BY Angel Lambo in Opinion | 09 JUL 24

Dispatch from the Arctic: Bodø Turns to Its Sámi Roots

This year’s European Capital of Culture takes steps to improve its wartime image through new cultural initiatives

BY Angel Lambo in Opinion | 09 JUL 24

Last month, in the Arctic city of Bodø, Queen Sonja of Norway presented her eponymous print award to three artists who have excelled in furthering fine art printmaking: Anselm Kiefer (Lifetime Achievement Award), Maria Kayo Mpoyi (QSPA Inspiration Ward) and Tomas Colbengston (The Queen Sonja Print Award). In her speech at Stormen Concert Hall, she eloquently described how Kiefer’s work ‘forces us to face the emptiness and cruelty in society, and in ourselves’. The renowned artist’s bleak, misanthropic landscapes, influenced by his post-war upbringing in Germany, may capture the imagination in a more dramatic fashion than Colbengston’s quiet etchings, screen prints and digital works about the colonization of the Sámi people but I believe Colbengston’s work better addresses the insidious subtlety with which oppression operates today. To better understand the issues his work addresses, we first need to understand the political context in which it exists.

The Queen Sonja Print Award 2004
Maria Kayo Mpoyi (L), Tomas Colbengtson (C-L), Anselm Kiefer (C-R) and Queen Sonja of Norway(R). Courtesy: The Queen Sonja Awards; photograph: Per Inge Johnsen

Bodø saw its fair share of conflict during World War II when most of the city was razed by German air attacks. This radically reshaped the city’s identity as it transformed from a quiet fishing village, established in the 1800s, to a military-base city when NATO set up operations there in 1955. However, when the base was deactivated in 2022, 1,000 people lost their jobs (significant in a population of around 55,000) – according to the mayor, Odd Emil Ingebrigtsen, whom I met at Bodø Town Hall – forcing the old fishing village to once again reappraise its future. This is why, like many cities facing a crisis of identity, Bodø has turned to the arts. 

Aerial view of the Fjords around Bodo, Norway
Aerial view of the Fjords around Bodø, Norway. Courtesy: Getty Images; photograph: Tim E. White

In a bid to boost tourism in the region, Bodø successfully applied to be the 2024 European Capital of Culture – a title shared with Bad Ischl in Austria and Tartu in Estonia. The programme, known as Bodø2024, includes live music, exhibitions, dance, light shows, talks and more, with a strong emphasis on Sámi art and culture. The decision to host the Queen Sonja Print Award in Bodø was made in aid of the celebrations this year and, with the main prize going to Colbengtson, an artist of Sámi descent, to galvanize the community around northern Norway’s indigenous heritage.

Cultural institutions have taken various steps to recognize the rights, or at least the heritage, of the Sámi. The recently reopened Bodø City Museum has changed its name to Bådåddjo/Buvvda Musea for 2024 to highlight its focus on Sámi culture and the first ever Sápmi Triennale will open in Bodø in August. While the cultural sector makes gestures to acknowledge the traditional inhabitants of northern Scandinavia, many Norwegians and their government’s policies remain discriminatory in attitude.

Opening day, Bodø, European Capital of Culture
Opening day. Courtesy: Bodø2024; photograph: David Engmo

In the days after the European Capital of Culture opening ceremony in February, national broadcaster NRK reported on the fierce debate after the fireworks fizzled out. Various TV pundits, tabloid journalists and keyboard warriors expressed their ire over the supposed overrepresentation of Sámi culture during the nationally televised ceremony, which opened with traditional joik songs and ended with singer Ella Marie Hætta brandishing her coat with the embroidered words ‘This Is Sámi Land’. The backlash was so fierce Mayor Ingebrigtsen released a statement calling for ‘calm’ and added, ‘What’s not acceptable are the demeaning descriptions of Sámi that are appearing in social media and on media commentary pages.’

This discrimination and erasure of culture, which Colbengtson’s work addresses, is not just a provincial matter but also seeps into the nation’s legislative arm. After a three-year legal battle that ended in March, Norway’s central government finally reached an agreement with Sámi groups regarding Europe’s largest onshore wind farm which had been illegally built on land conferred to reindeer grazing (reindeer migration is central to the traditional lives and customs of the Sámi and the disruption to these ancient herding routes signals the erasure of a thousand-year-old tradition).

European Capital of Culture opening ceremony, 2024.
European Capital of Culture opening ceremony, 2024. Courtesy: Bodø2024; photograph: David Engmo 

It’s easy to look back at watershed moments in the arts, such as the transformation of the Nordic Pavilion into the Sámi Pavilion at the 2022 Venice Biennale, and believe that marginalized cultures and artistic practices are universally embraced. But, in truth, the cultural sector lives in a bubble – a soap bubble even. This fragile, gossamer-thin layer of activity can easily pop with the slightest change in the political winds. Colbengtson manifested this precariousness in his latest installation outside Stormen Concert Hall earlier this year, ‘Inbetween Colonisation’ (2024). The work consists of eight life-sized transparent prints of Sámi people taken from various public and private photographic archives.

In one image, a Sámi man poses awkwardly in front of an ethnographer’s camera. In another, there is an image of a Sámi child from a reform school, which was part of the country’s Norwegianization policy in operation from the early 1900s up until the 1960s. These images, with eyes peering out from a haunted past, are reminders that nobody’s freedom is permanently secured. Culture, as is art, is always under threat so we must take every opportunity to remind us all that Indigenous rights are predicated on Indigenous visibility. 

Main image: View of Lofoten Islands. Photograph: Nathan Van de Graaf

Angel Lambo is associate editor of frieze. She lives in Berlin.