Some Thoughts on Nils-Aslak Valkeapää’s Visual Art

By Irene Snarby

Translated by Troy Storfjell

Sámi art history is barely more than a century old; the first Sámi visual artists were Johan Turi, Nils Nilsson Skum and John Andreas Savio. But that was just a beginning. It was only in the 1970s that Sámi artistic activity became so widespread that one needed to develop a separate term for visual art: the word dáidda. Sámi visual art has undergone massive growth and development since then.

In 1979 Nils-Aslak Valkeapää took the initiative to establish Sámi Dáiddačehpiid Searvi (The Sámi Artists Union), of which he also became an honorary member. Today this organization has more than 70 members in Norway, Sweden, Finland and Russia. In Karasjok the museum RDM-Sámiid Vuorká-Dávvirat (The Sámi Collections) has a collection of more than 1000 works that comprise a representative selection of Sámi art.

Today it is difficult, as well as improper, to look for common traits in the work of all Sámi artists. They comprise a very diverse group in which the only commonality is, actually, that they are all artists who identify themselves as Sámi. Some work in contemporary art, orienting themselves towards global trends and approaches, while others work with materials, techniques, thematics and symbols that have a clearer origin in their Sámi background. In this latter group we find Nils-Aslak Valkeapää, grounded firmly in his own culture in his artistic production. Even if institutional Sámi art history cannot be said to be very long, Sámi art can be viewed as having existed for hundreds, or perhaps thousands of years, and when that tradition is brought into visual art we recognize it immediately.

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Irene Snarby has an art historian's approach to the artist. Also on that field, he was a cosmopolitan and contributed greatly to the establishment of and put Sami visual arts on the map in the 1970s. Irene Snarby is a researcher and PhD candidate and associated with SARP (The Sámi art research project) at the University of Tromsø.