In 17th-century Finnmark a common practice for determining the guilt of an accused witch was to subject them to the “water ordeal.” With hands and feet tied, they would be thrown into the freezing Barents Sea to see whether they sank or floated. If they sank, they were innocent. Water was thought to repel evil, so the suspect’s rising to the surface and floating proved their guilt.
In 21st-century America, Senator Lindsey Graham regarded a woman who, protesting the Supreme Court nomination of a man accused of sexual assault, asked if Brett Kavanaugh should take a polygraph test. In response he sneered “why don’t we dunk him in water and see if he floats?”
The figure of the hunted witch was evoked often in 2018, the year I finally realized a long-held dream to make an art-pilgrimage to the Arctic island of Vardø, the extreme northeastern point of Norway, to see the Steilneset Memorial to the victims of the Finnmark witchcraft trials. Read about my trip in my essay for Hyperallergic.
In 1979 a group of Sámi people, wearing traditional dress and calling to “let the river live,” staged a hunger strike outside of parliament in Oslo while others occupied the prime minister’s office. This was the dramatic climax of the People’s Action against the Áltá-Guovdageaidnu Waterway (1978-1982) in opposition to the construction of a dam across the Alta river in northern Norway.
This strategically visible uprising brought Sámi rights into the Norwegian political mainstream and helped lead to Norway’s signing of ILO Convention 169 and the creation of a Sámi Parliament.
Part of a three-year-long dialogue with Sámi artists and scholars, Let the River Flow ,a group show at Oslo’s Office of Contemporary Art, shows how artists were at the center of the action. The multigenerational show also explores the Alta action’s legacy today and the sentiment that the decolonizing process it initiated has stalled and that Sámi culture is in danger today, through such works as Máret Ánne Sara’s Pile o’ Sapmi Power Necklace, which is made from powdered reindeer bones referencing the Norwegian government-imposed reindeer slaughter in northern Norway, a policy Sámi herders is an infringement of indigenous rights.
The art offerings of the Nordics are well established: from the capitals’ gleaming national galleries to the scrappier artist-run spaces in their less-polished neighborhoods. But travel away from the established centres and you may stumble upon some of the region’s most visually arresting art sites. In each of the following three art escapes, in Norway, Sweden and Denmark, a unique alchemy fuses the site with the place in which it sits, and together they yield something almost magical.
For volume nine of Oak – The Nordic Journal, I wrote about the Steilneset Memorial (above) in Norway, Artipelag in Sweden, and Cisternerne in Denmark.
Last week, for the Village Voice, I interviewed the Sámi rapper, SlinCraze. Nils Rune Utsi, as he is bestter known in his tiny Arctic hometown of Máze, was in NYC for the U.N Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, a gathering of 1,200 indigenous people from around the world, where he was invited to play a concert. He also appeared at Scandinavia House, alongside Aili Keskitalo, the President of the Sámi Parliament of Norway, and Simen Braathen, the director of a documentary film about him, “Arctic Superstar.”
The story of Arctic Superstar began in New York, where, in 2013, Braathen produced a photo exhibition of Norwegian rappers and the places they represent. SlinCraze played his first NYC gig at the Mothership in Brooklyn afterward. “SlinCraze’s story stuck out to me,” Braathen told me, “because of his raw ambition, yet impossible starting point. Language is obviously important in rap, yet there he was rapping in a language that is considered endangered by UNESCO. And killing it!”
Utsi’s language is Northern Sámi, understood by only 20,000 people. Not only do Norwegians or Europeans or anyone else not understand Northern Sámi, but many Sámi people don’t understand it either.
As he told me: “There’s no numbers on how many Sámi people there are, because of a history of the Norwegian government trying to wipe out the Sámi language. A lot of kids, from at least two generations before me, learned that speaking Sámi is taboo. So they forgot the language. There’s no real numbers on how many people are actually Sámi, because a lot of people work really hard to hide it.”
I was reminded while speaking to him of an artwork I saw last year in the Stormen cultural centre in Bodø, Arctic Norway. By Edvine Larssen, who lives and works on the Lofoten islands, the piece comprises a found vintage photograph of a Sámi couple. The people in the photograph had scratched out their traditional Sámi footwear.
Why? Because at this time Norway had a policy of forced assimilation, known as Fornorsking, or Norwegianisation. Sámi traditions and clothing were banned, as were the Sámi languages, one of which SlinCraze is helping revitalise through his music.