Interview with Outi Pieski

Senior Curator Yuvinka Medina (YM) in conversation with Outi Pieski (OP).

YM: The starting point for your exhibition at Bonniers Konsthall is an extensive art and research project, Máttárahku Ládjogahpir – A Foremother’s Hat of Pride, that you did in collaboration with the researcher Eeva-Kristiina Nylander, between 2017–20, about the ládjogahpir – a Sami female hat – that was forbidden by Christian priests in the 19th century and disappeared. What would you say the ládjogahpir symbolised historically, and what does it manifest today?

OP: We are investigating the colonisation of the mind and body in Sami women’s history through the story of one object – the ládjogahpir hat. Much of the original meaning of the ládjogahpir is lost, as are large parts of the history of Sami women in general. In the art and research project we propose that the ládjogahpir is connected to gender power and female sexuality. The Christian priest’s rewriting of the ládjogahpir as a devil’s horn can be interpreted as a way of demonising the Sami women’s power and sexuality, along with the Sami female guardian spirits living under the earth – which underpin Sami cosmology and society.

Instead, Sami women started wearing a low bonnet-like hat that gave a more modest look. As a visual artist, I am interested in how the women’s situation in Sami society is manifested in a visual form. How the change visualises the colonial history of gender violence, and how heteropatriarchy and western epistemologies were brought to Sápmi. I describe this as a colonialist metamorphosis. In the research project we show how the disuse and abandonment of the ládjogahpir could be interpreted as an act that violently broke down existing social bonds between genders – an act that dismantled social relations that were reflected even in Sami cosmology. During our collective work, we invited Sami women to workshops to jointly make and use the ládjogahpir, a revitalization of the hat’s meaning. There is something special and empowering when Sami women use the hat today. The ládjogahpir can be regarded as a symbol of a new decolonial feminism, forwarding a message from our foremothers that live beside us.

YM: You have included two ancient ládjogahpirs in the exhibition, which belong to Nordiska museet in Stockholm. What do you know about these particular hats, and why is it important for you to present the ládjogahpir outside the context of a museum collection?

OP: These ládjogahpirs belonged to two women, Guiva Káre and Vulleš Ingá, from my home region in Ohcejohka (Utsjoki). They are rare, because the museums have very few old Sami objects where the user or maker is known. The provenance data usually has more information about the collector and previous owners, which indicates what kind of narrative the museums have considered to be relevant.

Historic Sami cultural items are usually displayed in ethnographic museums, while western art objects are displayed in art museums. It’s not correct to say that the duodji object is art, since it’s a separate holistic concept, but I think that the museum artefacts can be understood from a wider perspective when transferred to an art context.

YM: Recently the National Museum of Finland repatriated its collections of Sami objects to the Sami Museum Siida, and you were involved as one of the curators of the repatriation exhibition. Please summarise what this repatriation is about and why a contemporary interpretation is important?

OP: Sami belongings are scattered around the European museums, and only a small number can be publicly displayed while the rest lies in storage. These old objects are really rare and true treasures from our early ancestors. This means that today’s Sami societies have to live largely without access to their own cultural heritage.

Decolonisation is a matter of real acts, not a symbol or a metaphor. Repatriation means reciprocity and equal dialog, it goes in two directions. One direction is the indigenisation of the museums, that national museums should present our history too – from our perspective. To be able to do that, there is a need for professionals who can lead the museological work from our perspective, not just from an advisory position. The other direction is a process, where artefacts and their contents are returned from museums to the societies they belong to – so that we can rebuild our societies by working collectively with our ancestral cultural heritage. In Finland and Norway, the repatriation of Sami artefacts is in progress – the museums in Sweden should follow their example.

After repatriation, the Sami museums can be active collecting places that bring together past, present and future generations. They can be safe spaces where local communities can find their own ways to heal from the colonial traumas and empower themselves.

YM: Could you explain the concept of Rematriation? Furthermore, elaborate on what you and Eeva-Kristiina Nylander mean when you say that the ládjogahpir is rematriated?

OP: Eeva-Kristiina, who is finalizing her PhD studies about the Sami repatriation politics in Nordic countries, has said that rematriation starts from where repatriation doesn’t reach. The rematriation addresses the failure to liberate history from a gendered perspective – it acknowledges women’s histories and values. Our research concludes that the spiritual meanings embodied in the symbolism and the aesthetics of the ládjogahpir, the knowledge involved in both making and wearing it, and the emotions generated in the involvement with the ládjogahpir is what signifies rematriation.

The Sami guardian spirits dwell in the earth. When we embrace gender justice and pay attention to the larger biocultural reality, we will also comprehend that mother earth – the eannážan – as a female being, must be respected. For real rematriation to take place, the dozens of ládjogahpirs stored in museum collections in the Nordic countries and in Europe need to be returned to eana eannážan, to our mother earth. Only in their own cultural context can they be truly helpful in the processes of remembering, decolonising, and healing.

Image: Outi Pieski. Photo: Ari Karttunen.