Nature Cosmologies: Sámi Knowledge and Aesthetics in Sissel M Bergh’s Hovren Gåetie

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Editor’s Note: This is the eighth post in Part II of the Visual Cultures of the Circumpolar North series edited by Isabelle Gapp and Mark A. Cheetham.

Knowledge of pre-colonial Sámi cosmology is as diverse as it is incomplete; much of it was lost due to colonial violence. A central story that has persevered is the Great Hunt, which the Sámi artist Sissel M Bergh (*1974) transfers into an aesthetic experience in her installation Hovren Gåetie (2022). The systematic movement of the stars across the sky provides Sámi with temporal, spatial and spiritual orientation: the stories told while watching the sky, mirror a reciprocal relationship with the world.1

Sissel M Bergh, Hovren Gåetie, Installation (mixed media), 2022 © the artist.

As the story goes, the Great Hunt is repeated every night in the (sub-)arctic sky. Its protagonist – the huge elk, Sarve – is chased across the firmament by a star constellation that resembles a man with a bow. The hunter, Favnna, is just one of the many constellations that takes part in this spectacular event. Luckily, Favnna’s fatal shot with a bow is prevented by the Noerhte Naestie, the polar star. Its task is to keep the sky in place; if the elk were hit, the sky would fall to earth and the end of the world would be imminent. Thus, every night the fate of humankind is at stake, according to the Sámi sky reading. This story is at the heart of Bergh’s installation, which stresses the importance of a balance between human needs and nature for the survival of the planet.

The map is based on a starmap from the paper «Ikke en stjerne tapt – Den samiske stjernehimmel» (Not a star lost – the Sami constellations) by Sara Gaup Vars in Astronomi nr 4/2001 (the member magazine for the Norwegian Astronomy Association). © Northern Norwegian Science Center.

Hovren Gåetie was designed for the re-opening of the National Museum in Oslo and is currently exhibited in the building’s upper light gallery (as of 2022). It consists of a tent (= gåetie) covered with an elk skin, on which the cosmic protagonists are painted with their (southern) Sámi names. The tent takes up elements from the paintings of the Sámi artist John Savio (1902-1938), as well as many others, whose works are on display in the museum’s permanent collection. Savio’s early artistic reflections on the Sámi attitude to nature as a living, spiritual and life-giving entity find a contemporary continuation in Hovre Gåetie. In contrast to the tent in Savio’s woodcuts, where the poles meet at the top (= lávu), Bergh´s installation follows the shape of a gåetie which is more spacious due to the integration of horizontal poles. With the temporary integration of Bergh’s installation, the National Museum in Oslo, at the time of its re-opening, critically questioned its own collection history and the function of art in the context of Norwegian identity politics. The installation drew attention to the gaps in the collection’s context and to the different ways in which images of Sámi culture are (internally or externally) formed.

John Savio, Early Summer, woodcut, 1931 © Creative Commons.

The title of Bergh’s work is often translated as Elkskin Shelter (National Museum Oslo). This emphasizes the materiality of the work, i.e. the elk skin (= hovren / hofde), as well as its protective function. However, the title is multi-referential. In a semantic analogy, it also refers to transparent stones, which have a spiritual significance for the Sámi, as they are associated with the gods of the sky. This reference is taken up by a glowing heart inside the tent, symbolizing the sun. As a deity, the sun Biejjie is also compared to the campfire and is considered the source of all life.2 An additional string of lights – reminiscent of nocturnal celestial bodies – intensifies the translucent quality of the elk skin and makes the symbols, words and phrases painted on it glow. These inner lights turn the elk skin itself into a cosmic firmament in which the duality of day and night dissolves into an aesthetic experience of simultaneity.

This form of totality is also reflected on a literal level, as the term hovre (= skin) refers to the sky in general as sky-skin. When an elk is freshly killed, its skin has a fascinating blue tinge on the inside. Together with the pigmentation of the skin, this gives the impression of an expansive cosmic landscape populated by various human and non-human entities. Thus, the sky is inscribed in the skin of the elk, just as Sarve is inscribed in the sky as a constellation. Or to put it differently, the sky, as a transcendent sphere, is manifested in the epidermal materiality of the elk: earthly and cosmic life and knowledge intermingle. In this sense, Hovren Gåetie is an artistic-material investigation into the cosmic integration of humanity into nature.

Detail from Sissel M Bergh’s Hovren Gåetie, Installation (mixed media), 2022 © the artist.

In the installation, the drawings on the skin of the elk are similar to those on traditional drums, which are core elements of Sámi shamanistic culture. They refer to the persecution of the shamans (= noaidi) in the seventeenth century (and beyond) as one reason for the great loss of Indigenous knowledge in the (sub-)polar north.3 Since the seventeenth century, and especially in the early nineteenth century, a time of nation-building politics, Sámi culture and knowledge were considered marginal and uncivilized. For example, Sámi children had to attend boarding schools, which meant that the many particularities of their language(s) and whole cultural concepts were lost. Instead of mourning an irretrievable loss, Bergh takes an archaeological approach by concentrating on the cultural diversity among the Sámi. This is visible in her interest and use of southern Sámi expressions – some of which is lost in northern dialects – to highlight how the cultural diversity of Indigenous knowledge can inform each other.4 Hovren Gåetie conveys a cyclical and relational view of the world in which different human cultures as well as human and non-human entities depend on each other.

Through this relational aesthetics the installation allows viewers to use their own capacity to produce knowledge and thus experience a reciprocal world view. By relating various Sámi symbols and terms to English or Norwegian approximations, Bergh’s installation opens up a transcultural level of interpretation: in addition to the reconstruction of old (lost) knowledge and its transmission, there is a living understanding of knowledge and culture that does not necessarily see tradition and modernity as mutually exclusive. Bergh’s Hovren Gåetie thus refuses interpretation as a one-dimensional, romanticised repository of knowledge. Instead, the installation is a place of both preservation and production of world knowledge in a transcultural context; “(it) draws on knowledge and experience from both places.”5

The interweaving of humanity and nature is at the centre of much of Sámi contemporary art.6 It replaces colonial thinking in dualities of periphery and centre with an idea of a transcultural and interconnected Circumpolar North. This is evident in the fact that the Sámi understanding of the world does not distinguish between culture, nature and the cosmos. For example, the traditional tent also means the assumption of a mother earth.7 Thus, Hovre Gåetie, in its semantic complexity, relational aesthetics and formal appearance, challenges the “exclusion and marginalisation of places and peoples (that) were considered marginal and uncivilized.”8 It gives a sensual, experiential dimension to thinking in terms of connectivity – which rejects hierarchies and ideas of linear progress in favour of interdependencies and responsibilities. 

Hovren Gåetie bears witness to the loss of Indigenous knowledge due to colonial violence, and sheds light on the resilience of Sámi culture. At the same time, it activates the viewers to create semantic references for themselves, which highlights the importance of transcultural connections for a sustainable understanding of nature. In this regard, Sissel M Bergh’s Hovre Gåetie opens up a space for an intersectional understanding of environments, identities and cultures. As the motif of the Great Hunt, transferred into a contemporary art experience makes strikingly clear, only a balance between human needs and the lives of different non-human entities in nature can guarantee the survival of this planet.


[1] As a non-Sámi speaker and interpreter, I acknowledge that Sámi and other Indigenous art and writing stretches beyond my experience and cultural context. This inevitably means that misinterpretation and speaking for others are risks of this article, which is why I choose not to merely write about the artwork itself, but also focus on my personal communication with the artist from 26 January 2023.

[2] Francis Joy, “The Importance of the Sun symbols in restoration of Sámi spiritual traditions and healing practice,” in Sámi Religion: Religious Identities, Practices and Dynamics, eds. by Trude A. Fonneland and Tiina Äikäs. MDPI 2020, pp. 99-120

[3] Ibid.

[4] Trude Fonneland and Tiina Äikäs, “Introduction. The Making of Sámi Religion in Contemporary Society,” in Sámi Religion: Religious Identities, Practices and Dynamics, ed. Trude A. Fonneland and Tiina Äikäs. MDPI: 2020, pp. 1-7.

[5] Ulla Angkjaer Jorgensen, “Performing the Forgotten: Body, Territory, and Authenticity in Contemporary Sámi Art,” in Sámi Art and Aesthetics: Contemporary Perspectives, ed. Svein Aamold, Aarhus University Press: 2017, p. 251.

[6] Tessel Janse, “Piles of Bones. The Performance through Reindeer Culling in the Subpolar North,” Third Text 36/6 2022, pp. 535-557.

[8] Siv Ellen Kraft, “Spiritual Activism. Saving Mother Earth in Sápmi,” in Sámi Religion: Religious Identities, Practices and Dynamics, ed. by Trude A. Fonneland and Tiina Äikäs. MDPI: 2020, pp. 83-97.

[9] Anne Heith, Experienced Geographies and Alternative Realities. Representing Sápmi and Meanmaa. Makadam: 2020, p.13.

Feature image: Sissel M Bergh, Hovren Gåetie, Installation (mixed media), 2022 © the artist.
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