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Outi Pieski, photo Heikki Tuuli

Sami Artist Outi Pieski On Green Colonisation

Outi Pieski, a master of blending tradition with the contemporary, infuses her art with a profound emotional depth. Born in 1973 in Helsinki, Pieski’s art is a testament to the rich heritage of her Sámi father and Finnish mother. Her journey through the Visual Arts School and the Academy of Fine Arts in Helsinki, and the Sámi Education Institute in Inari, was a path of self-discovery and cultural exploration.

Pieski’s canvas is a dance of traditional Sámi tassels, a blend of yarn, branches, and the textures of ornamental quilts. Her installations are rooted in Nordic nature and reverberate with the pulsating heart of the Arctic. Her works are exhibited in The Tate, St Ives, until 6 May.

Pieski’s art is not just a medium of expression; it’s a powerful voice, an activist’s call to action. Her exhibitions are not mere displays; they’re powerful narratives that speak of resilience, of the right to thrive on ancestral lands, of duodji—the Sámi craft that weaves the community’s collective memory and future aspirations. For Pieski, duodji is not just a craft; it’s a symbol of strength, a beacon of hope that stands tall against the waves of forced assimilation and colonialism.

Her accolades are as varied as her art, from the Fine Arts Academy of Finland Award to the Finnish Cultural Foundation’s Grand Prize, reflecting her status as a cultural conduit and an artistic force. Museums and biennales from Venice to Gwangju have witnessed the Outi Pieski phenomenon—a phenomenon that articulates a powerful, decolonial feminism through the threads of a ládjogahpir, the traditional Sami horn headgear.

As Pieski’s narrative unfolds, so does the story of her people, mirrored in the art that serves as both a memorial and a beacon—a beacon that shines, inviting us to dream, understand, and respect the bonds between culture, nature, and art.

Sami Artist Outi Pieski On Green Colonisation

KOL Social: What role does cultural heritage play in shaping your artistic approach?

Outi Pieski: I studied Fine Arts academically in Helsinki and have a background in Sami craft making, which I learned from my family. Additionally, I have taken crafting courses. The Sami Duodji tradition plays a significant role in my artistic practice. It’s incorrect to translate Totke merely as crafting, as it embodies a holistic concept that preserves the Sami philosophy and values and merges these with practical knowledge and ancestral traditions.

KOL Social: Can you trace your family quite far back?

Outi Pieski: In Sami culture, we identify ourselves through connections to our family and ancestors. My Sami name, Čiske-Jovsset, represents a lineage that includes me, my father, his mother, his father, and so on. This naming helps us understand our connections when we meet others within the Sami culture.

KOL Social: In what ways do you believe your art contributes to the representation and preservation of Sami culture?

Outi Pieski: My artistic practice begins with the land and is intended primarily for my people. It’s crucial for representing our own Sami societies and their well-being. This focus makes my work interesting to others as well. 

My art is deeply connected to the land, which is often misinterpreted as a wider, uninhabited area—a political term. I aim to portray it as a cultural environment that has developed in coexistence with all living entities, including humans. Indigenous peoples, including the Sami, play a vital role in the international climate crisis because the remaining biodiversity hotspots are in our areas. 

I assert that the Sami are guardians of nature in our regions. In my painting, I explore themes of guardianship over nature, which are prevalent among indigenous communities globally. It’s crucial to acknowledge that sacred places in Sami, like our holy mountains, should have rights equivalent to humans in law. 

These perspectives are essential in our battles against industrial land use. Currently, we face a new wave of what I call green colonialism due to global green development initiatives, resulting in significant mining interests and windmill industry plans in Sami lands, which are quite concerning.

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Outi Pieski, Guržot ja guovssahat – Spell on You!, 2020. Installation view, 23rd Biennale of Sydney, rīvus, 2022. © Document Photography (3)

KOL Social: Can you describe your creative process when starting a new piece of art, particularly your use of traditional Sami handicraft techniques?

Outi Pieski: The essence of working with the Duodji tradition is its collective creativity. It’s not solely about individual expression but also about sustaining collective creativity. For example, part of my exhibition includes installations crafted from Sami soul-making traditions, such as tassel-making techniques used in shawls. The same materials and techniques are applied in these installations. 

Several Sami women have assisted me in this crafting process. These installations invite viewers into a precious space, connecting them to places of personal significance. They offer a sensory experience, evoking a special place’s essence, while underlining our responsibility to preserve and strengthen these traditions. They reflect the Sami land, imbued with our colours, asserting our enduring presence.

KOL Social: How do the landscape and environment of the Far North influence your artistic expression?

Outi Pieski: My painting practice is deeply rooted in the experience of the homelands, beginning with walking, skiing, and collecting gifts from nature. This connection continues onto the painting board, where I strive to preserve specific moments of connection. In my wall paintings, I aim to recall and sustain these vital experiences. The painting process itself is a partnership with liquid paint materials, allowing the art to form in a natural flow, where I am more of a participant than a sole creator.

KOL Social: As an artist and an activist, what do you see as the most pressing challenges facing Sami people today?

Outi Pieski: We are at a time when there is global scrutiny on the Arctic, as it still harbours untouched natural gifts. This interest also casts light on indigenous art and the issues related to political and colonial dynamics. 

While my art primarily addresses my people, its exhibition in broader contexts, like here in St Ives, highlights the interconnectedness of so-called minority culture problems with global environmental and conservation issues. By valuing the voices and perspectives of marginalised and minority communities, we can broaden our understanding of critical and relevant issues that ultimately affect us all.

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Outi Pieski: Golle-eana / Kultamaa / Land of gold Kuva/Photo: Ella Tommila / EMMA

KOL Social: How has your art evolved over the years, and what have been some pivotal moments?

Outi Pieski: In recent years, my focus has shifted toward collaborative art projects. One prominent project featured in this exhibition is an interdisciplinary art and research initiative conducted with archaeologist Eva Christina. We’ve delved into the minds and bodies of Sami women’s histories in colonial contexts through a specific museum artefact—the ládjogahpir, a traditional hat worn by Sami women until the 1870s. 

This piece’s damage is tied to the colonial era when heteropatriarchal influences disrupted the balance between genders in Sami society. Our project emphasises the need for repatriation of these cultural items. 

We advocate for ‘rematriation’—a term we use to represent the return of such items and to illuminate gendered history and its connection to land issues. We’ve conducted workshops creating new ládjogahpirs with other Sami, sparking vital conversations and confronting intergenerational trauma, but also rediscovering the profound knowledge our ancestors possessed.

KOL Social: Aside from Sami culture, what other sources of inspiration do you draw upon in your work?

Outi Pieski: My inspiration predominantly comes from my daily lifetime spent with my family in our homeland. Artmaking for me is a medium to connect with others. It remains my primary tool for engaging with my local community and society at large.

KOL Social: What are your thoughts on the representation of Indigenous artists in the global art world today?

Outi Pieski: Indigenous artists are often on the frontline of the climate crisis. Indigenous cultures hold deep ancestral knowledge crucial for the world to relearn and reclaim. This knowledge is as valuable as new technological advancements. The self-determination of indigenous peoples is intrinsically linked to climate crisis issues and cannot be seen in isolation.

KOL Social: What has been your most challenging piece, and why?

Outi Pieski: The most challenging work, not shown in this exhibition, was when I had to cut down a tree that was dear to my grandmother to expand our family home. To honour her and the tree, I created tassels for the tree branches, which led to the installations I work on now. 

This process became about connecting with my family through the Duodji practice, crafting as an act of love. I describe this as ‘radical softness’—a concept that’s vital when facing ongoing colonial impacts in Sami society. It emphasises the importance of well-being and internal work within our community.

KOL Social: Why did you have to cut down the tree?

Outi Pieski: We needed to expand our small cottage to accommodate our growing family. The tree was situated where we had to build; unfortunately, it was the only viable option for the extension.

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Outi Pieski, photo: Teuri Haarla

KOL Social: So, on the opposite end of the spectrum, what’s your favourite piece? And why?

Outi Pieski: In this exhibition, my favourite piece is a painting titled “The Independent Right to Exist and Flourish.” This name draws from the Ecuadorian constitution, reflecting the Sami people’s role as guardians of nature in their homelands. 

I am captivated by how jurisprudence texts can be both precise in their language and highly political. They encapsulate the significance of our struggle with land protection and the pursuit of indigenous self-governance, highlighting the multilayered efforts necessary for progress.

KOL Social: What is the response when people learn about the Sami tribe?

Outi Pieski: Educating others that we exist is crucial, especially since in Scandinavia, there’s a lack of awareness in the education system about the Sami. The response is not only about Sami issues but also reflects a broader context of indigenous peoples’ situations worldwide. It’s about our collective responsibility concerning the climate crisis. 

Often, indigenous peoples are thrust into significant roles on the front lines while struggling to maintain our cultural vitality against industrial land use and insufficient self-determination granted by nation-states. It’s vital that we claim space for ourselves, promoting radical love, well-being, and healing.

KOL Social: What is your vision and hope for the future of arts and culture?

Outi Pieski: My hope is that contemporary art continues to be a domain for free dreaming and experimentation, embracing creative expressions from diverse cultural backgrounds. It should foster biodiversity in creativity. 

I often question why my ancestral duodji tradition is relegated to ethnographic museums while Western art traditions dominate art museums. There’s a vast discrepancy in how these platforms value our cultural expressions, and I hope to see this gap bridged in the future.

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The Outi Pieski exhibition runs from 10 February to 1 May 2024 at  Tate St Ives, Porthmeor Beach, St Ives, Cornwall TR26 1TG. For more information, visit tate.org.uk 

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