When artist Tia Keobounpheng jumped onto Zoom from Finland, north of the Arctic Circle, it looked like the middle of the day, but it was actually evening.
"It gets darker but it never gets dark," Keobounpheng said from the Kakslauttanen Arctic Resort's summer artist residency in Finland. "The sun doesn't really set in the summer up here."
Keobounpheng was in Sápmi, the traditional land of the indigenous Sámi people, for the second time since October 2022.
Back in Minneapolis, the place she calls home, her exhibition "Revealing Threads" remained on view at the Minneapolis Institute of Art. This abstract fiber work is inspired by the discovery of her hidden Sámi roots, the indigenous people of the northern Scandinavian peninsula and Kola Peninsula, or present-day Sweden, Finland, Norway and Russia.
"For me it's really, really nuanced to understand how the Sámi culture sustained itself," she said. "And I think it's like this generations-long practice of hiding yourself under a guise. …When my ancestors came here, they were '100% Finnish' because they didn't want to be labeled as Sámi, is how I understand it."
Her abstract fiber work takes the form of intricately layered, multicolored geometric patterns built upon a foundation of circles that explode with color. The math behind the artwork is planned using computer-aided design AutoCAD, which she also uses to design her jewelry. The work is made by hand, with colored pencils, holes drilled into wood, and stitches with needles and thread.
"Tia's work is as much about the process as it is about the final product," Mia curator Nicole Soukup said. "In particular, I think the amount of repetition in the geometry in the process of creation, the repetitive drilling of all those holes and then threading and knotting takes this long tradition in both American and European art and, I think, in Indigenous practice, as well."
Born on the Iron Range, Keobounpheng moved to Duluth when she was 12 years old. Her father, David Salmela, is an architect, and her mother, Gladys, is a seamstress. Her husband, Souliyahn Keobounpheng, is an architectural designer, and they have two kids, Silo, 18, and Veli, 12.
She has a bachelor's degree in architecture from the University of Minnesota, but part of her return to art happened when she turned 40, after hitting a burnout of personal and professional proportions.
She wanted to be an artist, but a college professor discouraged her, telling her that women working in fiber would never be taken seriously in the art world, and so she drifted to design.
Part of her recovery from burnout brought her back to working with her hands, and a new process was learning to work in metal. She also reconnected to an experience she had at age 18, of learning to weave in Finland in a community weaving room with two older Finnish women who silently wove for the whole day.
"It was likely the closest thing that I had experienced in my life to being with my grandmothers, and these emotions of loss and emptiness in a way fused with the process of working with my hands," she said. "It's a way to feel a connection, but also really a way for me to process, and so I started ancestry research by engaging my maternal grandmother's story."
She discovered that her grandfather's grandmother was born on the northern coast of Norway and that contradicted the "100% Finnish" idea.
Her mom told a story that her father had told her about her great-grandmother, who was "the one born in Norway, into the reindeer herding family." And her great-grandmother's job was to "bite the reindeer balls," which is an "old, traditional way of castrating reindeer," Keobounpheng said. The story suggested that her great-grandmother may have been Sámi.
From there she dove into ancestral research and planned a trip to those locations, and other things started to fall into place, like stumbling upon a blog post about her fifth-great-grandfather, the reindeer herder.
As family histories started to reveal themselves, so did her ancestral healing work — and her art.
"It's about allowing the artists to speak for themselves, and allowing the honest fact that the product, the artwork, is an expression of their specific experience in grappling with these larger complex questions, and narratives and exploration," Soukup said. "This is not an exhibition meant to be exemplary of every person with Sámi heritage … and this exhibition in particular is very much a personal narrative."
Tia Keobounpheng: "Revealing Threads"
Ends: Oct. 29.
Where: Minneapolis Institute of Art, 2400 3rd Av. S.
Hours: 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Tues., Wed., Fri.-Sun.; 10 a.m.-9 p.m. Thu.
Info: new.artsmia.org or 612-870-3011.