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.
events in time
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.