11 Sweden-based Sámi Artists Addressing Indigenous Pasts, Presents, and Futures

Critical Text: Excerpts from the 2015 book Contemporary Sámi Art and Design.

Activisme Climat Avenir possible
A collage-style painting depicts a number of scenes—masked figures in red clothing, a large institutional building, silhouettes of reindeer, a photograph of someone leaning in a doorway, a stencil of a person in traditional Sámi clothing, and a person suspended upside down in a straitjacket, among other images in predominantly red and green tones.

The 2015 book Contemporary Sámi Art and Design (Arvinius + Orfeus Publishing) was the first international survey text of its kind—a presentation of emerging and established Sámi artists in various media to the world. Written by esteemed curator and writer Jan-Erik Lundström, the book compiled profiles of 35 leading artists and craftspeople. 

This excerpt from Contemporary Sámi Art and Design focusing on artists based in Sweden  offers insights into some of the most important contemporary artistic practitioners today. To learn more about how the artists’ practices have developed in the years since the book’s publication, click the links in each profile to visit their websites.

An embroidery in red thread evokes a cross-section of a tree, with a series of concentric circles and a thick, textured circle on the outside.
Victoria Andersson, Årsringar (2012).

Victoria Andersson

Embroidery is the key technique in Victoria Andersson’s artistic practice. With the time-consuming use of needle and thread, Andersson produces elegant, distilled, conceptually precise and visually inventive works. 

Many of her motifs maintain connections with her childhood environment, the town of Kiruna, depicting the mine as earth mother and the ruler of Kiruna, for example, or offering the sport of ice hockey as motif. Also the human impact upon nature is a recurring motif, in particular reflections on a nature submitted to exploitation and abuse, from which Anderson manages sharply concentrated images capturing phenomena such as the clearing of forest areas. 

These motifs are apparent in Black Rain, a beautifully minimalist work where embroidered raindrops fall down a canvas, or the magnificent abstraction in the series Songs of a Landscape, where a sonogram of a music piece about a river landscape becomes the source of another embroidery, now again a meditation on different media. 

Also the tree is an important subject matter, a subject that of course also relates to time. The series Årsringar depicts the annual rings of trees, offering time as explicit subject matter. Reflecting on both the time-consuming process of embroidery and the subject matter of her works, Andersson comments, “time is my companion and a deep dimension to my art.” 

Andersson received her degree in textile art from hdk (School of Design and Crafts) at Gothenberg University in 2003.

Five glass objects are set on a white surface. The objects include a combination of photographic images (a face, tree branches, a geometric pattern) and swirls of colour such as blue, green, brown, orange, and red set into the glass.
Tomas Colbengtson, Untitled (2018).

Tomas Colbengston

Tomas Colbengtson’s first encounter with visual art was during his elementary school years, exposed to the traditional colours, patterns and craft methods of the South Sámi culture. Colbengtson then studied at the University of Arts, Crafts and Design in Stockholm and received his MFA in painting in 1991. 

Working in photography, graphic prints, installations and glasswork where he uses the special Graal technique to insert imagery onto glass, his art often relates to his Sámi background, family history and to themes in Sámi culture as a whole. Born in Björkvattnet, Sweden, Colbengtson now lives and works in Stockholm while still maintaining a close contact with his childhood region. 

His family’s reindeer herding area had parts in both Sweden and Norway during times when national politics were complicated, and even after settling in Sweden, his family continued to struggle for their rights to land and subsistence. In many works he raises questions about identity, perception and time, often addressing particular historical events involving the Sámi people, such as the forced displacement of Sámi families in the 1930s. Citing the loss of his language as one of the main reasons he works with visual art, Colbengtson points to his focus on loss, memory and restitution. He also identifies the landscape of the North as an important source of inspiration for his art. 

Colbengtson has participated in art exhibitions in Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Finland, France, Russia, Germany, Italy, Greece, Japan, China, Brazil and the United States, winning several awards along the way.

An assortment of glass vessels in red and blue tones arranged in a snowy landscape.
Monica L Edmondson, glass vessels from 100 Migratory project (2014).

Monica L Edmondson

After working as a primary school teacher and as a cross-country ski instructor and coach, Monica L Edmondson pursued visual arts studies at Canberra School of Art, Australian National University. In 2002, Edmondson moved back to the north of Sweden to become established as an artist working mainly with glass, finding this as the medium to realize her desire to express ideas and emotions. Her elegant and graceful glass objects can take the form of a utensil such as a cup or bowl, but often abstracted or elaborated, or simply as reduced geometric forms. Sámi culture manifests its influence in the choice of colours and ornamental details.The landscape of Sápmi and the North, especially the vast, minimalist white winter landscape, is a strong source of inspiration. 

A dancer dressed in translucent red and purple fabrics (including a red net over their face), dances amongst Monica Edmondson’s glass vessels.
Monica Edmondson, 100 Migratory with performance by Carmen Olsson (2014).

The glass art of Edmondson has also found opportunities in a variety of public art works, both in-situ sculptures and architectural interventions. Her recent project, 100 Migratory, involves her glass objects—one hundred unique glass vessels—in a collaboration that elaborates and animates issues of migration, home, empathy and the perils facing our planet. In an act of faith, in homage to courage and care, each vessel embarks on an individual journey to encounter a host and a temporary home, to then return to their origin and be gathered in a compelling exhibition. 

Edmondson has participated in exhibitions nationally and internationally, including Canada, Japan, Italy, Norway and the United States. She has also received various awards, including the 2014 Kungliga Skytteanska Samfundets Stora Pris and County of Västerbotten Art Award in 2011. Born in Gällivare, Sweden, Monica L Edmondson lives and works in Tärnaby.

A painting with collage elements shows two figures at centre, amidst a grid of lines, images, and text. The left figure in a grey suit stands, peeing into a hole in the ground, while the figure at right is seated on the ground wearing a bright yellow suit and with green skin, bowing their head, from which a floral pattern emerges.
Per Enoksson, Sing, sing, sing a long song (2008–10).

Per Enoksson

Per Enoksson is an artist and designer based in Umeå, Sweden. Born to established duodji (Sámi craft) practitioners, Enoksson was exposed to Sámi crafts and art at an early age. 

His paintings combine figuration with abstraction. Sparsely outlined landscapes, buildings or human figures mix with patterns, letters or even seemingly random spots, blemishes or scribbles. Expressions or styles multiply within the same work; figurative painting and line drawing blend with graffiti and comic-like elements, all performed on a variety of materials and surfaces—canvas, paper, board or, as in one of the artist’s works, paint is applied to plastic imitation-wood floor panels.

A painting with bold expressive mark-making shows a large circle striped with coral, yellow, and green hues in the upper right, with an image of a reindeer’s head emerging from a splotch of black and while paint. Lines and elongated shapes radiate out from the circle, with drips and patterns referencing flowers or explosions in the bottom third of the canvas.
Per Enoksson, The Earth is a sinful song (2006).

Enoksson’s paintings take place in a social space. The abundance of elements in each work combine to form a narrative; sardonic commentary or pointed observations explore themes such as family life, consumerism, welfare and education. An autobiographical thread runs through some of his works, which examine Enoksson’s Sámi origin, the nature of the North and childhood memories. In recent years, he has focused on design, developing a series of leisure products such as wood-heated outdoor bathtubs and portable saunas. His recent installation Skogen i mig (The Forest in Me) directly involved Enoksson’s design elements, organizing a space of reflection as it probes human beings’ contemporary relationship with nature. 

Enoksson studied visual art at the National Academy of Arts in Oslo and the Academy of Fine Arts at Umeå University. He has had solo and group exhibitions in Sweden, Europe and North America. Many art museums and private collectors have acquired his works.

A group of figures whose bodies are carved from birch, with faces carved from elk bone.
Per Isak Juuso, Ve-Mod (2006 – 2014).

Per Isak Juuso

Born in Karesuando, Per Isak Juuso lives and works in Mertajärvi, the place of his childhood. Brought up in a reindeer herding family, Juuso learned duodji, traditional Sámi craft, from his parents. Later studies in metal and graphic design enabled him to further develop his skills. 

Working in wood, bone, as well as metal and textile, Juuso is a central figure in developing and renewing the duodji tradition. His unique and handmade objects combine exceptional and precise knowledge of material and technique with a powerful sense of symbolic or metaphoric form that transgress the traditional references of the duodji craft. Juuso uses traditional shapes or household items such as the nahpi (the milking bowl) or guksi (a drinking cup) but mutated or transformed, using new materials as well (such as whale baleen or elk teeth). His recent series Ve-Mod (Melancholy), now over 100 pieces, configures a miniature face carved in reindeer bone, upon a found piece of birch, generating a chain of melancholic portraits which all face an alarming yet loudly silent present. 

Juuso has participated in exhibitions across Scandinavia and his works are found in many private collections. He has also been a professor of duodji at Samiska Folkhögskolan in Jokkmokk and at Sámi University of Applied Sciences in Kautokeino. He was the recipient of Samisk kunstnerråd’s grant in 2012.

A bag made from an Arctic Loon’s skin and feathers, with embellishments in red, green, blue, and yellow, including a strap, tassels, and a blue cross appliqué.
Lisbeth Kielatis, Arctic Loon (bag) (1994).

Lisbeth Kielatis

Influenced by her heritage, Lisbeth Kielatis focuses on Sami sewing crafts. Her material palette has evolved overtime to blend traditional skills and materials with more surprising choices such as silk and seal hide.

Melding tradition and innovation, Kielatis puts her own stamp on her creations. Following the Sai notion that everything may be utilized, Kielatis will incorporate materials such as birds’ feet or feathers into a necklace or purse instead of discarding them. The careful, detailed craftsmanship and creative and skilled use of a variety of materials are evident in all her works, such as the piece Boterskan (The Penitent). Here, reindeer skin is tanned and sewn with spun sinew taken from a reindeer’s back tendons.

In Kvinna med Vaggbarn (Woman with a Child in a Cradle), the woman is shown wearing a traditional Lule Sámi leather frock, also made from bark-tanned reindeer skin and sewn with spun sinew. The hat is made of cloth and spun pewter. The cradle is made of wood (by William Andersén) and covered with bark-tanned reindeer leather and sewn with spun sinew. The head-piece in Jägareren (The Hunter) combines the plumage of the black-throated diver with thick wool. The commissioned work Kyrklig Textil (Church Fabric), utilizes a blend of ecclesiastical fabrics and the spun pewter characteristic of Sámi handicrafts. 

In addition to her own art- and craftwork, Kielatis teaches Sámi handicraft, in particular leather and textile, and has written handbooks on Sámi crafts. Kielatis also writes poetry.

An embroidered composition shows patches of blue and yellow on a white ground, connected black-and-white shapes resembling ladders or bridges. Groups of people are positioned around the edges of the blue and yellow patches at the centre of the composition.
Britta Marakatt-Labba, Gádjunbáttit/Lifelines (2009).

Britta Marakatt-Labba

Growing up in a family of reindeer herders, Britta Marakatt-Labba moved seasonally between the grazing lands in Norway and Sweden. She recognized her desire to work with art early in her life, telling stories to her younger siblings using drawings or cut-outs from magazines. After studying textiles and sewing at trade school in Kiruna, she continued with art, first at Sunderby folkhögskola and then at the School of Design and Crafts at the University of Gothenburg, from which she received her BA in 1978.

Marakatt-Labba’s central medium is embroidery, sometimes extended or supported with appliqué or collage techniques, with which she creates narrative tableaus in a variety of formats. In this way, she interweaves stories of everyday life within Sámi culture with emblematic scenes from Sámi mythology. Marakatt-Labba’s imagery encompasses the landscape of the Scandinavian north and scenes from life in Sámi culture, as well as ecological and political issues of the present. These are expressed through her characteristic detailed miniature figures, which often include the three Sámi goddesses that watch over human beings. Her History, a 24–metre tapestry, does nothing less than narrate the history and cosmology of the Sámi people, where Event in Time, made for the Lofoten Biennial in 2013, addresses the Utöya tragedy in minimally-expressed scenes, embroidered onto flour bags in fabric used by the German army during the WWII Norwegian occupation.

An artwork by Britta Marakatt-Labba shows a yellow oval shape with a flattened top, divided into 5 sections. The upper section shows shapes resembling a herd of reindeer on a snowy landscape with a night sky. The two middle sections show people in and outside of half-circle dwellings with an intersecting circle at centre resembling a starry sky. Two bottom sections in blue include red fish shapes and nets.
Britta Marakatt-Labba, Niegadeapmi / Dreaming (1999).

In addition to her embroidered artworks, she has also worked with commissioned public works, scenography, book illustration and design. In 1979, Marakatt-Labba became a member of the influential Máze Group, a collective of seven Sámi artists which was instrumental in the creation and dissemination of contemporary Sámi art. She has participated in exhibitions internationally and her works have been acquired by museums’ public and private collections. Marakatt-Labba lives and works in Övre Soppero, Sweden.

A photograph of a person dressed in traditional Sámi clothing, holding calipers up to their face to measure the length of their head from beneath the chin to the top of their head.
Katarina Pirak-Sikku, Dollet (2006).

Katarina Pirak-Sikku

Katarina Pirak-Sikku’s drawings, photography, installations and text-based works draw from both immediate family history and historical events and experiences. An engagement with Sámi identity and the integrity of Sámi culture are central to her work, bringing her to explore such themes as the history of race biology, the state treatment of the Sámi and the geography of Sápmi. Pirak-Sikku also uses staged self-portraits to challenge stereotypical gender roles, especially regarding the Sámi woman. 

Her pencil drawing Sápmi puts forth a political fantasy, a refractory map of Sápmi as a political nation, transforming or subverting the political landscape of Scandinavia. Námmaláhpan, containing photos, text, drawings, maps and more, brings together a multi-year involvement with the early 20th century race biological practices in Sweden that in particular targeted the Sámi. A project of consolation, mourning and historical restitution, Pirak-Sikku here uncovers remarkable and never-before-heard personal stories on the experiences of being subjected to anthropometric and racist treatment by the authorities. Altogether, Pirak-Sikku’s art aims at a combined reflection upon the political and social arenas, as well as the private and public realms of experience.

Born in Jokkmokk, Sweden, where she now lives and works, Pirak-Sikku holds an MFA from the Academy of Fine Arts at Umeå University. Pirak-Sikku has been featured in numerous exhibitions in Sweden and elsewhere.

A wood and plywood sculpture installed in a plywood room includes a small table with a wooden sculpture of the same size alongside it. The sculpture is cut out in a shape resembling a figure or a collapsed wooden doll lain over a frame.
Lena Stenberg, Like a Home (2005).

Lena Stenberg

Lena Stenberg grew up in a small village 50 km from Kiruna where her family engaged in reindeer husbandry and it provided her with a strong anchor in the Sámi language and culture. Her interest in art—crafts and design, in particular—led her to studying textile art at the Konstfack, University College of Arts, Crafts, and Design in Stockholm from which she graduated in 1990. 

Stenberg’s art ranges from sculpture, objects, installation, screen-prints as well as photography and film, through which she explores ideas of nature, culture and identity and issues of belonging. Also the home and the house are recurring themes in her work. Several sculptural projects reproduce vernacular objects but with an edge of the uncanny. In Fri tid (Leisure) a seesaw and a swing become straitjackets, and in Hem likt (Home Like), a closet, a cage; a living room, a cell with dysfunctional chairs.

A photocollage shows two long black-and-white photographs: the top image shows activists with a large banner, and the bottom image shows three figures in a rocky landscape where a sign reading “NO MINING” is posted.
Lena Stenberg, Respect Indigenous Rights No. 1 & 2 (2014).

Current events that affect Sámi culture are equally present in the work of Stenberg. The recent project Markanvändning (The Use of the Land), where Stenberg is both curator and participating artist, examines current plans to exploit natural resources in the Sápmi region, exploitations that would deeply affect Sámi culture. She has also in recent years worked on extensive photographic documentation (gathered in the book Sápmi 2000) on what it is like to live as a Sámi today. Inspired by the Sámi village she grew up in, she tells the story of life with reindeer herding, of the vitality and fragility of this aspect of Sámi culture and of life today. Stenberg has exhibited nationally and internationally and received several awards and grants.

A collage-style painting depicts a number of scenes—masked figures in red clothing, a large institutional building, silhouettes of reindeer, a photograph of someone leaning in a doorway, a stencil of a person in traditional Sámi clothing, and a person suspended upside down in a straitjacket, among other images in predominantly red and green tones.
Anders Sunna, Reindeer Husbandry (2017).

Anders Sunna

Anders Sunna hails from a family of reindeer herders in Kieksiäisvaara, just north of Pajala, Norrbotten. For the past 40 years, his family has been in a conflict with their Sámi village and the county administration after they lost their rights to herd, a struggle which his art often directly reflects. Sunna’s paintings, made on fibreboard or plywood, are often made in a collage style, juxtaposing motifs and images of different dimensions and origin. He paints with thick layers of colour using stencils or sprays typical of graffiti art. Sunna’s works are explicitly political, targeting Swedish federal institutions and their treatment of the Sámi people, as well as articulating prejudices and oppression as suffered by the Sámi. 

Frequently based upon his own and his family’s history, Sunna’s paintings link specific autobio-graphical topics with the collective history of the Sámi people. Through his art, Sunna wants to dissolve ignorance and stereotypes, and finds his artistic practice a way of channelling frustration and aggression. 

Sunna’s art is gaining increasingly more attention, made evident by recent exhibitions in Sweden, Norway and France. Sunna studied at Umeå konstskola and at Konstfackskolan, Stockholm, from which he graduated in 2010. Sunna lives and works in Jokkmokk, Sweden.

Four figures in white garments with white face paint stand amongst the trees in a snowy landscape.
Liselotte Wajstedt, Jorinda’s Journey (video still) (2014).

Liselotte Wajstedt

Liselotte Wajstedt is an artist and filmmaker based in Kiruna whose films often move the boundary between the documentary genre and the experimental art film, blending fact and fiction, and combining animation with filmed footage. With an educational background in animation, filmmaking and script-writing from the Royal Art Academy and a BA in Convergent Media from Gotland University, she has also worked as a journalist for Sameradion (the Sámi radio). 

Identity is a central theme in practically all works of Wajstedt, ranging from autobiographical explorations of her own identity as a Sámi to flmic portraits of the city of Kiruna, in search of its soul as the entire city faces the process of being dismantled and moved. One of her recent works, Jorinda’s Journey, explores the destiny of a young Sámi woman, interweaving a feature film narrative with a series of dance scenes set in the Arctic landscape where Japanese Butoh-dance encounters Sámi joik, all choreographed exclusively for the film. 

Wajstedt’s films have been shown internationally at film festivals and in exhibitions at various venues in Sweden and elsewhere. In 2013, Wajstedt was the recipient of a cultural award from Gunborg and Sten Rosenströms Stiftelse.

Credit: These profiles were originally published in Jan-Erik Lundström’s Contemporary Sámi Art & Design (Arvinius & Orfeus Publishing, 2015). ALL IMAGES COURTESY JAN-ERIK LUNDSTRÖM. 

This story is part of the Sweden Spotlight. View more content from the Spotlight here.