Sápmi Is a Mindset

Britta Marakatt-Labba’s exhibition at the National Museum in Oslo confirms that alternative imaginaries to capitalism do exist.

Britta Marakatt-Labba, Gierdu II/Circle II, 2020. Photo: Dag Fosse / Kode Bergen kunstmuseum.

A lavvu or goathi is round so that it supports itself and evades the forces of the wind. Containers are round to better fit the oval sled. Life as a reindeer-herding Sámi, integral to artist Britta Marakatt-Labba, is a cyclical journey through the same geography year after year, in a Sápmi that winds nonchalantly and circumpolar-ly past the Strömstad Treaty borders of 1751, that still define the national territorial limits of Norway and Sweden. The logic of the circle and the cyclical unite the material, mythological, and political in Marakatt-Labba’s art. And what better conveys the connection of all things? The circle, naturally, also lends its shape to the exhibition in the National Museum’s Light Hall – dimly lit for the occasion – a show that flexes institutional muscle by being the largest presentation to date of the artist’s work.

At the centre of the room we come face to face with the magnum opus Historjá (2003–07), the 24-metre textile frieze usually mounted at the University of Tromsø, if it is not installed elsewhere, for example, at Documenta 14, where in 2017 it paved the way for the artist’s breakthrough on an international art scene that was finally sufficiently marinated in ideas of decolonialisation. In fact, the number of solo exhibitions requested in the wake of Kassel has made the work in such demand that at one point a photo print version was made which, with varying degrees of success, has figured in several places. And though one may well have some worries about the logistics involved, it is a relief to see Historjá shown in its original version here. It is a work to see with the body: squinting, up close, and with slow, panning steps back and forth. After all, we can no longer simply encourage people to get on a plane to Tromsø any time the fancy takes them. Of the installation of the work at the National Museum, it should be said that it is exceptionally effective: viewers enter a darkened circle where the frieze curves along the inside, its scenes lit with such precision that it is difficult not to disappear completely into the infinite landscape panorama and its dissolution of time and place.

Britta Marakatt-Labba, Historjá, 2007, detail. Photo: Ina Wesenberg / Nasjonalmuseet.

The nurturing of this break away from a linear structure is a central point given that the frieze conveys scenes from Sámi history – a history that has never been written from within in a canonised form, and one whose anchoring in the place and in the cycle of nature is illustrated by the fact that here it can be read in both directions. It foregrounds the form of the narrative as a political (and anti-colonialist) project, intervening in what Michel Foucault called “the archive,” meaning the fundamental formations that determine what is seeable and sayable as history. In terms of subject matter, the frieze sums up many of Marakatt-Labba’s recurring themes: political as well as everyday scenes executed in black, grey, and occasionally brightly coloured stitches; strikingly small figures on a light-coloured background; details with a graphic quality that belongs to a landscape covered in fresh snow. As the figures hunt, fish, hold councils, or sleep and dream for that matter, the spirit world is never far away, sometimes appearing as a horizontal mirroring of the human and animal figures, or as small heads of goddesses wearing red horned caps among the birch trees (the horned cap, a Northern Sámi women’s hat, was condemned by the Laestadians, a pietistic Lutheran revivalist movement, in the 19th century, presumably because the horn in front evoked too many associations to the underworld).

At the same time, it is striking how animals and people almost always appear in groups, flocks, and herds – a flock of lines that can easily be transformed into mountains and wide expanses in the topography of the landscape. The lonely Rückenfigur familiar from Romantic landscapes is here displaced by a gaze that does not pose existential questions to nature because the outside position does not seem to be accessible. Like tracks in the snow or lines on a horizon we are moving towards, this universe of figures is unpredictable and elastic: crows and rats turn into policemen; reindeer herds become ridges; the smoke from a goathi becomes flocks of birds; gods resemble people, etc. Small, thin darts of embroidery seem to dash away jazzily against a white background of linen and cotton canvas – unfettered and improvised, yet at the same time obviously entirely on point. It is as if the transformation itself, from razor-thin thread to image, is a constant force underpinning it all, threatening to cancel all fixed forms. The story must move on and go on.

Britta Marakatt-Labba, Girdi noaiddit/Flying Shamans, 1985. Photo: Andreas Harvik / Nasjonalmuseet.

This applies not least to what may be her most iconic works, Garjját/The Crows (1981) and Girdi noaiddit/Flying Shamans (1985), which present the experience of the infamous Alta hydropower development as a double crime: an industrialisation of natural resources that also includes colonisation – fundamentally expressions of the same logic. Marakatt-Labba’s importance for the collective organisation and consolidation of Sámi art can hardly be overestimated, but it is also impossible to separate this commitment from the aspect of environmental activism. In the National Museum’s exhibition, Marakatt-Labba’s newfound popularity is invoked as a case of the zeitgeist finally catching up with the artist, rather than the opposite, an approach emphasised by mounting the aforementioned images alongside new versions embroidered in the 2010s and 2020s – new “editions” to accommodate the new era.
The doubling becomes a witness, not only to a long overdue breakthrough, or to the renewed interest in Indigenous perspectives in environmental activism, but also to the striking similarity between the struggles. The recent activism against windmills threatening reindeer herders in Fosen, Trøndelag, for instance, has echoed the historic Alta case – of course, a completely different issue than those typically found in 2000s re-enactments a la Jeremy Deller’s Battle of Orgreave (2001), but still posing related questions about history dissemination and consciousness.

Otherwise, the political lines found in the artist’s body of work emerge as constant and pervasive aspects of the almost overwhelming number of works displayed in the National Museum. For example, the inherent irony in the fact that parts of the Swedish city of Kiruna are now being physically moved due to the hollowing out of the ground by iron ore mining is not lost on Marakatt-Labba. In several works, including Uksa/The Door and Johtin 1/The Move 1 (both 2016), she contrasts the forced relocation prompted by industrialisation with the lightness of nomadic architecture. Another recurring motif is that of the letter, often embroidered on an enlarged scale. In Giron/Kiruna (1990), a gigantic envelope listing the sender as Radiotjänst i Kiruna – Sweden’s former TV and radio licence authority – is embroidered on linen fabric and shiny velour. The address field frames a landscape with what looks to be an abandoned tent, and at the same time it evokes the production of boundaries by one of the classic institutions of the nation state, seeing it both as territory and as an “imagined community,” as Benedict Andersson has called the nation-state. Marakatt-Labba is also quoted on the wall text as saying that she is interested in letter-writing as a form of protest. Seen from this perspective, it becomes an emblem of communication with the authorities that never quite arrives.

Britta Marakatt-Labba, Luođđat/Spor, 2023. Installation view from the exhibition Moving the Needle at the National Museum, 2024. Photo: Ina Wesenberg / Nasjonalmuseet.

What does arrive, however, is the iron ore being shipped from Kiruna to the Norwegian port of Narvik every day. The LKAB logo (belonging to the state-owned mining company Luossavaarra Kiirunavaarra Aktie Bolag) and the mining wagons that appear in several works become reminders that borders can indeed be permeable when the economic interests involved are big enough. Just this one small logo is enough to activate an intricate network demonstrating how we are all connected, especially those of us with roots in the north. For example, my great-grandfather came to Narvik from Lofoten to work as a carpenter on the railway. My grandparents had to raise four children in a town destroyed both by Germans and the Allies during the Second World War because of this ore, which still creates jobs and billions in revenue while the northern Swedish landscape is being transformed. Examples include the drying up and poisoning of lake Luossajärvi, which used to be an important site for migrating reindeer-herding Sámi.

With a palimpsest-like reuse of textiles, as in the Utøya installation Dáhpáhusat áiggis/Events in Time (2013), the cyclical aspect also takes on a cartographic dimension that makes it difficult to separate the notion of history from the landscape in which it takes place. The embroidery needle lets itself be guided by traces of use or old prints, such as the Nazi eagle on wartime flour sacks, and the intuitive access to the material also refines the idea of history as layers of time that offer varying degrees of accessibility and have left varying imprints on the world.

It is difficult to see any “us and them” in these images, perhaps because this more planetary or geological conception of time ultimately speaks to the essential homelessness of us all. They speak of a particular way of life as much as they talk of symbols and references specific to a given culture, evoking a regime of knowledge that collapses the distinctions between nature and culture, subject and object. The exhibition feels relevant and hopeful, not least because the artist’s approach rejects a way of thinking that has facilitated the industrial exploitation of nature and replaces it with a philosophy of light footprints – a mode of storytelling that is oral and musical in nature, not carved into the face of the earth. In a time when we are gradually starved of ideas about other ways of life and alternatives to capitalism, Marakatt-Labba shows that such images already exist.

Britta Marakatt-Labba, Dáhpáhusat áiggis/Events in Time , 2013. Installation view from the exhibition Moving the Needle at the National Museum, 2024. Photo: Ina Wesenberg / Nasjonalmuseet.