‘Authentically Saami’: Lisa Vipola’s Art in Context
Lisa Vipola, wearing her faux gákti. Photo © Anna Sunna/SR Sameradion
In my studies, I focus in particular on the artistic and literary performance of Indigeneity. In short, I tend to describe the work leading up to what I hope will one day translate into a PhD as a study into how members of minority and indigenous communities use language, history and contemporary experiences of duality, social exclusion and internal as well as external discrimination in their textual and artistic works, as a way to transcend and challenge a neo-colonial understanding of what constitutes an ‘authentic’ indigenous and/or minority identity today. I try to make it a point in studying literature and art that I see as a manifestation of a non-essentialised right to self-definition, void of Western influences, so last week’s news of an exhibition called ‘Äkta Sameslöjd’ (Authentic Saami Handicraft), had me looking into an art project that in many ways romanticised my own heritage and turned my Saami identity into something that others could turn into a cheap gimmick and appropriate, thereby completely side-stepping the very real discrimination people who openly identify as Saami often face. But not only that, to me Vipola’s exhibition and the opening of the same trivialised the fact that so many Saami from my area, i.e. Westrobothnia, are facing a constant battle of trying to reclaim their Saaminess, denied them for decades by the State and several different laws pertaining to the interpretation of Saaminess.
So, what does make someone Saami? The Swedish law regulating Saaminess, i.e. the one concerning one’s right to vote in the Saami parliament, states that in order to be Saami, one has to self-identify as a Saami. Judging from this, could a person with no Saami heritage wake up one day, and choose to become Saami because of a perceived alliance to another people resident in the area of one’s birth? Lisa Vipola, a Swedish artist born and bred in Jukkasjärvi without any Saami heritage, but with a vivid memory of having being child-minded by a Saami day care nurse seems to be asking this question with her new exhibition at Galleri Syster in Luleå, Sweden. However, being able to claim Saaminess as a cute accessory that brings an outfit together, as seems to be the case here, would only be possible if one ignored the other legal criteria surrounding Saaminess pertaining to language and family links.
At this point and time, Vipola has neither. Her family is not Saami and she does not speak any Saami language. However, not speaking the language does not necessarily make anyone less Saami as statistics show that of those on the Saami parliament electoral roll, 55% do not speak any of the Saami languages traditionally spoken in Swedish Sápmi. What is more, Vipola allegedly spoke North Saami as a child, thanks to her Saami day-care nurse, so in theory, she fulfils two out of three criteria, i.e. that of self-definition and a linguistic background. Only, Vipola’s linguistic background is no more authentic than that of a private school student being taught through the medium of French, so the question remains – does it really count?
In this post, I wish to discuss two questions. The first one focuses on the actual work of art itself, and challenges the notion of art as something beyond and above criticism. Moreover, this section of the text seeks to address the copyright infringement and commodification of Saami art as something that can and should be changed outsiders such as Vipola, by looking at the way in which her art cheapens the value of the Sámi Duodji mark. The second and by far more serious issue being addressed in this text is the actual artistic framework and Othering discourse used by Vipola, which conflates queer identities with a marginalised Indigeneity, through her statement at the opening night of her exhibition that she was, and I quote, ‘coming out as a Saami woman’.
Addressing the first issues then, let us have a closer look at what Vipola’s exhibition is all about. Using an almost identical copy of a copyright protected Saami handicraft hall mark known as the ‘Sámi Duodji mark’ which the artist attaches to all her work to make them seem authentically Saami, Vipola has created a series of art pieces that closely mimic Saami handicraft, but that are made of materials that are not considered traditional and thus would never be approved as authentic by the actual governing body behind the Sámi Duodji mark. This is in itself highly problematic, not because the art in and of itself is offensive, but because it cheapens the value of the Sámi Duodji mark which has served to protect the integrity and authenticity of Saami products since it was first created. This has to be challenged and put into question as especially in Sweden, the Sámi Duodji mark has managed to become a hallmark of quality, which very few Saami artists have the honour to use. What is more, when dealing with something as communal as the design and patterns behind Saami handicraft which due to its communality cannot be copyrighted as such it is highly problematic to see an artist who does not identify as Saami – or rather, to quote her interviews, ‘I am not Saami but I have become a Saami’ – use and actively misrepresent this mark of quality. Whether Vipola intends to sell her work or not, using the Sámi Duodji mark devalues the work of actual Saami artists who in the end might experience a negative impact on their trade as an effect of this.
Here, I personally wish that Sameslöjdsstiftelsen would choose to sue Vipola for copyright infringement. Mari-Ann Nutti, director at Sameslöjdsstiftelsen has described Vipola’s art as disrespectful and as an effect of her exhibition, the question of the Sámi Duodji mark’s status and how it could be protected further will be debated in the Sámiráđđi. Gunvor Guttorm, professor of duodji, states that to do what Vipola has done equals theft, and I fear that if Sameslöjdstiftelsen fails to take legal action, their failure to do so would cheapen the hallmark and make it worthless for future generations, and all too cater to a settler’s romanticised dreams of becoming the Other. To quote Inga Hermansen Haetta, director of the Norwegian Duodji Institute, ‘Duodji should not be turned into a mockery and especially not by someone with no Saami heritage or actual knowledge of duodji as such, and instead only mimic the works of others’’.
But worth remembering here is that the main part of this critique of Vipola’s work in many ways has nothing to do with the art pieces themselves; objectively speaking they’re more or less skilfully produced, they look Saami to the untrained eye and if not framed with a description which sees them as tools to further the exotification of Saami people, they cannot be attacked from a handcrafter’s point of view. What is more, the question of what really counts as traditional or not needs to be addressed, as we’re constantly pushing boundaries as Saami artists, so this part of the exhibition would have been particularly exciting, had Vipola only been an actual Saami artist and not someone who wants to pretend to be a member of a marginalised group. In this sense, rather than having created an exhibition worth visiting, Vipola has appropriated an already marginalised handicraft tradition, and used it to further her own delusion of being Saami.
Copyright infringement issues aside, what is far more important to address here, however, is not the ins and outs of Vipola’s art pieces, but the opening night of her exhibition and her choice to ‘come out as a Saami’. In short, her choice to do so publically forms a part of a well-documented colonial phenomenon known as settler nativism, where a member of the majority in an attempt to combat their own internalised feelings of guilt for not being a member of the people one’s ancestors oppressed chooses to masquerade as the Other. Settler nativism is a peculiar form of white guilt in that it doesn’t seek to arbitrarily save the Other, but rather seeks to eradicate the Other from existence by pretending to be one of them and then colonise all channels of communication the Other otherwise would have had to express themselves. By pretending to be a Saami, Vipola tries to write herself free from taking any responsibility for the institutionalised racism towards the Saami in Sweden that all Swedes share collectively. In many ways, Vipola’s claim to Saaminess through the medium of a modernised falsification of Saami handicraft is a way to emphasise her own perceived identity. By making what she claims is authentic Saami handicraft, she assumes that members of the Saami community will automatically accept her as one of them. Her art becomes a false, homemade passport that Vipola is trusting will assure her a place in our community, without having to actually give up any of her settler privileges.
Fanon writes of the colonial attempt to metaphorically speaking eat and digest minority identities, that ‘what is often called the [minority] soul is a white man’s artefact’. In the same way Vipola’s colonial attempt to become Saami is founded on a white, false misunderstanding of Saaminess not as something real, but as something romantic and deeply rooted in a false belief that all Saami are somehow closer to nature and thus purer than non-Saami Swedes who have fallen prey to the dangers and pitfalls of industrialisation.
Another complicating aspect of Vipola’s artistic framework is the use of what Vipola thinks of as a liberating queer feminist questioning of Saami identities. In creating what Vipola refers to as a gender neutral traditional dress, Vipola is using a white feminist framework to analyse the role of women within our communities and asserting that Saami women are oppressed in that they’re denied the right to wear men’s clothes, without having any understanding of the coded language behind Saami traditional dresses. Rather than being ground-breaking, Vipola’s faux gákti becomes a testament to her lack of understanding of Saami culture which cements her place not as being inside the Saami sphere, but as being firmly outside of the pan-Saami community. In addition to this, I would argue that her art is both making a mockery of Saaminess and harming the on-going struggle among transsexual people to become recognised and respected by the majority society. Through her use of a faux traditional dress combining male and female attributes, and her active use of LGBT liberation terminology and transsexual experiences when describing her change from a Swedish to a Saami woman, she is engaged in an artistic and political silencing of a plethora of minority voices that is neither helpful nor actually feminist. As has often been pointed out by POC scholars, Western feminism is in many ways not feminist in that it actively puts white women’s suffrage above POC women’s suffrage and repeatedly ignores the struggle of minority women, and the inherent racism in Western feminism is something I see Vipola benefit from in her work of art.
In spite of this, Vipola claims that her work is neither racist nor unethical and in one of her interviews, she stated that she saw her art as anti-racist. As far as I am concerned, however, misrepresenting racism and using structural power and privilege to explain away critique of the same is both unjust and petty and furthers the status of Vipola’s project as a colonial attempt to not only misrepresent the Other, but to actually become the Other. The main problem here is that Vipola misinterprets racism as a simplistic two-way street where barring someone from taking on another identity, or looking down on someone’s choice to pretend to be a member of a minority is as racist as structural discrimination against minorities, who would never be able to decide to suddenly identify as full-worthy members of the majority. This of course is wrong, but sadly a common mistake in anti-racist discussions run over by majority voices. In many ways I see Vipola’s failure to understand the actual meaning of racism – i.e. that it is not a basic form of discrimination that works in both ways, but rather a discriminatory power structure permeating all of society, where the majority always benefits from the privilege they hold over the minority – as being symptomatic of feminists from the majority. The truth is, nothing offends the majority more than having their problematic behaviours exposed as being racist. To have to admit that one has done something racist is seen as far more damaging and harmful than actually being the victim of the structural everyday racism inbuilt in our society.
Moreover it is worth noting that Vipola hardly is the first to have tried to take on a minority identity. In a Swedish context, one could mention Ted Hesselbom who wrote an article where he applied to become Roma because he had a romanticised view of Roma life, completely ignoring the racism Roma face on a daily basis both within and outwith the borders of Sweden. Knowing this, Vipola becomes a perfect example of the fact that the voice of the majority far too often has been employed to actively misrepresent indigenous and minority identities. Her choice to become Saami, because being Saami seems more romantic than being Swedish, mirrors that of the fraud Chinquilla who pretended to be Native American in the early 2oth century and of whom the Native American activist Zitkala- Sa wrote that she used to wear ‘“beads” and colors […] that seemed to be [a] “labored” effort to appear “Indian”’. Though Vipola and Chinquilla are divided by a considerable amount of decades, Vipola’s appropriated Saaminess could not be described in a more fitting way; it seems laboured and rather than being a genuine attempt to connect with a lost or denied part of what might have been her family history, it becomes a fetishist journey into the mind of an entitled woman that holds the structural power to not be affected by the discrimination faced by actual Saami, and who, contrary to real Saami people, holds the power to switch her perceived ethnicity on and off to suit her own whims.
As far as I am concerned, Vipola’s work of art is a slap in the face of actual Saami artists who have to overcome existing and often highly conflicting ideas of what their own identity is on a daily basis. By appropriating a Saami identity, she is colonising a space that few Saami have access to in the first place. In other words, it is questionable if a Saami artist wishing to question what indeed constitutes duodji today had been offered the same access to a public space as Vipola. This is an important question as minorities are continuously denied platforms to address issues within their own communities, while outsiders can easily secure funding, public support and media interest for the very same projects. This is consequently not something that singles out Vipola’s project as unique, on the contrary. In a Swedish context, Queering Sápmi, while on the whole a needed project, benefits from the same outsider privilege as Vipola, meaning that what has been centred so far is far more the Swedish duo behind the project, than the silenced Saami queer community the project claims to represent. Being a member of the majority and representing a minority is intrinsically complicated and could easily turn into a silencing, colonising and even racist project, which I would claim is the case with Vipola’s exhibition when framed as it currently is.
Quoting writers like Tuck and Yang then, Vipola’s choice to come out as a Saami woman and explaining her move to do so as something that could be compared to sex reassignment surgery offered to transsexual people – which is highly offensive to both transsexual people and members of indigenous communities – could be interpreted as an ‘enactment of […] tropes [that function] as a series of moves to innocence […] which problematically attempt to reconcile settler guilt and complicity, and rescue settler futurity’.
In the end Vipola may or may not have something important to say as an artist working in Sápmi, but she is doing it by appropriating a Saami identity and using it to speak over actual Saami voices, and that could never be anything but wrong.