For Katarina Barruk, wearing the baarhkeldahke, a hair decoration of her máddaráhkká (great-grandmother) in the early 1900s, is as much a symbolic connection to matriarchal lineages as it is a form of labor to preserve the traditions of her native community. Barruk belongs to the Sámi people, an Arctic indigenous group with an estimated population of 100,000 to 150,000 in Sápmi, a region stretching across Arctic Finland, Sweden, Norway, and Russia’s Kola Peninsula. Barruk’s work as a composer and vocalist revitalizes and makes visible the Ume Sámi language, which is on UNESCO’s red list of critically endangered languages. The Biennale curators encountered her sonic and linguistic research during a visit to the Ijahis idja Sámi music festival and connected with her struggle for the land of her great-grandmothers and the matriarchal lineages rooted in it. As well, Barruk’s research confronts a complex linguistic landscape from a global perspective to consider how linguistic hegemonies, outright political oppression, and socioeconomic factors have caused many languages around the world to disappear.
Sådna jahttá (She says) (2021) explores the mechanisms and idiosyncrasies of language to argue that language is more than just a means of communication; it also carries culture, preserves memories, transmits wisdom, and forms part of many communities’ identities. Echoing the memories of three of her great-grandmothers with her own voice, Barruk places herself in conversation with her ancestors to seek their knowledge and wisdom, which in turn allows them to recall stories and memories of their shared homeland. The piece, played during the exhibition’s opening procession, is a long vocal composition of Ume Sámi lyrics, vocals, and joik, all sung within Barruk’s soprano voice and very distinctive timbre. The narrated stories speak to the communal origins shared by Barruk’s female ancestors, some of whom fought for their right to stay and live on the land that they come from.