My Home is in My Heart

In Among All These Tundras at Pātaka, the voices of Indigenous artists form a chorus that sings of their experiences of identity, language and home.

Among All These Tundras is an exhibition about the concerns of Indigenous artists from the circumpolar world. Situated throughout two main galleries at Pātaka, it includes various video works, photographs, sculpture and installations. The 12 artists exhibited here are from different Indigenous groups in the circumpolar region, including Canadian Inuit groups, Sámi from Norway and Finland, Kalaallit Inuits from Greenland and Alaskan Athabascans. Their voices form a chorus that sings of their experiences of indigeneity and their love for their identities, language and homes.

Tundras are vast, treeless landscapes endemic to the Arctic regions of Europe and North America, where the majority of the contributing artists are from. The works exhibited allow us to marvel at these landscapes and see them as they do – with reverence and love. The exhibition title comes from a poem by the Sámi writer Nils-Aslak Valkeapää ‘Ruoktu Váimuss (My home is in my heart)’:

How can I explain

that I can not live in just one place

and still live

when I live

among all these tundras

The poemis displayed across an entire gallery wall, translated from Sámi. It is the centrepiece of this exhibition, which represents Indigenous concerns from the Arctic but also worldwide, concerns familiar to Māori here in Aotearoa. These are land, language, sovereignty and the idea of homelands. They are reflected in various stanzas of the poem, which I keep coming back to as I walk around, each line becoming more meaningful and offering more insight as I go.

My home is in my heart

it migrates with me

You know it brother

you understand sister

but what do I say to strangers

who spread out everywhere

how shall I answer their questions

that come from a different world

The poem talks about migration and refers to the semi-nomadic lifestyle of many Sámi people, who often migrate at different times of the year. It talks about home being “all of this”, meaning all of the land they move across throughout the year. It also speaks to the difficulty of communicating a migratory way of living to an imposing ‘them’, who “come with papers / and say / this belongs to nobody / this is government land / everything belongs to the State”. The issue of Western ownership versus Indigenous stewardship is a tension felt in many of the artworks. A chief concern for these artists is the impossibility of communicating to imposing colonising forces – who believe in ownership over the land and its people – what it is to care for and deeply know the land.

How can I explain

that it moves with me

How can I explain

that others live there too

my brothers and sisters

What shall I say brother

what shall I say sister

Joar Nango, Sámi Shelters #1-5, 2009. Hand-knitted wool sweaters in ten different shades of colour. Courtesy of the artist. Photo: Elias Rodriguez / Mark Tantrum Photography

The first artwork that catches my eye is Sámi Shelters #1-5 by Joar Nango, a series of hand-knitted sweaters that are suspended from the ceiling. As an avid knitter, my attention is immediately drawn to them. Each one uses muted tones of blues, greens and greys to illustrate the different landscapes of the tundra. They float against the gallery wall, turning slowly. The sweaters depict five different lavvu (dwelling places) used to house Sámi people when they travel across their land. But the lavvu found here are not strictly traditional – they encompass both Sámi and Nordic elements, and are therefore simplified, colonised versions of Sámi architecture.

These works resonated with me. The skill required in knitting something so elaborate and with such clear detailing is amazing. The lavvu sit in front of ice, forests and bodies of water and are so intricately detailed that they almost appear to be painted. As the artist says, the sweaters “take the idea back to the very basics of architecture which is clothing, the first layer of shelter.” They align with the migratory nature of Sámi people, who take their homes with them. And, although these shelters are not strictly Sámi, the artist embraces their presence in his landscape, as important cultural signifiers of Sámi presence for local people.

Our ancestors kept fires on Allaorda

on Stuorajeaggis’s tufts

in Viiddescearru

Grandfather drowned in the fjord while fishing

Grandmother cut her shoe grass in Selgesrohtu

Father was born in Finjubakti in burning cold

And still they ask

where is your home

Carola Grahn, Look Who’s Talking, 2016. Courtesy of the artist. Photo: Elias Rodriguez / Mark Tantrum Photography

“Honestly, how shall I put this, I’m in a rather delicate situation.”

The text flashes large and confessional on the screen, capturing my attention. This piece, Look Who’s Talking,isby Carola Grahn, who is Sámi. She uses bold monochromatic text, with occasional illustrations projected on a loop, to reflect on being a white-passing Indigenous artist. The statements she uses are large, unapologetic, and demand to be read. She talks about her experiences of being at an Indigenous artist residency in Canada, and speaking with other artists about the issues that Indigenous peoples face worldwide. These conversations energise her, but are confronting. For the first time, she reflects on the whiteness of her skin and her subsequent proximity to white privilege, even as an Indigenous person:

Hearing them referring to all those stupid people as WHITE PEOPLE I finally looked at myself in the mirror and it struck me. My whole life I have never thought about the colour of my skin, (which is so f##king typical for white people) and I’m like WTF AM I ? WHITE ?

In the projected text, she writes about her struggles to connect with her uncle’s Indigenous knowledge, which she feels she doesn’t have access to because he won’t share it with her. These thoughts flash on the screen, “YOU KNOW NOTHING”, which she says is the way her uncles speak to each other. “If only I could find the sieidi,” she muses, referring to a sacred rock on the mountains near her uncle’s house that she’s been trying to locate all her life. In the face of cultural disconnection and confusion, she can only try and explore these issues by creating another piece of art.

They come to me

and show law books

Law books

that they have written themselves

This is the law and it applies to you too

See here

But I do not see brother

I do not see sister

I cannot

I say nothing

I only show them the tundra

Laakuluk Williamson Bathory, Timiga Nunalu, Sikulu (My Body, the Land and the Ice), 2016. Video by Jamie Griffiths, music by Chris Coleman, featuring vocals by Celina Kalluk. Courtesy of the artist

Laakkuluk Williamson Bathory is a Kalaaleq artist from the Inuit people of Greenland. Her video work Timiga Nunalu, Sikulu (My Body, the Land and the Ice) celebrates the land, by showing the sweeping and breath-taking landscape of the tundras. In it, she lies naked on an animal skin atop the tundra, boldly showing her Indigenous skin, tattooed and inked, against the icy landscape of her homeland.

This video makes me reflect on the many female nude paintings from the European art tradition and how the agency of women is often compromised by the men who paint them. Here, the artist represents herself, empowered and emboldened by her connection to the landscape around her. Her body and the land are displayed not as commodities to be exploited by the viewer, but as raw and remarkable works of art that defy any attempt to take advantage of them. She is staking a claim in the land, and also emphasising sovereignty over her own body.

I see your fjelds

the places we live

and hear my heart beat

all this is my home

and I carry it

within me

in my heart

On the back wall of the second gallery, two videos by Marja Helander, a Sámi artist and filmmaker, play on loop side by side. Maybe it’s the giant bear, or perhaps the rich fabrics the women wear, or the sweeping drone shots of landscapes that make them look like vast paintings, but I am instantly intrigued, and sit to watch both films from beginning to end. The first film, Dolastallat (To have a campfire),shows a Sámi woman pushing a sled through the mountains in Northern Russia. She wears traditional Sámi clothing, which shines red against the snowy landscape. Her journey takes her to an abandoned building filled with snow, where she sets up a generator and makes a cup of coffee. Behind her stands a large bear, to whom she offers the coffee when she’s done. The reverence of the situation is delightfully elevated by the artist’s sense of humour, as the bear, which is stuffed, doesn’t move to accept the coffee cup. The woman blinks, confused, before replacing the cup on its stool and moving to stand next to the bear, to assume the same stance as him.

Marja Helander, Dolastallat (To have a campfire), 2016. Courtesy of the artist

Highly revered in Sámi culture, the bear seems to represent a connection to tradition that the woman is searching for in an otherwise abandoned and lonely landscape. The tone – one of delight, humour and love – is moving. It’s really special to see Indigenous art with elements of fun and joy, while still commenting on the exploitation and destruction of Indigenous lands by outside forces.

I can hear it

when I close my eyes

I can hear it

I hear somewhere

deep within me

I hear the ground thunder

from thousands of hooves

I hear the reindeer herd running

or is it the noaidi drum

and the sacrificial stone

Helander’s second video, Eatnanvuloš Lottit (Birds in the Earth),won the Risto Jarva Prize at the Tampere Film Festival and was nominated for the Sundance Festival in 2019. The film shows two Indigenous girls, transformed into ballerinas, dancing through the many different landscapes of their Sámi homeland. Their grace and poise are set in disturbing contrast to some of the more devastating examples of land destruction and capitalist expansion in the places where they dance. The work invites the viewer to reflect on whose land they stand on and challenges us to be more aware of the histories and peoples who’ve traditionally inhabited our environments.

Marja Helander, Eatnanvuloš Lottit (Birds in the Earth), 2018. Courtesy of the artist. Photo: Elias Rodriguez / Mark Tantrum Photography

Parts of the video also depict the ballerinas pulling up artefacts from the snow, such as taxidermy animals, dolls and microwaves. The artist seems to be questioning the appropriateness of claims emphasising the ‘benefits’ of colonisation for Indigenous peoples. It does this by displaying the commodification and exploitation of natural resources that have resulted from industrialisation.

The ballerinas continue to dance, stretching their arms gracefully above their heads, twirling and gliding, in a gentle and entrancing act of activism. They cover up signs that say “Valtion Maata:State-owned land”, so that they read, more accurately, “Maata: land”. They journey across the countryside and through urban centres, treading lightly. And, at a few points, they are again transformed into young Indigenous women, wearing traditional Sámi clothing, dancing more free and expressive traditional dances, seeming to mimic the gestures of animals.

Somewhere deep within me

I can hear it

a voice calling

and the blood’s yoik I hear

In the depths

from the dawn of life

to the dusk of life

Among All These Tundras is a stunning and transportive exhibition. It takes us to an entirely unfamiliar landscape to encounter groups of people on the same journey of language revitalisation and cultural reclamation as Māori here in Aotearoa. Although the works celebrate what is, to me, a vast and foreign landscape, the heart of the show rings true. This makes me realise that there are so many opportunities for Indigenous people worldwide to connect and learn from one another.

Among All These Tundras gives me a sense of global connectedness and hope. That we are all on a journey to find what Dominican-American writer Junot Diaz calls ‘Decolonial Love’. This is, as he describes it, a love that can heal us of the pain of colonisation, and "the only kind of love that could liberate [us] from that horrible legacy of colonial violence." It also gives me hope that we can learn from one another through sharing our experiences, stories and art. The journey to re-indigenise institutions is long and difficult. But it is also done out of love. It is done because we, as Indigenous people, have been kaitiaki of our lands for centuries. And we are still here. And we will not leave.

All of this is my home

these fjords rivers lakes

the cold and sunlight and storms

The night and day of the fjelds

happiness and sorrow

sisters and brothers

All of this is my home

and I carry it in my heart

Among All These Tundras


28 March – 11 July 2021


This piece is presented as part of a partnership with Pātaka. They cover the costs of paying our writers, while we retain all editorial control.

Feature Image: Marja Helander Dolastallat (To have a campfire), 2016.

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The Pantograph Punch publishes urgent and vital cultural commentary by the most exciting new voices in Aotearoa.

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