11 Sweden-based Sámi Artists Addressing Indigenous Pasts, Presents, and Futures
The 2015 book Contemporary Sámi Art and Design (Arvinius + Orfeus Publishing) was the first…
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Captivating and resourceful, the stitch is a polysemic building stone acting as dot, line, tone, phoneme and film frame when articulating and making visual worlds. Add one stitch to another and there is an eye, a hat, a snowflake, a star, a puff of smoke, a ripple in the river, a fish, a tree branch, the lávvu, the Milky Way. With the stitch, scenes, stories, views and landscapes are assembled. The stitch joins and binds, mends and puts things together, connects one being to the next (suddenly, a community), links one tree to the next (ta-da, a forest!).
Carrying and conveying meaning of itself as it goes about its work, the stitch is also its own immanent gesture before, so to speak, figuration. Measuring time, just as Penelope’s warp. Each stitch an image of time, and each stitch taking time, signifying endurance. The stitch mends and sutures. Marks and stitches the wound to make it heal, outlines the abyss in the endeavour to bridge the chasm, traces difference and connections in search of common ground. It summons and declares. Marakatt-Labba’s red stitch of resistance and survival that protests against the violence of colonialism and the destruction of the planet. The blue stitch speaking grief, mourning extinguished forests, the loss of land and the ongoing sixth mass extinction. The black stitch ordering grid and squarish geometries that signal the presence of the extractivist industries and capitalist machinery.
The fluidity of space and scalar leaps in Britta Marakatt-Labba’s embroideries are often both mesmerizing and breathtaking. The cosmic and the quotidian share space. A snowfall and the starry sky weigh equally, indistinguishable. Even when approaching the sublime, the viewer is gently guided and supported in Marakatt-Labba’s art. The awesome seems benevolent, and cosmos is depicted with affection. Máilmmiávus/Cosmos (1999-2000) visualizes Lodde-ráidaras (the Milky Way or “the bird’s ladder,” its Sámi name) as a familial procession of reindeer with sleds, led by a golden-horned white reindeer. A segment of Marakatt-Labbba’s epic chronicle of Sámi culture, history and cosmology, Historija, identifies Sámi stellar constellations such as Sarvva (The Elk), largest of all the constellations, and Fávdna (The Hunter), hunting Sarvva in the sky. The sky, the stars, the heavens, are all embraced through a Sámi worldview. The enchanted recurring image—from Dreaming (1999) to Circle II (2020)—of sleeping children huddled together under one blanket underneath the vast starry sky and watched over by the goddesses of Sámi mythology, unfolds with adroit economy the three-part world of Sámi cosmology—the heavens above, the world of the living and the netherworld, the world of the ancestors, below. The outline of the world, the reaches of the cosmos, encompassing these three dimensions, is configured as the oval shape of the Sámi shaman drum (only the shaman can access all dimensions). Likewise, the circle of the arrán (the hearth) is the circle of the lávvu is the circle of the reindeer corral, of the stellar dome; and the abode, the lávvu, is a miniature universe, mirroring the vast outside world. Geometrical analogies and conflations of space with which Marakatt-Labba explores and represents the cosmological and mythological architecture of the Sámi world.
The mesmerizing spatial dynamic—from planetary totality to the intimacy of the lávvu, from the starry sky to snowy ground—link to a another trope in Marakatt-Labba’s oeuvre: humankind huddled on its small planet under the stellar dome with nothing but boundless space separating its sleeping children from the stars. Here is yet a compelling element in Marakatt-Labba’s art: the simultaneous embrace of comfort and exposure, recognizing solidity and fragility, interlacing trust and fear, assurance and precarity, the sense of being utterly alone in the universe counterbalanced by the power of consolation afforded by the human collective or the protection of the spirit world. The characteristic oblong embroidered landscapes—there are many: View (2019), Changes (2018), Hollowed (2021)—that often engage environmental topics or climate emergency issues, visualize the human lifeworld as a narrow isthmus of land suspended in space under a vast white sky, a few easily counted figures on a snowy expanse above an equally vast underworld. This precious sensibility to untangle both precarity and unity, critique and advocacy leads also to a most central path in Marakatt-Labba’s work: an enduring and unending articulation, endorsement and dissemination of Sámi culture—past, present, and future, vernacular, spiritual, material. The ability to affirm, pronounce, tell, share and advocate for this heritage and its ongoing transformations, and still acknowledge colonial wounds and confront centuries of oppression.
Temporalities are stitched and materialized in many of Marakatt-Labba’s works; organized spatial sequences with subsequent changes which translate or reconfigure a series of events, an unfolding story. The unforgettable sequence in Gárjjat/The Crows (1981/2021) with the flock of crows in flight, that upon descent metamorphose into policemen, who in turn charge at a group of activists demonstrating against the planned hydropower plant and dams with a peaceful sit-in, embody the stitching of time in Marakatt-Labba’s art, how events and stories are transposed onto the visual field of the embroidered canvas.
However, Gárjjat, the artwork itself, has recently been engaged in both temporal and existential negotiations. Dependent on the dialogue with their viewers, artworks live rich and complex lives, unendingly created and recreated, revived and revised in responses and perceptions received, their past anticipating their futures. At the time of its making, Gárjjat doubled as a work of luminous targeted protest and a real-time document of the events of the day. The ingenious allegory of the confrontation with the authorities and the powers that be offered energy and endurance to the protesters partook in defining the reality of that historical moment. In the 40 years that have since passed, Gárjjat has firmly acquired a place as an iconic and acclaimed work, capturing in a stitched scene the spirit of the time, reminding of and continuously reliving the memory of the 1970s grand activist resurgence and pivotal battle for rights. The scenes depicted in Gárjjat have become a benchmark of history itself, since even if the hydropower battle was lost in part, the protests opened a path onto political reforms and awareness that eventually led to such developments as the Sámi parliament, an important step even if not the final answer regarding rights and democracy in Sápmi.
In the fall of 2021, a little more than 40 years since the original Gárjjat was made, Britta Marakatt-Labba, stitching for over a hundred hours, completed a replica. It is identical to the original (as identical as two hand-stitched embroideries can be), except for the addition of a Sámi flag (not the now official Sámi flag, but a version of the flag in use at the time) into the hands of one of the protesters. While the initial impulse to make the replica is pragmatic: to enable this today heavily requested work to be seen by more viewers, to facilitate its continued engagement with audiences, the appearance of the replica is also an artistic intervention into the present. Gárjjat, the replica, lands in a new time. Set free from its initial mission, where it came to mark both a turning point in Sámi resurgence and the advent of Sámi contemporary art, it appears now in yet another era of protest and resistance and a moment of sustained artistic resurgence and agency, not previously seen. In Sápmi, many recent sit-ins and protests, as originally at Áltá, have taken place—at the Gállok site of the proposed mine near Jokkmokk, demonstration protests against wind power developments, against unjust state management of reindeer husbandry or global protests such as those against the North Dakota pipeline. The life of this art work, Gárjjat’s four decades of encounters with viewers, are part of the meaning and significance of the replica. While Gárjjat’s representation of the violence of the authorities is unchallenged, the replica reinforces this narrative, acknowledging its source while moving into and onto the present. The Gárjjat replica (also disrupting art-world norms and market principles) manages to both mark this work’s historical importance and mount a strong mandate as an intervention into and a new narrative of the present. With the Gárjjat replica stitched in 2021, yet another context is added, and Sámi resistance and resurgence is resolutely brought into the present and the future.
Now as a room-sized installation, the encounter between different temporalities repeats in Events in Time (2013). Large flour sacks of rugged burlap hang in a broken circle, simulating—in dimension and shape—a lávvu. The printed image of the German eagle and stamped swastika sacks declare the sacks’ origin in the Nazi occupation of Norway during World War II. Possibly acquired by barter between the local Sámi population and the occupant soldiers (and ending up in the attic of the artist’s aunt), the sacks are now tooled as found objects and historical remnants in a radical temporal leap, repurposed as the abstracted walls of a Sámi abode. But the sack positioned as the lávvu door opens onto yet another chasm. Seen from inside the circle, it features a diagrammatic rendering—simultaneously restrained and explicit—of the 2011 Utøya terror attack. The assassin is imaged as a double-headed bird of prey, surrounded by weapons and with bullets extending in all directions, while minimally pictured hiding or escaping bodies multiply in the water and in between the trees. The weapons are also aimed downwards into our Earth, wounding the bedrock and the soil, tearing apart the very roots of life. Simultaneously abstract and tactile, withdrawn and immersed, Events in Time is an agonising and vertiginous imaging of human cycles of violence; as the stitched flour sacks with such radical economy of means superimpose historical landscapes of terror. Marakatt-Labba’s art continues to bring disquietingly clear-sighted indictments of past and present necropolitics.
Johtin I/The Move I and Johtin II/The Move II (2019) push an aesthetics of reduction and scarcity further, now using tarpaulin as canvas and ground. The configuration shifts from image to map, a rudimentary and fragmented cartography struggling to chart the geography of the ongoing relocation of an entire city, enacted due to the rule of extractivist capitalism. Both works depict and spring out of this immediate and ongoing event, the death and troubling rebirth of a city, But the works, utilizing the same impulse to add layers of history and references, open up to additional narratives. The current and ongoing predicament, the move of the city of Kiruna due to the expanding iron ore mine, revives the history of the colonial establishment of the city and the mine on Sámi territory, cutting off seasonal reindeer migration routes and occupying valuable pasture land. Furthermore, importing colonial history, the extensive forced relocation of hundreds of Sámi families, the so-called Dislocation, ordered by the Swedish government in the 1920s, also reverberates in this mapping of ongoing relocation. Johtin I and Johtin II unwrap other colonial histories of forced relocation and thus exemplify Marakatt-Labba’s continued engagement with rewriting, revising and updating the comprehension of colonial modernity and present-day neocolonialism, in Sápmi and elsewhere.
Whether as a staged environment in conversation with history as in Events in Time, a sharp allegorical tableau as Gárjjat, or in the layered panoramic landscapes that detail various threats and assaults under the colonialist-capitalist complex to the environment, to human and non-human life, and to the planet, Britta Marakatt-Labba’s art is an ongoing commentary on contemporary events and the state of things. Commentary in the sense of observations, responses and reactions, more than premonitions or prognostications. Prospecting (2019) or Felled Forest (2018) do not target future clear-cuttings of ancient forests or novel mining prospects but visualize ongoing practices. Jieknavuolgin/Cracked (2009), Gádjunbattit/Lifelines (2009) or Changes (2019) do not predict future events: they record, alert to, and protest ongoing climate change. Neither does Global Warming (2017) depict a future climate catastrophe, but it unfolds an emblematic document and vision of actual consequences of current human practices. While some works enter other geographies, many are clearly read as snapshots or actual sightings taken from front-row seats in the Anthropocene theatre of climate catastrophe, exposed to this litmus region of the circumpolar Arctic where change is happening most rapidly and many of the warning bells toll most loudly. Embroidered tableaux as live testimony of dramatic change.
Needless to say, the engagement with the climate catastrophe, extractivist modalities and planetary futures, is seamlessly intertwined with articulating Sámi culture and life in Sápmi. Land is at the heart of Indigenous culture; the exploitative forces driving climate change equate to colonial practices that consume and deplete land and life. Stitching, in wrath and in lament, the landscapes of crisis and the assaults on land and the living, is in Marakatt-Labba’s hands and art inseparable from advocating Indigenous rights.
Throughout her oeuvre, now extending over more than 40 years, Marakatt-Labba has patiently created, developed and fine-tuned an economical iconography with which she builds and composes her works. A visual vocabulary, a range of characters, a language, recognizable and renewable, elegantly finding its energies and verve in each new work: the characteristic silhouette of the birch tree, almost always in its winter dress. The reindeer, often an elegant line drawing, a constant physical and spiritual presence. Just as the reindeer antler, which when multiplied may symbolize a herd of reindeer, organize space, or even serve as a border between worlds. The fish, rendered in lively stitches as round firm bodies. The fine lines representing streaming water. (To identify only a few elements in this iconography.)
A recurring item in this repertoire, functioning both as symbol and motif, is the ládjogahpir, the curved Sámi women’s hat, once—under colonial coercion and Christianization—prohibited and disused, but recently revived (both in terms of the knowledge and techniques of making and in its vernacular use). In fact, since the ládjogahpir appears early in Marakatt-Labba’s art, her work has been an inspiration in the ládjogahpir revival. In recent works, they turn increasingly emblematic. Ládjogahpirs in red, worn by the three female Sámi goddesses, often depicted as heads suspended in between the trees. Their presence signals resistance and protection, summoned in the image to attempt to halt the exploitation of the land or guarding the integrity of Sámi culture. The blue ládjogahpir marks instead sorrow, mourning wounded earth or exploited landscapes, grieving the loss of living space and cultural heritage. Marakatt-Labba finds with the goddesses’ presence, a way of joining resistance with the cry of despair, distress and grief. As the ládjogahpir becomes part of an evolving contemporary iconography, a revived Sámi female symbol, it is refashioned and recharged as a signal of resurgence and empowerment, proudly worn by goddesses and ordinary women alike.
Along with the steadily growing series of panoramic tableaux—equally anguished and incensed—chronicling, foreboding and denouncing the ongoing environmental collapse and the violence against land and the living, allegorical visions detailing political calamities and protest, or the elaborate and elegant mappings of Sámi spirituality and history, Britta Marakatt-Labba is, of course, a grand and generous storyteller of the vernacular. While visualizing Sámi cosmology and the architecture of the Sámi universe, carrying history and providing nation-building narratives for a people, constructing landscapes responding to the interlocking crises of neocolonialism/democracy/inequality and the climate through a cartography of reduction and resistance, the art of Marrakatt-Labba explores and depicts also the vernacular and the quotidian. Where people go fishing, organize conferences, relieve themselves or wonder at daylight’s arrival. Where they talk, negotiate, dream, share memories, rest, hang out around the fire, follow the annual cycles and the movements of the reindeer. A vernacular that moreover includes keen observations of the natural environment, sharing vivid miniature scenes of dusk and dawn, animal life, or the arctic and subarctic landscapes’ seasonal changes, all of which with great clarity and effortlessness fuse physical and spiritual presence. Hence a vernacular not spelled out as a separate dimension, but as an integrated ingredient in the totality of things and phenomena. The cosmos, equally intimate as infinite, embracing this very moment and eternity. The quotidian incurring political meaning, the individual and personal carrying collective and universal significance.
In a recent radio interview, Britta Marakatt-Labba talks about how the vernacular space of the home affords the smooth shifting between household work, craft and art, as they make use of the same tools, methods, materials and work space. Embroidering from her home studio, she says she can easily shift from adding the final stitches on an artwork to repairing an item in her gákti or concluding winter mittens for her youngest. Since Indigenous cultures do not locate art in a distinct or autonomous sphere; aesthetics is interwoven with the vernacular in a continuum. Duodji—defined as Sámi crafts, design, and arts, including the processes, methods and materials of making, the completed objects and a Sámi world-view as the context of the practicing of duodji—engaged in the making of tools, household objects, garments and more, do not separate aesthetics or beauty from function and use.
Marakatt-Labba’s artistic practice incorporates and embodies duodji practices. Not only are the techniques of embroidery, the materials and their treatment, shapes and texture, used in her artistic practice (skills earned from learning duodji practices in the home). Moreover, her duodji skills permeate her entire artistic process and output—the knowledge of how Sámi clothing is made and worn, the making and the structure of the lávvu, the movement of the reindeer, the nature of the landscape, the seasonal cycles and their different demands upon garments, housing and tools. Harald Gaski’s notion of a Sámi aesthetics, anchored with the South Sámi term dåajmijes vuokies (translated as “respectful ways” or simply as “Sámi ways of doing things”) honours the Sámi aesthetic practices as they have evolved over centuries, while searching for correspondence among artists and among different media. With her comprehensive grounding in duodji practices and knowledge, Marakatt-Labba’s art at once subscribes to and transforms—since novel solutions and new modalities of expression are introduced—dåajmijes vuokies. Her art embodies and develops a Sámi aesthetic. The work of Marakatt-Labba locates art as a sub-category of duodji, and the link with the life-world and the vernacular is never severed. Divisions or hierarchies between art and craft, art and duodji, or even, art and life are promptly dismantled. Since Britta Marakatt-Labba is a qualified (and trained) and celebrated contemporary artist, it is also relevant to recall Jelena Porsanger’s claim that tradition in Indigenous cultures is not opposed to something not traditional. Instead, “tradition is understood as a many-faceted entity which is in a constant process of change and which stems from Indigenous concepts of time, space and knowledge.” Also Rauna Kuokkanen questions the dichotomy between tradition and modernity, arguing that it depreciates Indigenous epistemologies. Perhaps this is where the fantasy–endorsed by transnational capital–of a global deterritorialized contemporary art world and practice crumbles. The Indigenous artist returns the discourse to place, land, territory, locality, reckoning unremitting nation-states and industry. We are still here.
In fact, parallel to the development of a Sámi aesthetics, Britta Marakatt-Labba’s work redefines modernity and contemporaneity in the arts. Rather than cast as a guest or a visitor in the art world, itself a colonial enterprise and dominated by Eurocentric norms, her art rewrites the script regarding modern and contemporary art practices, reskilling and enabling them both as a platform both for her individual practice and voice and as a mediator empowering the Sámi collective. Refusing the ethnicist subaltern position, Marakatt-Labba embraces an Indigenous aesthetic capable of transforming the norms and conventions of contemporary art, a labour and activism she has been engaged with for now over four decades. It is not unreasonable to say—as several commentators have suggested—that Britta Marakatt-Labba is doing history painting (in the Western art history sense) in many of her works. But, if so, it is all securely grounded in duodji practices and materials, stitches instead of brush strokes in oil, translating orally transmitted stories of the people (orality cum visuality) rather than the narratives of the king and the political and economic elite. Cultural difference and agency, as well as irreducible subjectivity and singularity comes together here. Is the small embroidery Melody (2017) the work to come forward here? Flashing the codes of a self-portrait, with its rare facial close-up, it counters the expectation of a singular identity claim by inscribing across the larger face a trail of smaller faces, some adorned with the red ládjogahpir, some without any Sámi attribute but with a range of distinct expressions and moods? At any rate, Melody refuses closure.
 Outi Pieski and Eeva Kristiina Harlin, Ládjogahpir – Máttaráhkuid gábagahpir/The Ládjogahpir – The Foremothers` Hat of Pride, Dávvi Girjji, Kárášjohka 2020.
 Harald Gaski, “Indigenous Aesthetics: Add Context to Context,” Sami Art and Aesthetics. Contemporary Perspectives, ed. Svein Aamold, Aarhus University Press, Aarhus 2017, pp.179-193. Gunvor Guttorm explores the significance of duodji in the work of Britta Marakatt-Labba in Gunvor Guttorm, “Stories Created in Stitches,” Britta Marakatt-Labba. Embroidered Stories/Sággon Muitalusat, Koncentrat, Luleå 2010.
 Jelena Porsanger and Rauna Kuokkanen both quoted in Hanna Horsberg Hansen, “Constructing Sami National Heritage: Encounters Between Tradition and Modernity in Sami Art,” Konsthistorisk tidskrift/Journal of Art History, 85:3, pp. 244-245. See also Jelena Porsanger, “The Problematisation of the Dichotomy of Modernity and Tradition in Indigenous and Sami Contexts,” Dieđut, 1/2011, pp. 225–252.
 We are Still Here is a song by Sofia Jannok from the 2016 album ORDA – This is my Land. See also the music video with visual artist Anders Sunna: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EVH0jvnaIqU. We Are Still Here is also the title of a 2017 embroidery by Britta Marakatt-Labba.
Credit: This text was originally published in Britta Marakatt-Labba, More Embroidered Stories, Koncentrat/IKON Gallery, 2022. COURTESY JAN-ERIK LUNDSTRÖM.
This story is part of the Sweden Spotlight. View more content from the Spotlight here.
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