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Sámi dieđut ja máhtut leat leahkimin

Joar Nango speaks with Rafico Ruiz on Sámi cosmologies, the practice of architecture, and generosity

ᐊᖏᕐᕋᒧᑦ / Ruovttu Guvlui / Towards Home was co-curated by Joar Nango, Taqralik Partridge, Jocelyn Piirainen, and Rafico Ruiz, with Ella den Elzen as Curatorial Assistant. We have also published talks featuring Partridge and Piirainen. The exhibition is currently on view in our Main Galleries and runs until 12 February 2023.

What does ruovttu guvlui mean to you?
When I think about the Sámi part of me—compared to, say, the Norwegian or the European or the international or the artist or the architect—I think of home and land and tradition and culture as something very present. These land areas where my family and my father’s family and my grandparents have been living their whole lives—these very rural areas, where all the stones and islands and geography are so fixed, you can see them in hundred-year-old pictures, and you hear stories about them—there’s something in that geography that’s present in me.

The connection between home and land is something that for me as a Sámi is very present and traditional and something highly respected and talked about. It’s something that guides you, something that corrects you if you do wrong, something that forces you to respect a certain way of thinking, speaking, and relating to it. And it was like that for all the generations before me. Believe me, it can also be frustrating and almost suffocating sometimes—traditions have their pros and cons—but these systems of respect and of knowledge and of languages and behaviour towards the land, for me, they’re what the title of the show, ruovttu guvlui, towards home, contains. The land carries a timeline way beyond the scale of any human being; it has a motherly energy and a language of its own. The culture back home is really about having a humility towards that energy.
In English, in my own interpretation of towards home, there’s something linear to the word towards, as if it’s about moving into the future. But for you, I wonder: Does ruovttu guvlui contain that same future dimension, or is there another experience of time within it?
I always cringe a little bit when I hear about a holistic type of thinking as opposed to a linear type of thinking. It seems like a dichotomic model; it’s very polarizing. I believe we are all—in different cultures, in so many ways—part of the same cosmology, even if we come from different backgrounds.

That being said, I also do really relate to the idea that we have different ways of evaluating man’s position in the world. Many of these traditional Sámi cosmologies are so embedded in craft or in reindeer herding or even in the language. These are the cultural strongholds we have. When you compare these with what the globalized, capitalist system calls for, always leaning on accumulation and growth and constant consumption, there are some values that really clash.

I’m interested in trying to universalize these Sámi cosmologies a bit, so that when we speak about them and work with them visually or spatially like I do, we include elements that reach beyond ethnic borders. They can be something that young people growing up in a city could adapt to and find inspiration in and partake in, right? That’s important for me. There are certain practices that every human being could embed more in their lifestyle and in the way they see the world. Listening, for example, is one of them—challenging this constant urge to always have control over processes and the economy and flows of resources.

There’s so much to gain from conversations about different cosmologies. You find so many valuable traditions in Indigenous cultures that perfectly exemplify how to think differently, how you can find ancient knowledge systems—still very valid today—on material treatments or on land or food cultivation.

Installation view of Joar Nango’s Sámi Architectural Library, 2022. Photograph by Mathieu Gagnon © CCA

Why do you think contemporary Inuit and Sámi artists are having such a profound influence on spacemaking and in the design world more generally?
It’s very connected to what we just spoke about actually. I’m quite interested in the idea of traditions and in asking what, really, defines a tradition, and how you keep a tradition alive. There are a lot of ancient customs and traditions that can be—or at least appear—very conservative, right? You have to do it this way because that’s how we’ve always done it. When you try to question why, you might not always find an answer.

When you have a curious mind, and when you’re in a Western educational system, you’re very often challenged and pushed and encouraged to question these thinking patterns, and I think that that can be a real challenge for a lot of Indigenous people. You can’t reject too many things, because rejecting it will also push you outside your community. There’s this duality of traditions embedded in all aspects of Indigenous community life—and in Indigenous architecture, as well. You have traditional architecture in, for example, Norwegian architectural history, but it’s treated differently and it’s talked about differently—modernism is very present in Norwegian architecture. In Indigenous culture, there’s a different kind of divide between traditional and modern. We have this conservative way of thinking: Norwegians see an old Sámi goahti and they think it’s ancient, that it’s a museum, but for many Sámi people, it’s like, “Ah, this is Sámi.” Of course, it’s a historical and traditional building, but we don’t think about it as something dead and belonging to a period of life that’s totally disappeared.
You’re sort of leading into my next question—and feel free to re-appropriate it—about how you define or understand the practice of architecture. What do you see as your role? Do you see it as within the context of Sámi territory? Is it more on a national scale or an international scale? Where do you find it’s grounded, if at all?
I don’t try to define it so much. There will always be room for so many ways to interact within the discipline—and that’s the beauty of it, right? There is room for architecture to be understood in subjective, personal ways, and to create personal narratives within the field, and that’s great.

Growing up as a Sámi with these type of questions, you’re always confronted with this idea about power structures and hierarchies and who gets to decide what within architecture. From a very young age, you’re somehow indoctrinated to question the system. You have to be critical of power if you’re born into an Indigenous identity. You see so much injustice being done, right? How my father was treated from a young age, the state’s racial structures. You get very critical, and then when you become an architect, you carry that with you. There was a moment during my studies when I put the word Sámi in front of architecture, and everything I’m now doing sort of unraveled from that point onwards.

Obviously, I’m not powerful enough as a singular individual to create institutional parliament buildings, so I have to use the formats available to me; I’ve been working a lot with visual artistic formats like smaller, temporary, fleeting structures or paper-based work. Just thinking and writing and imagining new type of architectural realities, and in all these processes, I always face the limitations of our self-determination rights. You’re always faced with that, but it’s an interesting task to keep on working in many different iterations, and our exhibition, for me, is one of these really great projects to be a part of. Working collectively with the same type of questions but in an international Indigenous—trans-Indigenous—format, in a meeting of the Sámi and the Inuit, with our cultural personalities and projects and ambitions.

I think of what I’m interested in as maybe more placemaking than architecture, more than the design of structure. But what these things have in common is that, for me, they are all attempts at making autonomous Sámi, Indigenous, grounded safe spaces—which doesn’t mean that there should be no non-Sámis or Western or settler voices allowed within the porridge of discussion, but definitely the conversation should be a place where we remove ourselves from the strangling and controlling power structures that capitalist nation-states create when they work with architecture.

Installation view of Joar Nango’s Sámi Architectural Library, 2022. Photograph by Mathieu Gagnon © CCA

Who do you think can or should hold land-based knowledges, particularly when considering how the practice of architecture could “listen” to the land in more profound ways?
There’s a complexity to this question in a way. I always feel very self-aware when speaking about Indigenous issues or involving myself within Indigenous political conversations—conversations about decolonization, for example—because, in some ways, I’m a very apolitical person, as a personality: I tend to quickly embrace the complexity of questions, and that leaves me not really able to be so opinionated about things, and so I’m a really shitty politician, right? Before I even have the capacity to say something, I’m already doubting myself and my thoughts.

So, there’s a certain complexity to what I would have to answer for a question like that. Who is entitled to work with land-based practices? In so many ways, I think that everyone is born with a connection to land and to environment and to a place equally. Still, you can’t just say that and leave the conversation there, because there are so many complexities to the way history has unraveled. Being political and talking about decolonization and Indigenous issues, I very often feel concerned about offending, for example, settlers, like my friends and my wife and all these people in my life who carry different cultural perspectives than I do.

At the same time, I also feel that there’s a strong necessity to lift up Sámi perspectives, because we still have all these traditional, land-based knowledge systems. They’re disappearing, and if we keep building these green-economy projects—engineering our landscape—then we’re eating up the land and we’re eating up the space that we need for our culture and for our land-based technologies to exist. We have to create a resistance as well.
Something I’ve observed in the exhibition is that one of its core facets is a really strong generosity and empathy from all the contributors. Your installation in the show is in a gallery we’ve labelled with the question “Where does land begin?” In the overall orientation of the show, there’s an embedded sense of generosity in that question: it invites many different communities to understand how you define home in relation to land, how everyone in a way has that kind of relationship available to them.
Generosity is necessary, but so are safe spaces—not necessarily exclusive, but safe, though exclusion can be a natural dimension to the process of making safe spaces. Generosity and its opposite, exclusion, are two dimensions that will always follow this conversation; it’s very important to juggle between these two attitudes to hold a conversation. I do hope that in the future, we will find ourselves in a place where we can be less exclusive, where we can be much more transcultural in the way we host the types of explorations and conversations that this exhibition holds. That we can find a common platform, through making projects like this show, where we all can share the same knowledge. I think that’s where it all starts: knowledge.

We need to raise this question more than once every tenth year at an institution like the CCA. Places like the CCA need to carry these types of knowledges always, and I think they need to keep them present, and to make sure that we all have a basic level of knowledge on these issues. Once we have that, we can start a completely new format for our discussions. We can reach much further and deeper and collaboratively into the future if we share a common knowledge base.

And this knowledge needs to be not only shared, but produced, and it needs to be co-produced. The Sámi architectural library structure, for me, the way it has grown since I made the first version in Ottawa at the National Gallery, it has become an attempt to create that type of platform for generating knowledge. It’s a space for generating and co-producing and creating an open type of accessible knowledge about Indigenous architecture that is very needed, I think. To have this kind of generosity—in the knowledge and in its production—is also very important.

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