Sámi Artist Britta Marakatt-Labba Exhibits: Under the Vast Sky – At Ikon Gallery

Writer Harry Croxford / Photographer Erin Connolly

The Ikon Gallery in Brindley Place conducts the first UK exhibition of Sámi artist, Britta Marakatt-Labba: Under the Vast Sky.

From iconic embroidered pieces to more recent experiments with sculpture, each piece foregrounds the struggles, cosmic mythology, and voice of the Sámi as they navigate state authority, colonising industry, and now, climate change.

The Sámi are indigenous peoples whose population spreads through the combined northern territories of Norway, Sweden, Finland, and Russia. These nations, and their artificial borders, divide the cultural region known locally as Sápmi.

Historically suppressed by these states – first through religion, then through industrial expansion – over the past few decades, contemporary Sámi artists have sought to reclaim their narratives and identities. Clothing, arts, and cultural practices like reindeer herding, have been centred in attempts to express the meaning of what it means to be Sámi today.

One such artistic medium is the yoik: a traditional form of song performed by the Sámi.

The yoik is malleable, yet personal. An expression of a singer’s identity, it is a most distinctly Sámi form, popularised by contemporary artists and singers seeking to navigate traditional identities and contemporary forms.

In this way, the yoik becomes a model for the Sámi artist-activist Britta Marakatt-Labba. Working primarily with embroidery as her medium, her meticulous and careful practice bridges narrative with image and represents scenes from her own life and from Sámi experience.

Particular scenes open out onto the broader cultural story like the yoik, as Marakatt-Labba remarks in an interview with Berlin Art Link: “My work is like singing a Sámi yoik: there’s no beginning and no end. It’s like a circle”.

As you enter Ikon Gallery’s second floor, the site of Marakatt-Labba’s first UK exhibition, you witness this circle. Scenes plucked from Marakatt-Labba’s childhood conjoin with the mythologised and historical.

Here: trees, felled for lumber as Sámi look on. There, the traditional and protected practice of reindeer herding. Elsewhere, Sápmi land with the cosmos above and underworld below represented through vivid depth and colour. Everywhere: events in time where each work communicates with one another, forming a distinctive symbolic vocabulary.

In ‘Garjiat/The Crows’ (1981/2001) shapeless dark forms impose themselves from the top of the canvas. The gaze lowers, and these blots of mottled embroidery turn into crows. This murder transforms anew into the black uniforms of Norwegian police. They trudge through the snow to violently remove Sámi protestors encamped in their Lavvu – a traditional temporary dwelling.

This piece is a documentary-cum-mythological representation of an episode in the Álta conflict in the 1970s, where indigenous populations of the Sápmi confronted the expansion of both state and industry. Its namesake originates from the flashpoint surrounding the construction of a hydroelectric plant in Sápmi land.

Ancestors, for whom the Sámi are in constant communication, invoke the presence and force of history. The past as it persists in this way is invoked in ‘Historja/History’ (2003): presented via a video installation and preparatory watercolour, the viewer is exposed to the painstaking process of craft.

Here, historical events co-exist with mythology. By narrativizing this, and through this vividly constructed panorama of Sámi culture, Marakatt-Labba invites the viewer to consider what is lost, gained, and meaningful about the narratives we tell ourselves.

This exhibition extends beyond the embroidered form that Marakatt-Labba is most known for: we see preparatory watercolour sketches, installation pieces, and extending from her recent interest: sculpture. But as the yoik is indivisibly, distinctly, Sámi, so is Marakatt-Labba’s unique work. Something she implores us not to forget.

You can visit Britta Marakatt-Labba: Under the Vast Sky at Ikon Gallery, until 29 May 2022 – for more details visit: www.ikon-gallery.org/exhibition/britta-marakatt-labba

For more from the Ikon Gallery take a look at their website: www.ikon-gallery.org

For more on Britta Marakatt-Labba visit: www.brittaml.se