Dream Logic and Popular Struggle

It is Sami artist Britta Marakatt-Labba’s unbending faith in the power of storytelling and in the struggle against political oppression that makes her art so urgent today.

Britta Marakatt-Labba, History (detail), 2003–2007. Photo: Ola Røe.

Britta Markatt-Labba’s exhibition at Gävle Konstcentrum is titled after the artist’s very first work, Speglingar [‘Mirrorings’], from 1968. With the simplest of gestures this cloth shows two faceless figures nearly blending together, shoulder to shoulder against a blue background. Hanging in the brightest part of the gallery, close to the large panorama windows at its far end, the image appears to be fading away. Yet after a while I see it instead as hovering on the threshold between disappearing and materializing, as something constituting at once a beginning and an end. 

Marakatt-Labba’s 24m long embroidery Historia [‘History’] was one of the main works at Documenta 14, which has been described as an historical breakthrough for Sami art. In Gävle, this work is shown as a photo print, produced by the owner of the work, The University of Tromsø in Norway, as a replacement while it was on loan to Kassel. Unfortunately, the copy fades in comparison to the 16 works, made over the last 40 years, that are included in the exhibition. The main technique presented is embroidery on linen, and the exhibited works include public art works, works from private collections as well as some watercolour sketches. 

Britta Marakatt-Labba, Möte vid ett samtalsbord, 2000. Photo: Elin Hjulström Lord.

What is most striking about Marakatt-Labba’s work is the recurring treatment of colour, form and motif – and, not least, their common strength and power. In her pictorial world there are no hierarchies between looking oneself in the mirror and retelling the myths, between visualizing the tragic death of a family member and showing the turning of the seasons. Marakatt-Labba works in tiny stitches, yet with an imagination that is immense. Dream logic and popular struggle are sewn together by minuscule stitches and the joy of giving form.

Marakatt-Labba’s works have been described as magical and, certainly, one senses a belief in something exceeding the human. There is a belief in the power of storytelling, in community and the struggle against political oppression. This conviction also seems to  harbour a faith in the creator of everything we exist in, and depend upon.

Skogen skyddar liv [’The Forest Shelters the Living’] is the title of a large scale triptych from the late 80s. The left part shows a lonely raven in a clearcut forest. In the background towers a majestic blue mountain. In the middle section, a series of deer antlers make out one of several horizons on the otherwise untouched canvas, while in the part to the right ravens gather around a carcass in a recently planted forest. Marakatt-Labba renders the human drama in front of a horizon that is often reflected in other horizontal lines. Heaven and earth blend together in the monochrome, which is always near. This is how the vast expanse, the large distances of the landscape, freedom and limits against excess are given form. 

Britta Marakatt-Labba, Spegelbild 1 [Mirror Image 1], 2017. Photo: Elin Hjulström Lord.

Next to the triptych hangs five self-portraits made by the relatively unknown artist Fritz Sjöström in the late 60s. They are part of Sjöström’s Identity series that once inspired Marakatt-Labba to begin making art. The paintings show the artist in a striped painter’s shirt with a face that divides itself, breaks out from itself, or collapses. Francis Bacon meets Cézanne, yet without signs of torment. The paintings trace doubt, cubism and loneliness. They could have been made in the 1940s except that the air, the amount of canvas left untouched between the figuration, makes clear that this is late postwar art.

Sjöström’s paintings resonate in Marakatt-Labba’s own self-portraits, which, although more reminiscent of cartoons, present a similar range of colours. Kazimir Malevich comes to mind, especially in Spegelbild I, [Mirror Image 1] in which the artist is portrayed wearing a red Sami headpiece. Marakatt-Labba can be seen as part of a tradition bringing together modern and folk art. I’m thinking of Malevich but also of Marc Chagall’s humorous mix of high and low elements. Is this Sami art, textile art? Contemporary art? Above all, it is an art alive in the expanded sense, functioning as both local struggle and global inspiration. It keeps struggling and doing quite well.

Installation view from Britta Marakatt-Labba’s exhibition at Gävle konstcentrum. Photo: Elin Hjulström Lord.