Britta Marakatt-Labba, Giron/Kiruna/Kieruna (detail, right section), 1989, triptych, collage and embroidery, 55 1⁄8 × 59".

Britta Marakatt-Labba, Giron/Kiruna/Kieruna (detail, right section), 1989, triptych, collage and embroidery, 55 1⁄8 × 59".

Britta Marakatt-Labba

In 2017, the inclusion of Britta Marakatt-Labba’s vast embroidery Historjá (History), 2003–2007—a sweeping account of the Sámi people—in Documenta 14 risked framing the artist’s work merely as a manifestation of the current desire to decolonize the art world. But to so easily dismiss the light-handed narrative of resistance and oppression stitched into this work, which delves deep into the past, would be a mistake. Contained within the tapestry is the chronicle of the Sámi people, from the sixteenth- and seventeenth-century campaigns for their Christianization and the imposition of national borders on their territory, to the eugenics experiments carried out by Sweden’s State Institute for Racial Biology in the 1920s as a “scientific” means of legitimizing the colonial expansion, effected through the continuing encroachment of the forestry, hydropower, and mining industries to the north.

Featuring more than one hundred pieces, dating from Marakatt-Labba’s early years at the Art Industrial School in Gothenburg, Sweden, during the late 1970s, to the present, “History in Stitches” complicated the way the story of the north is told. If Historjá (included here only as a downsized replica) offered a monumental statement on all that needed to be excluded in the process of building a nation-state, the majority of the works in this show told shorter stories, though they were equally magnificent in formal terms. Marakatt—Labba’s art most often functions as diary notes documenting everyday activities or as subtle commentary on contemporary neocolonial tendencies. For instance, in the 1980s, when privatization was accelerating in Sweden, Radiotjänst i Kiruna took over the administration and invoicing of television licensing fees from Stockholm’s state-owned Televerket. This shift factors into Marakatt-Labba’s triptych Giron/Kiruna/Kieruna, 1989, titled after the names for this northern Scandinavian town in Sámi, Swedish, and a local dialect of Finnish. One section of the work shows an envelope with the Radiotjänst logo, but in place of a printed address, the artist has substituted an image of the interior of a traditional goahti hut where someone has been sleeping, highlighting the continuing condition of nomadism. If Historjá deals with the dilemma of being incompatible with and/or marginalized by the dominant notion of “history,” Giron playfully mediates the paradoxes of logocentrism in the communication between the state and its population.

Yet without large-scale forestry, mining, and hydroelectric power in the north, Swedish modernity would be nothing. Kiruna returns in Johtin (The Move), 2016, which depicts the forced relocation of the town—an ongoing project begun in 2007—following damage to its mine, the largest iron ore mine in the world. What we might have surmised from this cartographic work was that today’s colonial exploitation needs no pseudoscientific justification for its racial violence.

A highlight of the exhibition, the embroidery Garjját (The Crows), 1983, dramatizes the struggle against the expansion of a hydroelectric dam on the Alta River through the transformation of a flock of crows, first into humans and then into police who attempt to drive a group of people from their protest camp. This work had become an iconic image for the Sámi people; it is also a prime example of the artist’s skillful rendering of movement, space, and duration within a single image.

Marakatt-Labba’s technique is informed by the traditional Sámi craft duodji, but breaks from stipulations on how embroideries made this way should look. By explicitly incorporating white fabric—wool, silk, but most often linen—as the ground for her imagery, Marakatt-Labba references the critical preoccupation with whiteness, from the imagined ideal of ancient Greek sculpture to the exhausted notion of the white cube. At the same time, this whiteness is loaded with completely different associations—among them snow, the void in Sámi history, and the function of the landscape in Sámi cosmology. With little more than a needle and thread, Marakatt-Labba lays bare the mechanisms of the colonial modernity that turned the Sámi world into a problem and a threat to both capital and the nation-state, and in so doing opens up a new understanding of Scandinavian modernity.

Fredrik Svensk