Susanne Hætta

Haetta, Susanne.jpg
CIMAM 2021 grantee Susanne Hætta, Author, Artist, Photographer, Vadsoe, Norway. Photo by Ingerid Jordal

3 contemporary art curators residing in Norway were awarded to take part in CIMAM 2020 StayHome Curatorial Online Residency and to attend the CIMAM 2021 Annual Conference in Poland (November 5 – 7, 2021).

This unprecedented curatorial residency project, funded by OCA – Office for Contemporary Art Norway, in an exclusively online format to adapt and add value to the CIMAM Travel Grant Program, given the new virtual scenario to which the COVID-19 pandemic led us.

The call for applications was addressed to young contemporary art museum directors, and curators working institutionally or independently residing in Norway, with priority to professionals from Sámi or from diaspora backgrounds.

The grant aimed to support their curatorial and research development and to make successful candidates more widely networked and empowered by the mentoring of CIMAM board members. In this process, the mentor Agustín Pérez Rubio, Curator 11th Berlin Biennale, based in Spain, has been a great help and an inspiration to talk to for Susanne.

More information related to the grantee and her written report is provided below.

About Susanne Hætta

I would like to expand my writing and my artistic practice, and move into curatorial practices. A stay-at-home curatorial can be a starting point for a new direction. I am a Sámi, and as you read this, I am curating my first exhibition, opening Nov 22 in Guovdageaidnu, Sápmi (supported by the Sámi Parliament in Norway, RiddoDuottarMusea and OCA). Dáiddadállu, the Sámi art collective where I am a partner, gave me this opportunity. The exhibition is called Iežamet, which means What is ours. It consists of one artwork from each of the eight members of the Mázejoavku, pioneers on the Sámi art scene, that formed a collective over 40 years ago, and thus redefined what Sámi art and artist were, and could be. A book about the Mázejoavku, written by me and published by OCA and DAT, is published Nov 5.

“I would like to investigate early Sámi photographers (before 1975), that pointed their lenses towards their own people and culture. This grant gives me the possibility to start researching, for the benefit of the Sámi community, both artists and others”.

There aren’t too many Sámi curators, and I have a humble ambition to move into that area, and possibly be a servant for my people by highlighting Sámi artists and duojárs. I mostly use photography in my own artistic practice, and I want to focus more on Sámi photographic practice than others has done before. As far as I know, there haven’t been any exhibitions of a certain scale concentrating on Sámi photographers. I am especially interested in early Sámi photographers, pointing the camera at themselves, their own lives, their lands. Numerous photographers have portrayed the Sámi people since cameras were invented, but the outsider’s look is so old now. It’s shows curiosity, but is can also be patronizing, colonial and exoticising. Sámi photographers will be my focal point for investigations in the years to come, and I would very much like to bring them out into the light, starting now.

CIMAM 2020 StayHome Curatorial Online. Written report by Susanne Hætta

My intention for this stay-at-home curatorial residency was to find early Sámi photographers, with practices before 1975. Photography is a relatively newly recognized art form in Norway and also in Sápmi. For example, the first photography accepted in the renowned annual State Art exhibition in Norway was as late as 1971, by Kåre Kivijärvi. He had Sámi family roots but was reluctant to call himself Sámi. I will return to Kivijärvi later in this essay. Early on, I realized that I could not limit my search to artists, or photographers who solely focused on creating art.

The Sámi people is one of the most photographed Indigenous peoples in the world, as we have always had contact with others, and welcomed visitors. Being the others have until recently been the only position Sámis could have. The exoticism flourishes when you take a look at most of these photographs, way back to the 1800s.

Even today, there aren´t many Sámi art photographers, compared to the total number of Sámi artists, for example, painters and writers. However, there is duodji, the Sámi holistic aesthetic practice that includes knowledge about nature, materials, beliefs; physically manifested in the making of clothing, equipment, and tools, both for a traditional and a modern Sámi lifestyle. A practitioner of duodji, a duojár, makes elaborate carvings or embellishments on his/her objects, at the same time as they must be highly functional and well-fitted to the hand or the body for whom the object is made. Duodji contains so much more than this essay allows to delve into.

Áillohas/Nils-Aslak Valkeapää (1943-2001) photographed from the 1970s, showing photos with poetry, paintings, and drawings in his art books. He was a well-known and respected Sámi artist, musician, and Indigenous politician, with a versatile practice.

As versatility is a trait in Sámi societies, I don’t expect to find persons who photographed as their only artistic practice or sole profession, although one such man came to my attention: Nils Thomasson from the Swedish side of Sápmi.

When I write discovered, it’s because the knowledge of Sámi early photographers is not collected systematically, after what I know, at least not on the Norwegian side of Sápmi, where I live. However, museum professionals and curators have included them in exhibitions, but from which point in time would that have happened the first time?

There might have been group exhibitions, where the photographers themselves identified as Sámi, but the length of this residency didn’t allow to investigate everything around this issue, as Sámi inhabit areas in four national states. A question arises: would it have been possible to arrange group exhibitions based solely on ethnicity? As a person coming from a small town, far away from the capital of Norway, during a time of assimilation politics, Kåre Kivijärvi had enough obstacles to overcome to be recognized as an artist. Being open about his Sámi family would possibly have made him a victim of discrimination, and shut some doors, both in his community (a norwegianised town) and in the art circuits in the capital of Norway. His last name witnessed his Finnish roots, and a name you cannot hide from, so it was more opportune to be open about his Finnish ancestry.

My own path to making my choice to be a full-time photographer, artist, and writer at the age of 39, began in the darkroom with my father. He allowed me to both, photograph with his cameras and develop film before I was even old enough to go to school. My father is also a Sámi photographer, even though he would oppose the notion that he is an artist. Both he and I would say he is a documentarist and journalist (the latter has also been one of his occupations). My father has been a good source for finding early Sámi photographers, such as himself because as a teenager, he developed films for others in his Sámi community in the 1950s. His materials of tens of thousands of negatives can also bear witness to a different way of seeing Sámi persons and Sámi life.

My professional outcome of this residency has been like ducking under the surface by an iceberg, getting a glimpse of what is hidden underneath. I have many more questions than when I started. Who were Sámi photographers in the 1880s, 1920s, 1940s, and 1960s?

What did they photograph, and in which manner? How did they come to own cameras? How did they portray their own people, their livelihoods, and families? I now have seven to ten named persons to investigate and have even been given the opportunity to look through all of the negatives belonging to a Sámi midwife, who lived through most of the last century. I am excited about what the photographs will tell us.

My mentor, Agustín Perez-Rubio, has been a great help and inspirator in the process. I hope to keep in touch with him to discuss other aspects of my project. This residency has made me realize that I have an obligation to find, and bring these photographers out into the light, digitalize and document their works. Hopefully, it can lead to new knowledge, the productions of books and exhibitions in a few years? I will seek professional archive and/or museum resources and collaborators in this work.

We have for centuries seen how Sámi are portrayed by journalists, ethnographers, anthropologists, and other scientists, most of them men. How would a Sámi woman photograph her own surroundings? What, indeed, would she photograph, if she owned a camera? The questions are too many, and I hope answers will enfold during the next years. I am truly grateful for this grant, and I will continue this work for the benefit of the Sámi communities, future researchers, and future photographers and artists.