EŦNICITY INC. And the saami people

“By turning names into things we create false models of reality. By endowing nations, societies or cultures with the qualities of internally homogenous and externally distinctive and bounded objects, we create a model of the word as a global pool hall in which the entities spin off each other like so many hard and round billiard balls.”

Eric Wolf from Europe and the People Without History

The sculpture EŦNICITY INC.  (or ethnicity incorporated) is an eclectic piece designed to question the impact of the very notion of ethnicity. It attempts to recontextualise the concept itself and its material impact on the conditions of the living. Indeed, ethnicity as a concept has served as a tool for externally categorizing and arranging people in the present and the past, within evolutionary, ethnocentric, colonialist and racist frameworks. It also serves as a political weapon, both giving weight to nationalist rhetoric but also serving as a defensive legal tool for indigenous minorities’ rights to self-determination and protection of land; although, as we will see later, it too often fails to protect these very people, their ecosystems or resources.

At first glance, the sculpture is a bust: the canonically “western” format for representing a human individual endowed with some form of authority or power, it is almost always a political artifact. Here though, instead of a classical bust, the sculpture is an anthropomorphized spoon: the Saami spoon; recognizable by its short handle, pear shaped bowl, the hoops and rings on its sides and the decorative carvings. The saami spoon, both in archeology and in contemporary material culture, has been an effigy for saami “ethnicity”. Indeed, the saami people in the history of archeology have constantly been conceptualized as the “other”, they are seen as “ethnic” while the majority group of the Swedes are regarded as “non-ethnic”. They are the norm, the civilization, whereas the saami became a people without history, an ethnographic object, static and unchangeable. Where the saami spoon has become this intemporal effigy or artifact of saami ethnicity, its origins point in fact to diverse origins. Moreover, the evolution of the spoon is intertwined with other histories, inner socio-cultural struggles of the saami people and its place in a wider economic frame of markets.

The sculpture is designed to be observed from top to bottom. Indeed, the pseudo-realist portrait is the first thing that calls our attention. The portrait is a phantasm of the Saami “ethnic” physionomy; it materializes the inherent racism of associating physical traits to a kind of ethnic “geist” or essence. Its eyes are closed, becoming only a screen devoid of any inherent meaning. The meaning does not come from within but is projected onto it by the gaze of the one looking. Going further down along the handle or neck, we only see a decorative piece of furnture, the true meaning of the sculpture lies further down still in the bowl of the spoon, the part that is designed to bring the sustenance. The concavity of the bowl is placed in lieue of the convexity of the belly. In this sort of cave, we can then see engravings of pictogramms that reveal the true story at play.

The story is one of people devided by arbitrary borders, but also ecosystems cut-off by roads, pipelines, traintracks, etc. The people are alone and, in the center, you find the sea and an offshore deepwater drilling station. This one specifically is the Snohvit platform, a particular point of contention between the interests of big oil industry capitalists and the indigenous populations who also depend on the resources of the sea to maintain their mode of living. On each side of the platform is inscribed C. 169 – a reference to the Convention 169 of the Organization of the United Nations – concerning the rights of native and tribal people in independent countries. One of the articles states that governments need to take measures in cooperation with these people to protect and preserve the environment that they inhabit.

In the end, this artifact serves as a direct criticism of  the commodification of culture and identity in the framework of neoliberal capitalism. It materializes the hypocrisy of paying lip service to alterity and “ethnic tokenism” so long as it can be consumed in one way or another and so long as their liberties do not infringe on the interests of capital. This last part is emphasized by the presence of the title of the sculpture engraved in its back like the brand of an item of clothing, it is incorporated. It is quite literaly just paying lip service to the actual living culture, turning it into a brand : the saami Ŧ (th), itself already a product of acculturation, the saami culture not having originally had an alphabetical system of writing. To finish with a quote from Denise Ferreira Da Silva:

“On the one hand, there are those governed by interior motives and capable of self-determination and, on the other, those prone to exterior affectability. As a result, those “affectable subjects” are destined to be governed by a force external to them, be it the sovereign God of Christ, sovereign reason of enlightnement or the sovereign Nation State of modern geopolitical order, they are always situated in the waiting room for the exercise of freedom.”

Resources :

People, material culture and environment in the north. Proceedings of the 22nd Nordic Archaeological Conference-GUMMERUS KIRJAPAINO (2006)

Toward a global Idea of Race. Denise Ferreira Da Silva (2007)

The Climate of History, Four Theses. Dipesh Chakrabarthy (2009)

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