Review Outi Pieski – a fascinating artist with a heart in the Arctic Circle

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How can you keep an Indigenous cultural tradition alive in today’s busy modern world? How about turning it into wallpaper? That’s what Outi Pieski does in a work that hilariously rearranges the wallpaper of Andy Warhol’s pop-art cows, except that here the image is repeated again and again of a woman wearing a. ladjogahpir, a hat that was once part of the costume of Sámi women in northern Finland and Norway. It is red, hot, with a horn or crown on top of that in the shape of an upturned shoe. The young women proudly wearing this ancestral headdress are part of a whole series of Arctic pop art works in which Pieski resurrects the name. ladjogahpir and makes it appear again.

She photographs the bright caps by themselves, in pairs, and wearing them. This part of their fascinating exhibition at Tate St Ives is set up, ironically, like a fashion boutique. This is the closest thing her work has to the urban norms of consumption in 21st century Europe. Her heart, however, is in the mountains and ice fields of the far north, in another time stream, where landscapes are alive and forests have eyes. She sees that world with the passion of a campaigner and the vision of a renowned artist.

Pieski was born in the modern world, Helsinki to be precise, in 1973 but has Sámi heritage. Their people have lived in the Arctic Circle for thousands of years, and have animistic and shamanic beliefs, many of them practicing nomadic lifestyles with reindeer herds. Their traditional, bright costumes are practical for the icy far north. But the modern world’s ability to force everyone into the same lifestyle has pushed the Sami’s survival to the fringes of Europe. Pieski is committed to fighting back.

So her art is joyful and gloomy – a riot of color in a vast landscape of mountains and forests. Her horned hats recall ritual poplars in an approachable, humorous way, but as you go deeper into this exhibition you are led to strange places. At the far end is Pieski’s painting Near the Aspens, a very tall, narrow canvas that makes you feel like you’re really in a forest, looking up at trees as tall as real trees. And this wood is haunted. From the Aspen trunks above your head, two eyes glow darkly. It is impossible to say what creature possesses these huge orbs – but it is not human. Perhaps a shaman, however, could enter the being with those eyes.

More eyes look back at you from a gnarled black hillscape, like an earth freshly stirred from cooled lava, in another large painting that Pieski says is “a tribute to the people who taught me to protect myself from the evil spirit “. These pictures are amazing. Her acrylics depict the far north with intense reality and unreality. A banded Arctic sky, layers of light color in the weak sun, makes you think of Edvard Munch. An expanse of brittle ice lends the chilling majesty of JMW Turner’s paintings of Arctic whales.

Like Anselm Kiefer, however, Pieski uses his talent for painting almost casually. She suggests this by embedding her landscape art in colorful woven Sámi artefacts that transform the paintings into spells.

His canvas is hung with hand-knotted tassels made with a technique known as Sámi duodji. These twists and strands of color not only frame the pictures but transform them: they irradiate the icy worlds she paints with vibrancy and brightness. Who knew there were so many yellows, blues, oranges – duodji comes in subtle ecstasy of hues. The many threads do not shine like the lights of the city. Instead, they illuminate nature with elusive filaments, like sunlight refracted through a melting icicle.

The Sámi craft settings make Pieski’s paintings feel like objects to be used in glowing rituals to restore the powers of nature. This mystical intention is clear in her installation at the heart of the show, especially from its title: Put a Spell on You. It consists of hand-knotted tassels that hang in giant mobiles around you and subject you to a kind of magical binding.

From within this cathedral of northern light her paintings are positioned like compass points: one way leads to the high spirit in the aspen trees, another to a dark feathered slash in a landscape of snow and ash. This large picture is a tribute to a mountain in Norway called Rastegáisa. But she is not being awakened for the sake of art or even magic. The picture is called Independent Right to Exist and Flourish: it is a plea for this sacred mountain to be recognized in Sámi culture as a legal entity with its own indigenous rights.

So nature literally comes alive in Pieski’s art. She defends her Sámi heritage with a courage that is having a profound effect on how Europe treats this marginalized culture: looking up the ladjogahpir hats, I was directed directly to the website of a German museum that documents Pieski’s intervention in his collection of Sámi artefacts. In other words, she is making museums rethink how they should treat the heritage of people whose lands were colonized and whose beliefs were persecuted since the Reformation or earlier. Such things might seem like relics of a remote, lost world, but Pieski shows that Sámi culture still burns with energy.

It’s a force we need. In the Indigenous vision of the world that Pieski translates into such good art, there is no impermeable barrier between people and nature. The forests have eyes, the sun occupies a knotted braid. The Arctic and its peoples may be at risk. But this truly original artist can make you feel, with his mountains and seas, his people and his spirit.

• Outi Pieski is at Tate St Ives until 6 May

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