ʻThe crows take everythingʼ

Sámi artist Britta Marakatt-Labba’s textile art holds significant stories within. Now she is taking part in the main exhibition of the Venice Biennale.

Britta Marakatt-Labba. Photo: Susanne Hætta.

“I see the shape in the fabric before I start, feeling my way ahead, trying out things, and then the fabric speaks to me. Sometimes, the picture that emerges is completely different from what I envisioned. That’s fantastic!”

Britta Marakatt-Labba, who is one of the foremost textile artists in the Nordic region, prefers to work intuitively and without preliminary sketches. After countless exhibitions in her native Sweden and abroad over the course of forty years, she is now among the participants in the main exhibition The Milk of Dreams at this year’s Venice Biennale, which opens to the public on 23 April. There she will show eight works, mainly embroidered, six of which date from 2021.

ʻEmbroidery is lifeʼ

The roads are grey lines through the wooded, green and white area as I drive through an area of the kind known as glesbygd (sparsely-populated) in northern Sweden. Eventually, the small village Badje-Sohppar/Övre Soppero appears. A quick phone call takes me to a cosy red house, centrally located, yet private and snug. My first visit with Marakatt-Labba takes place in mid-September, and the first snow lights up the landscape. That way, the dark months never become completely pitch-black. Thirty miles south of the village she grew up in, Áđevuopmi/Idivuoma, Marakatt-Labba and her husband Nils Johannes Labba have built this house, which serves as home and studio alike. He is a reindeer owner, and she too comes from a reindeer herding family, a fact often reflected in her art.

“It took a long time to become confident in my formal mode of expression. These days I’ll look at older works from the early days of my career and find myself fascinated, wondering how I came up with this or that solution. Did I really do that?” says Marakatt-Labba with a smile.

Her repertoire of subject matter includes mythical, pre-Christian, historical, and political realities. Titles like Muittut I (Memories I, 1977-78), Máttaráhkát (Primordial Mothers, 2001), Vuoi noaiddit (Swimming Noaidis, 1985) and Oaiveskálžžut (The Skulls, 2009) tell micro-stories with their tiny stitches. The latter work plays on the racial-biological studies of Sámi people in previous centuries, where scholars would, among other things, rob graves and steal Sámi skulls. Her pictures are sometimes explicitly dramatic, full of water, flames, movement, and large crowds. In other scenes, nature covers most of the surface, either sparsely embroidered using only the minimum number of stitches required, or, alternatively, a teeming mass of stitches showing snow, sea, fog, and wide vistas. Humans are often diminutive and insignificant figures, rendered with a subtle and expressive touch.

Marakatt-Labba does not like to over-explain; she uses few words and lets each viewer find meaning and significance in the pictures themselves. While she has used materials such as fish hides in her work, stories told exclusively through embroidery have become her hallmark. Why is embroidery her favourite technique?

“When I sit down with the embroideries, I feel that this is life!” she answers.

Britta Marakatt-Labba in her studio. Photo: Susanne Hætta.

After a long and productive artistic career, Marakatt-Labba has received so many awards, grants, and scholarships that listing them is nigh-impossible. She has lost count of them herself. But some of the most high-profile accolades include medals from the King of Sweden and the Swedish government. Many thousands of people see her public works of art every day in schools and churches, hospitals and town halls.

“Everything is predestined; there is no point in stressing. What is to come will come,” says Marakatt-Labba.

In November 2021, she exhibited no less than fifty works at The Southern Alberta Art Gallery Maansiksikaitsitapiitsinikssin in Canada. A Swedish documentary about her premiered in March to rave reviews. Her art is currently garnering interest all over the world after Europe rediscovered her at Documenta in 2017. Her soft politics are appealing and educational for the majority population in Sápmi. The drive to tell stories in order to make people reflect and understand is central to her art. Many are unaware that Marakatt-Labba has also illustrated books, taught, made chasubles, costumes, and even devised choreographies for Sámi theatres. I get a strong feeling that she has consciously given back to the Sámi community, in the Sámi spirit.

The vanguard of Mázejoavku

Britta Marakatt was born in Ađevuopmi in 1951, and as a child she learned duodji, Sámi traditional art and handicrafts, just like other Sámi children. The assimilation policy employed in Sweden at the time meant that children were sent to boarding school, and this happened to Marakatt-Labba too. After a long conversation, we go out to meet filmmaker Gunilla Bresky and her team, who are also here to interview the artist. At that point, memories emerge: bad memories of teachers and dorm parents who punished the children for speaking Sámi. Marakatt-Labba admits that as a child, she was given to tease and was constantly in opposition, traits she has continued in her art. This is slow art which is not about spontaneous rage, but rather focuses on significant stories about the Sámi: life, faith, the close ties to nature, colonialism, and not least, the struggles: soft politics.

“I have always been interested in politics. For me, politics are very important, and lately I have made many pictures about climate issues, and about mineral prospecting and mining. We are taking more and more land and water, and the trees are cut down. It’s tragic. We must protest against this because otherwise what will future generations live on? We cannot eat stone or continue our current ways of consumption,” says Marakatt-Labba.

Britta Marakatt-Labba, Historjá, 2003-07, detail. Photo: Cathrine Wang / KORO.

Bresky is making a documentary about Mázejoavku (Masigruppa/Sámi Artist Group), named after the village Máze/Masi in Norway where the group settled, and Marakatt-Labba is one of the featured participants. The film will premiere this winter. Six of the original eight artists in the group are still alive today, and their work was groundbreaking and avant-garde, certainly within Sápmi, the Sámi’s traditional cultural region in Norway, Sweden, Finland, and Russia. Previously, Sámi artists who practiced duodji had been regarded as less skilled or even as amateurs in the established art world. The eight artists of the Mázejoavku had completed art educations in the Western European tradition, while several of them were also duojárat, practitioners of duodji. They demanded to be taken seriously as Sámi artists, without their work being dismissed as just “folk art” or “folklore.” The cultural stereotypes about Sámi were stronger in the Nordic countries in the 1970s and 80s than today. The group brought art out to the people by travelling around the region, taking their works with them on a minibus and setting up exhibitions in many small venues in the county of Finnmárku/Finnmark. Gradually, international demand grew, although they remained relatively unknown in Oslo and in Norwegian art circles.

“The task of artists is to open other people’s eyes; we must be the avant-garde. In Mázejoavku we were precisely that kind of vanguard: we opened closed doors, and that was by no means easy in a strictly traditional society like Máze,” Marakatt-Labba tells me.

In 2020, I wrote a book about the history of Mázejoavku, and I got the impression that the villagers only grew nervous when the artists’ group began setting up joint workshops. Several of the inhabitants were worried about the impact this might have on the local youth. The general myth about the louche lifestyles of artists prompted harassment and even death threats, even though there was no truth to the rumours. When the Áltá/Alta conflict escalated in the late 1970s, however, several locals of Máze stood shoulder-to-shoulder with the artists against the damming and development of the watercourse that runs through Áltá and Guovdageaidnu/Kautokeino. In hindsight, posterity regards this as the most prominent Sámi resource and nature conservation struggle of the 1970s and 80s. Following this, inquiries were made to explore and define Sámi rights, which led to the establishment of the Sámi Act and the Sámi Parliament in Norway.

Daily labour

Marakatt-Labba’s current commissions include a textile work for the Norwegian Parliament. As public art became an ever-greater part of her work in the 1980s, she changed her working process. She only uses sketches for commissioned pieces.

“At an early stage of my career, I was about to create a piece of public art for the Ájtte Fjell- och Samemuseum (the Swedish Mountain and Sámi Museum), after having said no to other assignments because I was unable to present a sketch. I didn’t understand why I spent such a long time learning to sketch! I began to analyse myself to understand it. Finally I realised that it’s about my Sámi heritage: in duodji we don’t use patterns to sew by,” Marakatt-Labba says.

She explains how the shape of the reindeer’s skin determines where the seams should go on the leather shoes, and of how measuring for gákti (traditional Sámi clothing) is done using the dimensions of the shoulders, fingers, and arms of the person wearing the garment – and, of course, based on years of experience in visually estimating sizes.

“Using collage techniques, I eventually learned it,” she says. When she later taught at Sámi Allaskuvla (Sámi University of Applied Sciences) in Guovdageaidnu, she specifically taught the duodji students collage techniques so that they too could learn to sketch prior to working with needle and thread.

Britta Marakatt-Labba working in her studio. Photo: Susanne Hætta.

Cars whiz past the house where Marakatt-Labba and her husband live, but a row of trees acts as a buffer. There is a sense of tranquility here in their kitchen because nature surrounds us and the cars cannot drown that out. “I’m out and about a lot. When I get stuck in one of my pieces, I go for a walk. That usually loosens things up,” she smiles.

Nature and her family were part of the reasons she wanted to go north. Why pick Máze in Finnmárku, a small Sámi settlement with a few hundred inhabitants mostly working with reindeer husbandry?

As a student she met artist and writer Synnøve Persen in Oslo, and they had an instant rapport. Both were keen on the idea of ​​a Sámi artist collective. “When I graduated from the Academy of Art and Design in Gothenburg, I knew I would not stay in the city because there was nothing to keep me there. I simply wanted to go home, so I went north,” Marakatt-Labba tells me. After a year as an art teacher in Kárášjohka/Karasjok, she joined the rest of Mázejoavku. Sápmi was the home she returned to.

Her mother was widowed and left with a large flock of children when Marakatt-Labba was five years old. She speaks about her mother and her wisdom with warmth: “Mother had heard a radio programme about artists, and said that ʻfor an artist, there is always work to be doneʼ.” Marakatt-Labba lives by her mother’s statement; her discipline ensures that her work is structured.

“On Monday, I make a plan for what needs to be finished by the end of the week, and then I proceed to do that. I also work on Saturdays and Sundays if I have a deadline. Last Sunday, I worked until eleven at night,” she recounts.

Her studio is a large and airy space next to the kitchen. The expression ‘a place for everything and everything in its place’ springs to mind: here, all materials and tools have their specific places in boxes and drawers. Only the items that are used every day are kept out on view.

Soft politics

Despite her extensive career, Marakatt-Labba has remained under the radar of much of the art world for decades. I ask her when she felt she had achieved success.

“After Documenta in 2017,” she answers briskly. “There was an almost hysterical amount of activity then, curators and journalists… Afterwards, I realised how big Documenta actually was,” she says. Her large tapestry Historjá (History, 2003–07) was shown in Kassel, and several smaller textile works were on display in Athens. When I ask what her magnum opus is, I expect her to answer Historjá, but she points out another work:

Britta Marakatt-Labba, Gárjjat, 1981. Foto: Aad Hoogendoorn / KORO.

Gárjjat (The Crows, 1981) has become an iconic work in the context of Indigenous Peoples, one which has also inspired other Indigenous artists, including in the battle for Standing Rock in the USA. The picture came to me in Máze during the Áltá conflict,” she says. The flying crows transforming into police officers as they land, marching against and arresting protesters, are instantly recognisable to anyone familiar with the Áltá conflict.

“I’m so grateful for my mother’s stories. Mother said that the crows take everything they come across, and so this picture sprang into being. I began working on it right after the climax of the Áltá conflict in January 1981. It was finished after a few months of work,” she says. In January 1981, she was arrested, along with eight hundred others, during a major civil disobedience operation aimed at stopping construction work on the dam outside Áltá in Finnmárku. Gárjjat was completed for the Artic Arts Festival that year. “The picture is still relevant,” she asserts. Our conversation turns to the ongoing environmental struggles in Finnmárku, especially against the dumping of mine waste in the Repparfjord.

“I intend to travel to Repparfjord, and I have also gone to Oslo to protest against mining,” says Marakatt-Labba, who has been involved in the environmental cause since the early 1970s. In Sweden, there have been countless struggles in Sámi areas, for example, against damming in reindeer herding areas and, in recent years, mining; some of the controversies are still going on. Many have read about the forced relocation of Sámi reindeer herders in the past in Elin Anna Labba’s book Herrarna satte oss hit (The lords put us here, 2020). Back in its day, the Áltá conflict was a tremendous struggle that attracted great local, national, and international interest and involvement, including from artists.

Historjá was shown at the Queen Sonja Art Stable in Oslo in 2019, an occasion which, for many, marked their first-ever encounter with Marakatt-Labba’s art. The work is a twenty-four-metre-long textile frieze about Sámi history and culture. Small people and big events come together in a work of almost unbelievable scale and scope, in every sense. Historjá usually hangs at The Arctic University of Norway in Tromsø (UiT), which lent it for the occasion – and, of course, for Documenta 14 in Kassel. In Oslo, the work was mounted in a three-quarter circle so that viewers could feel the circular mode of thought which is typically Sámi. The work is monumental in a quiet way, made up of thousands of small stitches.

The creation of Historjá carries an entire history in itself, for it was by no means certain that Marakatt-Labba would even do the extensive work at all. “KORO [Public Art Norway] was involved, I visited the university and saw the twenty-four-metre wall. I thought long and hard about it, but eventually accepted the assignment! The theme of the work was to be history, and so I had to think: What is Sámi history?” she says. “In the beginning was the birch forest, and then the animals, and then the people. Reindeer husbandry, the coastal Sámi way of life, but also historical events such as the Guovdageaidnu uprising in 1852,” she explains. Here, a tone of controversy enters the picture, a dramatic part where a church is burning, specifically referencing the Guovdageaidnu uprising. “The Christian religion has done so much harm to us Sámi,” she says. In a sense, this section of the work balances out the female deities which come in a later part, because mythology also has its place here. The work took five years to complete. Historjá is not a work you simply look at and move on. You need to spend time with it.

Britta Marakatt-Labba, Historjá, 2003-07, detail. Photo: Cathrine Wang / KORO.

Land without borders

The evening is over; morning is coming. Sunlight pierces the clouds. Marakatt-Labba is preparing for a trip to Romssa/Tromsø. I am heading the same way, and she asks me to send her a text message when I have passed over the mountain and crossed the border to Norway. The drive is not long, but the weather and road conditions are unpredictable in the north. I take a picture of her before she shows me the house next door, which is her husband’s childhood home. Now it has been turned into a small gallery. Several of her awards hang in the entrance halls and seem surprisingly out of place. This is not a space you expect to see medals and diplomas in, but the choice reflects her down-to-earth approach. I say goodbye and set out north towards the coast. I remember Marakatt-Labba’s statement after her final arrest during the Áltá conflict. The policeman issued a fine and offered to drive her to the border:

“What border? We have no borders in Sápmi.”