When I call Sámi artist and architect Joar Nango, he’s sitting in his shared studio in Tromsø, Norway, illuminated in part by a wash of rose-tinted light and an orbiting disco ball lamp. Only a few weeks ago, from the same space, he launched the digital version of his iterative project Girjegumpi, (also known as the Sámi Architectural Library) at The World Around’s second edition hosted by the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum. Nango, who resides in his people’s traditional territory known as Sápmi, which spans parts of Norway, Sweden, Finland and Russia, is no stranger to such illustrious venues. In 2017 alone, he was among the inaugural cohort of Sámi artists included in the 14th edition of the quinquennial exhibition “documenta.” For the show, split between Athens and Kassel, his performance-stage-cum-civic-platform European Everything centred voices often left on the periphery in a social space comprised of neon lights, roughly hewn timbre scaffolds, hides and even an appropriated factory sign.
This thread of improvisation is central to his practice and largely reflective of the realities of life in the circumpolar North, “where resources are scarce and the climate unpredictable, harsh and unmerciful,” he says. When the COVID-19 pandemic halted a major retrospective at the Bergen Kunsthall, Nango responded in turn by “lifting” his extensive research into vernacular and Indigenous design practices into a roving television program that became the three-part series Post Capitalist Architecture TV (with more episodes on the way). Together, these strategies of transformation and misuse apparent here and throughout his work help imagine possible futures and new political forms, charting a path that centres Indigenous voices through ad-hoc spatial interventions. In our recent conversation, Nango relays how these techniques shape the difficult yet rewarding project of reclaiming both space and language for Sámi, as well as his penchant for adaptation — whether it’s a peripatetic library or his trusted Mercedes Sprinter.
The first time I encountered your work was here in Toronto at the exhibition “Folding Forced Utopias, For You.” Among other things, the show looked at the Canadian government’s paternalistic housing program for forced Inuit settlements in Nunavut in the mid-20th century, which is indicative of your larger preoccupation with how architecture intersects with Indigenous communities across the circumpolar North. When did your interest in these connections begin?
- Joar Nango
Being Sámi and being interested in architecture, it’s something that you’re aware of as soon as you start exploring the built environment. I guess that the motivation for very consciously working with these ideas came half-way or towards the end of my studies when I was more confident in thinking on my own within the field. I’m always a bit philosophical in my way of approaching architecture — preferring the thinking and experimenting part more than the problem-solving dimension. So, I started really working with creating space for Sámi and Indigenous architectural questions and discussions. My Master’s thesis solely dealt with that. For almost a year I was diving very deep into research and creating projects — some built and some more two-dimensional in a magazine format like the fanzine Sámi Huksendáidda — that looked at these kinds of discussions. Since then I’ve been working with concepts of Indigenous architecture as an everyday task or project.
Your ongoing project Girjegumpi or the Sámi Architectural Library also borrows from this, coalescing material on Indigenous architecture and design you’ve collected over the years. Did the project and the corresponding archive stem from Sámi Huksendáidda?
I think that the zine project was really where it began. I started gathering materials that I came across: articles from magazines, even things that weren’t dealing with Indigenous architecture but other important issues as well. I took the articles and replaced whatever that subject was with “Indigenous architecture” because, in my mind, it was fitting. A lot of this re-appropriation of texts and sources became a strategy to work with. Through both architecture and art, I’ve come across a lot of interesting material. Almost three years ago, I realized that this collection was special. It’s a mixture of highly political, anarchist and philosophical texts combined with very specific types of literature from local historical Sámi sources. The combination of both hyper-global, international political material and more local, grounded and super narrow material became an interesting way of framing or creating a type of archive. So, I decided to make a library out of it.
At the same time that the Girjegumpi is a collection of knowledge and books, it’s also an undefined conversation that people can be a part of shaping. It’s an eclectic project. It’s not an institution. I think it’s a bit like how libraries were thought of in Ancient Greece. These spaces were more of a social gathering place than simply storage for books. In that way, it resonates.
When did you realize the library had to be its own space?
It was on the invitation to be an artist for a local festival in northern Norway. I was sitting in my studio, thinking what I should do and looking at the bookshelf. I realized that these publications would be an interesting material to finally work with. At the same time, I was hosting some young architecture students who were interested in Sámi design. They were coming into my studio and looking through my library. This led to the idea that I could make a library that was public and could serve the purpose of sharing this type of knowledge. I guess that’s the moment I decided to manifest it in a small building inspired by the gumpi, a nomadic structure used by Sámi reindeer herders.
It made total sense that it was a mobile structure. This has to do with the way Sámi culture is organized. Our centralizing politics is to decentralize. As a society, we’ve been building many smaller cultural centres as opposed to putting everyone in one urban space. For instance, the Sámi Parliament and many of the museums we have are in smaller Sámi settlements and villages where there is a cultural stronghold. Instead of leaning on the urbanization of Indigenous people, we are trying to build another kind of political body by reinforcing these small villages and community centres on the land. Therefore, it made sense for me to make a library that could travel to these areas across Norway, Sweden, Finland and Russia. There’s a lot of festivals throughout the year in Sápmi, the Sámi territories. I remember I made a calendar once showing the wheel of the year where you could travel to all the annual Sámi cultural events. It’s quite dense, one or two every month that are of high importance, so the idea was that the Girjegumpi could follow that wheel. It’s been to four of them already, with some detours to Ottawa and Oslo.
You recently launched the project online in collaboration with ArkDes and The World Around. Was the intention always to create a digital archive of the material or did this stem from the current situation and pandemic restrictions?
For my contribution to this important conference, The World Around, we built a website to have a more inviting and generous knowledge-sharing session than just me speaking for half an hour. And, to allow people to browse the content themselves. However, I think it really doesn’t serve sufficient respect to the library itself. There’s something still very asocial about it. I feel it doesn’t hold the power of the Girjegumpi, of the architectural library, neither the Canadian one nor the one I produced over here. I’m not planning to keep it up forever, but it will be here for a while to serve as a way of reaching out internationally.
In part three of your television series Post Capitalist Architecture TV, you discuss the colonial history of Sápmi through the lens of an 18th-century encyclopedic publication made by the missionary Knud Leem for the King of Denmark and Norway, which documents Sámi material culture and architecture, with art historian Mathias Danbolt. On one hand, it’s a voyeuristic and ethnographic document. But, on the other, it functions as an important record of vernacular structures as well as Sámi life. The library also contains similar complicated, slippery publications such as Living in the New Houses. Do you see the more social dimensions or the activations — such as hide tanning and bookbinding — that animated the library in recent installations as a way to work through this material?
That’s a very important observation. Those social activations around the library generate a clearly Sámi, grounded, from the bottom-up type of space. I’m holding it, I’m producing it and I’m very conscious of who I am inviting in. I’m trying to empower the Indigenous and Sámi narratives and trying to create a more autonomously grounded conversation. The social aspect has a very political dimension to it that I haven’t found yet in the digital format.
Speaking of digital formats: Post Capitalist Architecture TV, which was made due to pandemic restrictions and the postponement of your solo exhibition at the Bergen Kunsthall, also exemplifies the thread of ingenuity, hacking and improvisation in your work. You even describe it as an “improvised TV series.”
It’s something that really came out of what happened in March of last year when, due to the pandemic, we had to pause the large solo exhibition I had been planning and building for over a year. Instead of cancelling everything, we decided to move it to a digital platform and make it a conversation- and discussion-based production so it could grab some of this research I had been working on and lift it into a TV format. A big part of the project is the collaboration with my cousin Ken Are Bongo from Kautokeino, an amazingly skilled Sámi filmmaker. We’re having a lot of fun with it and learning a lot from each other by tapping into a different artistic experience.
We originally made three episodes. The first one is about materiality and vernacular architecture. The second one is about nomadism and movement, and the third one is about decolonization. We recently made a fourth one about landscapes and resource extraction, particularly concerning the development of wind power farms in Sámi reindeer herding areas and the conflict that emerges out of that. We are just writing the script for the fifth episode about the gumpi.
For the series, I re-programmed and transformed my Mercedes Sprinter — a large van that I’ve been using for many different projects — into a TV studio. With the mobile studio, I was able to travel within the pandemic restrictions in the North, visiting a few interesting people and places and meeting them in a careful and safe way. At the same time, also bringing in people through a small projection and screen set up that I built inside the van. Using a 4G signal through the phone, we were able to stream from anywhere and talk to people from Latin America, North America and other countries. The screen is designed from fish stomachs I sewed together — based on this old sea Sámi tradition of making windows called skievvar — and then projected these interviews on. I also made a fireplace from a car door and installed a wood fire oven. The whole TV setting inside the van became something that actually drew slightly from the laavu [a traditional Sámi dwelling] as an interior space and architectural typology.
Is that the same van you used as part of your project for “documenta 14” when you drove from your home in Norway to Athens?
It is the same vehicle but after numerous expensive repairs. Every time I bring it in for repairs they just say: “Hey, come on. It’s not worth it to fix this car. You’ve just got to dump it. You can just buy a new one instead.” I feel super nostalgic about it — all the narratives, stories and memories that are built into it. I always think about it as an artwork itself, a little bit like a sculpture. With my collective FFB – Felleskapsprosjektet å Fortette Byen, we had originally been using the vehicle as a mobile workshop and studio. It’s been a cinema, it’s been a restaurant, it’s been a sauna. It’s been a lot of different things.
Other works such as Skievvar, commissioned for the 2019 Chicago Architectural Biennial, find their origin in language. Previously you’ve wrapped an abandoned gas station in graphic lettering and your installation European Everything even turned the letter “E” from a defunct factory sign into a stage. What role does language play in your work?
In so many ways I think of architecture and its method of dealing with cultural and geographical specificities as having a lot of similarities to language. On a metaphorical level, I think that language and architecture have so much in common. It’s a natural connection that I continue to think about. When it comes to the Sámi language, I wasn’t raised with it. I knew a little bit, but I’ve been teaching myself. After I became a parent, I began teaching my daughter so that Sámi is her first language, which is quite special. Taking back and reclaiming the language is a very difficult and exhausting thing to do. But, it is also existentially very rewarding because you gain access to other ways of thinking and you get a different social connection to the community and the culture you were raised in, partially because you weren’t fluent in that language. Through architecture, I am doing the same thing as I am doing with my language: trying to reclaim space for the Sámi culture within the built environment, trying to make some sort of repair. I am trying to rediscover things and maybe also reimagine some of these potentials that, due to colonization, weren’t allowed to bloom or fulfill themselves. I do the same with language, with my daughter and with my family.
Do you also consider space a kind of language?
Yes, exactly. I’ve even been writing about that, actively using that way of arguing in some of my projects. With FFB, I’ve been working on a project called Spaces for Disagreement. What we’ve been trying to do is to think about architecture and spaces as inclusive forms, as ways of making people come together and talk to each other. I think architecture has this intuitive dimension to it that can be a more generous and a lot less conflict-accelerating type of language that allows people to come together despite disagreements. Instead of putting people around a circular table and making them rhetorically try to solve the problem, we’ve been working very consciously with creating architectural spaces that bring them together to work with this type of disagreement as a component. Not necessarily solving it, but approaching this disagreement as something possible to overcome. I think that is something we should try to challenge a bit more by looking beyond ourselves. For me, as an artist and an architect, I think that working with space is a powerful tool. I think that space in itself is a language.
For the artist and architect, language sovereignty is intrinsically linked to his ongoing project of reclaiming space for Indigenous architecture.