How can you keep an Indigenous cultural tradition alive in the rushing roaring modern world? How about by turning it into wallpaper? That’s what Outi Pieski does in a work that humorously restages Andy Warhol’s pop art cow wallpaper, except the repeated image here is of a woman wearing a ládjogahpir, a hat that was once part of the dress of Sámi women in northern Finland and Norway. It is red, warm, with a horn or crown on top that’s the shape of an upturned shoe. The young women wearing this ancestral headgear with pride are part of a whole series of Arctic pop art works in which Pieski resurrects the ládjogahpir and makes it visible again.
She photographs the bright caps by themselves, in pairs, and being worn. This part of her entrancing exhibition at Tate St Ives is set up, ironically, like a fashion store. It is the closest her work comes to the consumerist urban norms of 21st-century Europe. Her heart, however, is in the mountains and ice fields of the far north, in another time stream, where landscapes are alive and forests have eyes. She sees that world with the passion of a campaigner and the vision of a remarkable artist.
Pieski was born in the modern world, Helsinki to be precise, in 1973 but she is of Sámi heritage. Her peoples have lived for millennia in the Arctic Circle, holding beliefs that are animistic and shamanist, many practising nomadic lifestyles with reindeer herds. Their traditional, bright costumes are practical for the icy far north. But the modern world’s ability to force everyone into the same lifestyle has worn away Sámi survival at Europe’s edge. Pieski is dedicated to fighting back.
So her art is joyous and bleak – a riot of colour in a vast eerie landscape of mountains and forests. Her pop art horn hats reclaim ritual in an approachable, witty way, but as you go deeper into this exhibition you are led into stranger places. Pieski’s painting Close to the Aspens looms up at the far end, a very tall, narrow canvas that makes you feel you are actually in a forest, gazing up into trees that seem as high as real trees. And this wood is haunted. Out of the aspen trunks above your head, two eyes darkly glisten. It is impossible to tell what creature possesses these huge orbs – but it isn’t human. Maybe a shaman, however, could enter the being that has those eyes.
More eyes stare back at you from a black gnarled roiling hillscape, like a world newly congealed from cooling lava, in another big painting that Pieski says is “a tribute to the persons who taught me to protect myself from evil spirits”. These paintings are wonderful. Her acrylics manifest the far north with an intense reality and unreality. A banded Arctic sky, layers of pale colour in the weak sun, makes you think of Edvard Munch. An expanse of brittle ice has the chilling majesty of JMW Turner’s paintings of Arctic whalers.
Like Anselm Kiefer, however, Pieski wears her talent for painting almost casually. She suggests this by nestling her landscape art in woven, multicoloured Sámi artefacts that transform the paintings into spells.
Her canvases are hung with hand-knotted tassels made with a Sámi technique called duodji. These twists and strands of colour don’t merely frame but existentially alter the paintings: they irradiate the icy worlds she paints with life and brightness. Who knew there were so many yellows, blues, oranges – duodji comes in a subtle ecstasy of hues. The myriad threads don’t glow luridly like city lights. Instead they illuminate nature with elusive filaments, like sunlight refracted through a melting icicle.
The Sámi craftwork settings make Pieski’s paintings feel like objects to be used in incantatory rites to restore the powers of nature. This mystical intention is clear in her installation at the heart of the show, not least from its title: Put a Spell on You. It’s composed of hand-knotted tassels hanging in gigantic mobiles that surround you and subject you to a kind of magical binding.
From inside this cathedral of northern light her paintings are positioned like compass points: one way leads to the towering spirit in the aspen trees, another to a dark feathery slash in a landscape of snow and ash. This big painting is a homage to a mountain in Norway named Rástegáisa. But she isn’t evoking it for art’s or even magic’s sake. The painting is called Independent Right to Exist and Flourish: it is a plea for this mountain sacred in Sámi culture to be recognised as a legal person with its own inherent rights.
Thus nature literally comes alive in Pieski’s art. She champions her Sámi heritage with a courage that is making a real impact on how Europe treats this marginalised culture: looking up the ládjogahpir hats, I was led straight to a German museum website that documents an intervention by Pieski in its collection of Sámi artefacts. In other words she’s making museums reconsider how they should treat the heritage of a people whose lands have been colonised and beliefs persecuted since the Reformation or earlier. Such objects may seem the relics of a remote lost world, yet Pieski shows that Sámi culture still glows with energy.
It’s a force we need. In the Indigenous vision of the world that Pieski translates into such good art, there is no impermeable barrier between humans and nature. The forests have eyes, the sun inhabits a knotted braid. The Arctic and its peoples may be imperilled. But this truly original artist can make you feel one with its mountains and seas, its peoples and spirits.
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