Long reads


Art is free when we are free

Jenni Laiti, a Sámi duojár who combines art and activism in their artistic practice, asks whether Sámi art can be free if the Sámi people cannot independently decide their own fate. We asked Laiti to write us about the freedom of art for the launch of Kone Foundation’s new strategy.

 “I believe that we should be recognized as indigenous people, with the right to make our own decisions and govern ourselves. To once again take control of our lives, our lands, and our resources… People talk about this country being a free country. They have no idea of freedom. If you ever had the taste of freedom that I have known, you would never give it up, you’d fight for it like I do.”  – Thowhegwelth

What does it mean to be a free person and live freely, to be free on your own land and to govern your own life, country, culture and language? Can Sámi art be free if we are not free to decide for ourselves on the fate of our people, to govern our own lives?


The aesthetics of a beautiful life

According to Sámi artist Nils-Aslak Valkeapää, alias Áillohaš, traditional Sámi life was holistic. Art was not a separate event, but part of the artist’s philosophy of life. Everyone was an artist and everything was art. The aesthetics of life – Eallit čábbát, to live beautifully – was a good life lived in reciprocity and balance with the world. Whatever we did, we did it beautifully.

“Art as an isolated phenomenon is unknown to the Sámi. As a result, artists as a professional group are also a product of modern society, a result of the mad rush of our time. Through the Sámi lifestyle, each moment in life becomes an artistic experience. Carving with a knife, colourful clothes with a belt, a cap and a scarf, white moccasins on the snow, isn’t it a dance, even if the steps may be unsteady from time to time? Isn’t it beautiful when folk sit down in the snow, make a fire and gather around the flames?” – Áillohaš


Duodji vs. art

In the 1970s, the first  academically educated Sámi artists coined the Northern Sámi neologisms dáidda and dáiddár, based on the concepts of taide (art) and taiteilija (artist) in Finnish, a language belonging to the same family, and rooted in the Finnish words taitaa (know, be able to or master) and taito (skill). Similarly, the concept of dáidda stems from the word dáidu, meaning skill, ability, readiness, competence.

Similarly to the Finnish word taide, which is defined as creative, human action, the Oxford Dictionary defines the English word art, among other things, as “the expression or application of human creative skill and imagination.” The Sámi word duodji refers to handicrafts, work, a creation or piece that requires human thinking and action. Duodji is a creation resulting from materials, place, seasons and Sámi know-how that reveals life, aesthetics and spirituality. It is a creative, holistic expression of the Sámi language, land and culture, brought together in one worldview. It is an artistic way of living.

Duodji knowledge is subjective, fundamental and wide-ranging indigenous knowledge, including many millennia of tested and lived observations, experiments and errors, successes and failures. The duodji maker,duojár, often has a local approach, and duodji knowledge is intertwined with a specific local understanding.

A duodji is made for a specific person, a specific purpose. The duodji will look like its recipient: the recipient’s identity and personality will be evident in it. The process of making and receiving will establish a bond of love between the duojár and the duodji recipient. Duodji is social interaction, dialogue between people and nurture.

I’m a duojár, just like my parents and family. When I make duodji, I make more than an object or a piece – I create new life. In cooperation with the material, I discuss, communicate and create with love and from love. Each duodji has its own will, its own life. Respect, consent, trust, openness, honesty and mutual understanding are part of the process. My family, grandparents and people before them, future generations and the place, region and land I belong to are all involved in the creation process.

I have never felt at home in the Western world of art, which is built on cultural concepts and constructs and on the norms of what is considered to be remarkable art and how it is made. These cultural constructs were formed in 18th century upper-class male circles in Central Europe where not only art itself was created, but also the way art is viewed, interpreted and evaluated. The concept of art based on individualism, whiteness, heteropatriarchy, the aesthetic value of the work, etc. is still alive and continues to influence us in the background as the norm against which other ways of making and understanding art have been defined. The prevailing norm has been too narrow for duodji, like for many other fields of art. Art, however, is not a monolith. There have always been different concepts of art and different art worlds.

Words matter: with our words, we can influence art as a concept and an institution. Who makes the rules on the words used and whose words are used to define art? How do we want to see, experience and understand art, especially free art?


The requirement for justice

Living beautifully is reciprocity and mutual understanding which we apply to manage our relationships, while maintaining the ecological and social networks of life on which we all depend. None of us is a detached individual, but part of the whole. We are nothing without our community and our environment.

According to the ethics of duodji, an individual’s gift belongs to the community and Dat galgá leat octasaš buorrin – it must promote the common good. According to duojár Elle Valkeapää, we are links in the chain of life: “It also matters who has made the path for you to the point where you leave it in such a state that someone else can walk the same path.”

Our actions are not detached parts of the world either. Freedom of art does not mean living without responsibility; instead, it sets obligations on you. What motivates our work and actions makes a big difference.The purpose of life is to maintain life and to constantly recreate life. It is an artist’s duty to fight for justice and build worlds where we can exist and live as whole people.


Money makes the world go round?

Art does not exist unless it is made. An artist needs financial resources to make art. An artist will face a wide range of demands on the structures of art funding, which means that art that depends on funding is practically always the result of compromises. Art must be of high quality, impressive and as many people as possible must be able to experience it. It must be critical of society, socially responsible, have no carbon footprint… What, then, would make free Sámi art possible?

In accordance with the Finnish Constitution, as an indigenous people, the Sámi have self-government as regards the Sámi language and culture. For Sámi art, this means an annual special subsidy granted by the Ministry of Education and Culture. This year, the Sámi Parliament’s Cultural Board allocated EUR 179,000 for the purpose of promoting Sámi culture, supporting Sámi organisations in the Nordic countries and maintaining Sámi ‘church cottages’.

Only a small part of the funding for Sámi culture and art comes from the Sámi Parliament. When it comes from outside, the terms of Sámi cultural work are outlined and defined by others than the Sámi themselves. The assessment of the impressiveness, merits and quality of the projects takes place within structures outside the culture, in which the Sámi represents ‘the other’. It is a question of who determines the words and under what terms the work is done, who has the power and who makes the decisions.

When considering the freedom of art, the artist’s freedom is at the heart of the matter. According to Sámi artist Marja Helander, there are demands on a Sámi artist’s work from both the Sámi community and the mainstream population, such as the requirement to make Sámi art. Helander has often wondered if it would be possible to sometimes just paint trees simply because they love it? Would anyone fund Helander’s painting of landscapes and who would find it interesting?


Art is free when we are free

According to Elle Valkeapää, duodji provides you with a specific framework within which to operate, but it also gives you a lot of freedom. Resonance between duodji and the community strengthens the artist’s voice. To be able to create, you also need a reflective surface. Someone to receive the wordless messages.

Freedom means communal contacts and, consequently, being seen. It is a local, place-bound experience arising from a sense of belonging. Freedom means living beautifully and taking care of others and your surroundings. It means I can exist as part of my community and the world as exactly the person I define myself to be.

In my own work, art is a tool for creating other realities and new worlds. Time and time again through art, we have created radical, anti-colonial, love-filled spaces of freedom which are more equitable than reality and in which we can be, breathe, think, nurture, grow and live beautifully. We have lived and realised that when we are free, art is free too.

Living beautifully is a creative way to connect with the world. It’s a specific kind of being, a certain way of doing and acting. What if we saw making art as a form of being and creating, instead of limiting it to activities performed only by certain people? What if we saw art as belonging to everyone because it is part of humanity? Art could live freely, available to everyone, if we set it free.

Our knowledge and understanding of making art and the meaning of art in communities other than those we belong to is very fragile. According to Frame’s Head of Programme, Jussi Koitela, the concept of quality as a basis for evaluating art should be abandoned. In my opinion, minority art can have other meanings that are more essential than quality: the essence of art is what it achieves in its community. The value of art can be found in discussions about its themes, the process, beautiful living, the aesthetics of life and the special individual artistic way you encounter the world.

Free(r) art requires that art as a way of being in the world is an accepted way to be and live and that many very different and varied worlds of art can exist at the same time. The essential prerequisite for freer Sámi art is the realisation of the national self-determination of the Sámi people and the strengthening of their cultural autonomy.

This article has been a process of thinking together with Marja Helander, Savu Korteniemi and Terike Haapoja. Eatnat giitu. Giitos eatnat min olbmuide go lehpet viššalit ja árvasit oahpahan, juogadan ja ovddidan oktasaš buori.

The Thowhegwelth quote is from Sandy Johnston’s The Book of Elders (San Francisco 1994). The Nils-Aslak Valkeapää quote is from their book Greetings from Lapland (London 1983).






Jenni Laiti

The writer is a Sámi duojár, a maker of handicrafts and a member of the Laiti family of craftspeople. For them, the artivist concept of art that combines art and activism is a way of building a connection between the concept of duodji and acting in the prevailing art world. An artivist approach is the norm that defines what it is to be an artist. Laiti is involved in the first commission of the Punos working group’s project ‘Kenen ilmasto, kenen tulevaisuudet?’ (‘Whose Climate, Whose Future?’), funded by Kone Foundation. The first commission deals with justice.

Photo: Carl-Johan Utsi