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The Sámi people live in Lapland, a region that stretches along the north of Norway, Sweden, Finland and the Kola Peninsula in northeast Russia, with a population of approximately 80,000. Archaeologists have found evidence of settlement along the Scandinavian Arctic coasts from around 11,000 - 6000 years ago, which suggests people lived from fishing and hunting wild reindeer. They have also found pottery from Sámi forebears that date from 3500 years ago. The Sámi are currently considered to be Scandinavia's indigenous population, and they claim to be recognized as such, demanding that authorities in European nations respect their rights and autonomy.

The majority of Sámis are Christians and use Western clothing on a daily basis, meaning that foreigners find it hard to tell who is Sámi and who is not. Nevertheless, they are a very close-knit group who are very proud of their cultural heritage, their knowledge of nature and the environment, of reindeer herding, and of their traditional dress. But above all they are proud of their language.  

 

Language has a profound influence on how we see the world. In fact, our thoughts are made up of words and the richness of a language is in a sense manifested in the number of terms that allow us to differentiate subtleties between states of being or things that resemble one another.

 

Given the importance of language in forging cultures, and its particular importance for the Sámi people, this project is based on the richness and expressive force of their language. However, I do not only focus on spoken language, but also the symbolic language of traditional clothes, that the Sámi defend as vehemently as their mother tongue.

Antonio Briceño

March 2011

 

The limits of my language mean the limits of my world.

Ludwig Wittgenstein

Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus

 

In the midst of a turbulent and equally bloody twentieth century that reconfigured borders on every continent, it was only natural that identity conflicts would emerge to lead us into long discussions about the concepts of Nation, People, Community and even Culture in a context that paradoxically homogenizes difference. On this occasion it was not only political and economic factors that sparked this discussion, but also the extraordinary power of global communications.

It was amid this tumultuous context that many indigenous peoples and ethnic groups sought to reaffirm their status within the framework of the political limitations imposed on them, seeking legal recognition that at least symbolically would acknowledge the right to their own way of life and culture.

Given that this process of gaining recognition has not been simple anywhere across the world, precisely because it questions the concepts noted above, as we look on from the peripheries it is quite surprising to see that in Europe a community like the Sámi has emerged to claim its condition as an indigenous people. Firstly, the term indigenous[1], the result of a geographical confusion, has been used in our Eurocentric mindset to refer to non-European groups, and secondly it is surprising because we thought that cultural assimilation had taken place in Europe long back.

However, the Sámi that have been subject to countless historical, political and geographical changes, have worked long and hard to retain their identity, which was strengthened half way through the twentieth century when the communities of Finland, Norway and Sweden, and later Russia, established the Sámi Council as an organization that would reinforce their existence and coherence as a group.

The fact that today this originally nomadic population has to deal with different governments that take different standpoints with regards to the right to use grazing land, community laws, etc., clearly represents a considerable challenge for them. However, this is not the biggest challenge. It is currently almost impossible to distinguish a member of this community from any other citizen in those countries because today the Sámi physiognomy is mainly Scandinavian and after the Christianization the Sámi lost their shamanic customs. What is more, they live, work and study much like any other citizen. So, what exactly does it mean to be Sámi?

This is the question that Antonio Briceño asks himself as he deals with the Sámi people in his exhibition 520 reindeer. But given that the concepts of People or Nation - or, in other words, Identity - have made significant (and at times confusing) impacts on the discourses of contemporary art, Briceño has sought to use his work to address the Sámi people's social fabric, rather than photography as a reflection or inventory of evidence about them.

While mythology and religion (Gods of America, Filhos dos Orixás), genealogy (The Tree. Maori Culture), or ethnic identity (Look at us. Here we are. Indigenous peoples of Colombia) were the main and evident themes in his earlier work, in this show Briceño addresses language, herding and his close relation to nature as an expression of the Sámi's essence.

The epigraph by L. Wittgenstein, which recalls the relationship between the logical forms of language and those belonging to the world, also serves to refer us back to what these photographs point out in terms of Sámi language and culture, which is determined by a wintry landscape that these ancient nomads inhabited and made their own. This is a miracle of adaptation that, as in other places, has led to a particular way of life and a specialization that goes beyond technical knowledge and which Antonio Briceño presents to us here like a play on words-images, that refer to something beyond their concrete reality, to an emotional territory, to the things that affect the Sámi and link them to the world.

In this sense, works like the images in the series 144 landscapes or 187 snows do not simply refer to the landscapes or natural phenomena that can be recognized in the words, but instead to the profound identification with the landscape. They allude to a relationship of observing and acknowledgement of and in nature, which opened those inner spaces up to nourish a way of seeing the world today. This way of seeing in turn vindicates resonances of shamanic thought that posit man not as an inhabitant but as an integral element in the natural world, and that the Sámi have explicitly returned their attention to in their declarations as an indigenous group.

It is worth recalling here the quotation by H. F. Amiel in his Diario íntimo, where he writes: "Every landscape is a state of the soul and those that read both will be filled with wonderment upon seeing the similarity between the two"[2] in order to talk about looking inwards while looking outwards, which is an integral part of photography and which Briceño increasingly seeks to make more evident in his work. We can thus see how the landscapes that appeared in his early works fused or interwoven with the people photographed have in this exhibition reached the foreground, to the point that they become characters themselves and an expression of mankind's imprint on the world. These are representations of human emotions in which the superimposed words seem more like shamanic litanies that invoke natural or divine forces, materializing them and making them evident realities. The same repetition of landscapes that alludes to those slight physical variations that transform one phenomenon into another totally different one, that because our eyes and experience cannot perceive them would most likely go dangerously unnoticed, also seem like insistent, pleading prayers that push us to see much more than simple changes in lights or tones and instead to get deep inside the things we see.

The installation The light we can see represents this scenario of emotional reactions to landscape most dramatically. The almost tangible Northern Lights that bathe the images with impossible colours enable us to really imagine how inebriated men must have been, falling to our knees, overcome by the unexpected and troubling thoughts sparked by such overwhelming phenomena, which must have awoken their imaginations and pushed them to express this alarm. This alarm was channelled into different myths, such as the one that reflects the elegant word to refer to dawn: Revontulet (fox fire), which refers to a Sámi story that says these lights are produced by foxes' tails that splatter bits of the night sky as they hit the snow, or the belief that the lights are created by our ancestors dancing on the night sky. Another myth simply ventures the idea that the gods are looking down on us from the sky. The Sámi, who seem to understand the world using all their senses, call the Northern Lights Guovssahas (light that can be heard) and thus denote a different way of perceiving or incorporating reality that establishes that two-way play between material-immaterial, outside-inside, that demands we make every effort to listen attentively to what forms show us (just as art has always tried to make us understand) and for which we have to keep body and head, what is above and what is below together.

As it is logical in these people who are continually thinking about themselves through their surroundings, the Sámi do not take a passive approach to these emotions. In turn, this gives rise to the yoiks: shamanic songs in which the singer uses sounds and words to connect to somebody or something. A yoik is thus not about the dawn, the reindeer, the fox or a friend, but is a vehicle to (con)fuse with everything around it, reconnecting itself with it to keep their feet on the ground.

In this sense, the works in this exhibition use landscape to address knowing how to see and what that implies about knowing how to understand the world through a specific human experience that can express it in such a way that is as particular as its language. One of the specific challenges of approaching the Sámi through photography is that the group has kept together through intangible cultural heritage that is based, as noted above, mainly on its language and the universe it encompasses. This, in itself, is a challenge for visual arts. However, looking more closely, we can see that these words overflow not only in Tundra - a word of Sámi origin - or in the dozens of ways of talking about snow or ice, but also in the customs that survive changes, such as the reindeer herding that has always been a central focus in their lives.

The existence of 520 words to identify differences in a single animal species undoubtedly reflects a close or rather an intimate link that speaks of the significance of this animal for their culture. While the Sámi do not have to eat reindeer anymore, they are fundamentally important in preserving the traditions and spirit of the Sámi people, who consider reindeer breeding one of the clearest manifestations of their ancestral rights to land and the way they carry out their traditions.

While the works relating to landscape confronted us with states of the soul, encouraging us to recognise in them its differences, tones and levels, the image 520 reindeer confronts us more directly with a translucent Sámi soul, whimsically corporeal despite its vagueness. It is possible that the artist has intuited as well as them what is at stake in their stubborn insistence on maintaining reindeer herding.

This is surely how Mika Saijets - a journalist and herder - understood it when he decided to compile a list of the words that are used to name different types of reindeer because this word herder depends on the survival of Sámi thought in today's world, where the group is fragmented into both nationalities and dialects and deserves the same care to be taken with them as they themselves have dedicated to their animals for centuries.

Mika Saijets' 520 reindeer represents in an extraordinary manner that ancient game - similar to the chicken and egg - that we are still trying to understand to find out whether words come from forms or if they rush to meet them. However, this diptych also leads us to think about an important and even more contemporary discussion based on the schism between image and concept, which has caused a sort of cataclysm in Western art taking the distance between ideas and emotions to the extreme and leaving in its wake a void that seems unsustainable. For this reason, the importance these men give to herding is so incredibly moving, because if there were no Sámi words to refer to reindeer or if foreign words had to be used because there were no local words, a Sámi soul would be left at bay, barely supported by a framework of ideas and memories that would not muster enough life to survive much longer. Antonio Briceño suggests all these things in that mercurial artwork that depicts a sea of animals and words held in the air and separated, thus creating a single and inseparable image for us.

Ultimately, it would seem that the works in this show capture the Sámi expressions that are not yet relegated to the past or memories, but something alive and in mid-creative process, which seeks to be understood and contained by cyclical changes that despite being familiar changes, are no less dangerous.

The question set out at the beginning asked what it is to be Sámi, and the images suggest that this is still a vital element that dwells below appearances, as the polyptych Sámi shows us, in which portraits of men and women in Western clothes contrast with their traditional clothes and adornments that bear the designs that come from their ancestors, their origins, and their position in the community. A display of shared and personal identity, a reaffirmation of the ancient knowing your place and who I am that, if we are lucky, will continue adding designs as long as there is a story to tell.

The Sámi have lived a long story of adaptations that have made them assimilate technologies, traditions, genes and shelters, and if they once seemed to lose their way, today they simply decided to go home.

 

Tomás Rodríguez Soto

Curator's text for the exhibition 520 reindeer. 

 

[1] Even though the RAE dictionary defines it simply as: Coming from a particular country. This concept is universally accepted.

[2] Henri- Frédéric Amiel: Diario íntimo. Buenos Aires, Losada, 1949, 101.

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