Sámi culture—in his sculpture Offertory Pillars I (1980). Mystical symbols carved in juniper are combined with streamlined forms in pinewood, leather, and bone.
“Sámi Stories” also has a few examples of duodji, including a centuries-old drum and a toy reindeer made of duck bones, to illustrate the continued influence of craft. Sandra Lorentzen, who co-edited an accompanying catalogue with Gullickson, says the wide-ranging show is “a story about how Sámi culture developed through handicrafts and visual art”—and how Sámi artists have integrated tradition to move beyond stereotypes.
A version of this story originally appeared in the Summer 2014 issue of ARTnews on page 30 under the title “Ice Breakers.”