“Let the River Flow’ at 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.

Full review at Hyperallergic: Unpacking the Legacy of an Indigenous Uprising in Norway

Art Escapes at Oak – The Nordic Journal

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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.

Photo: Karen Gardiner

Uni Stefson (MTV Iggy)

Sadly the music publication MTV Iggy closed down late last year — and took all of the writers’ work with it. So that my articles may live on, I am going to publish a few of them here. Beginning with this profile of Icelandic artist, Uni Stefson from July 2014.

Uni Stefson Finds Inspiration in the Icelandic Landscape

–Karen Gardiner

For his first solo outing, Unnsteinn Manuel Stefánsson has taken quite a departure from the frantic bouncy electropop and infectious hooks of Retro Stefson, the band he has fronted for eight years. Performing as Uni Stefson, his new release, titled Enginn Grætur (“Nobody Cries”) is an evocative, slowly building composition, built around a 19th century poem and backed by an emotive string arrangement by Viktor Orri Árnason.

Stefánsson first learned the poem, Stökur (“Quatrains”), when he performed it, set to a different composition, with his high school choir. “Eight years later”, he says, “I was in Berlin over the winter, writing music for the new Retro Stefson album. I wasn’t meeting anyone; I spent days, weeks by myself so when I had to do the vocals I couldn’t use my voice, I felt I had nothing to say so, out of frustration, I took up the guitar and started playing random chords and sung a melody to this poem.”

The poem’s author was Jónas Hallgrímsson, romantic, naturalist and advocate of Icelandic independence. Hallgrímsson wrote the poem during his last year of life while living in Copenhagen and suffering from a great depression. “He’s one of the great Icelandic poets”. Says Stefánsson. “It is said that if his mother tongue would have been English, he would have been one of the most famous in the world.” That’s not to say that Enginn Grætur is yet another Icelandic landscape-inspired cliché. “It’s more a personal poem I could relate to rather than another ode to the Icelandic nature”. He says. “You can get sick of that. People who look at Iceland from the outside are a little obsessed with the Icelandic musicians being inspired by the nature, but I think Icelandic musicians are just inspired by each other.”

Indeed, Stefánsson credits the size of the Icelandic music scene for fostering the environment in which musicians can experiment more freely than perhaps they could in bigger cities. The downtown neighborhood of 101 Reykjavík, where he estimates 90 percent of Icelandic musicians live, is “kind of like a village. That’s what makes Icelandic music special. It’s totally different to other cities.” Moreover, he says, “If I was in a band in Central Europe, I would have to go to an expensive studio. I would have to write something that sells. I would have in the back of my mind that I have to write a hit song that will get played on the radio. In Iceland, you never earn any money from music, so you can forget about that from the get go and just write a good song that you want to hear yourself.”

Still, while Enginn Grætur is an interesting contrast to the more global sounds of Retro Stefson, Stefánsson did not set out to write something quite so Icelandic sounding. “I was a little afraid of having the lyrics in Icelandic because of the nationalist political parties that are coming up in Iceland. Singing a 19th century poem, a romantic poem, seemed kind of off for me.” He spent six months working on the track, but halfway through, during the period of Reykjavik’s mayoral elections, the specter of nationalism entered civic life with highly publicized Islamaphobic comments made by one of the leading candidates. While Stefánsson claims Iceland is the least prejudiced country he has lived in — he was born in Portugal to an Angolan mother and has lived in Germany — the controversy affected him. “I was quite sad and it slowed down my process. But, in the end, I said that as a half-African and half-Scandinavian, I can sing this poem just as anyone else could. That was the way to be true to myself. I don’t want to mix too much of a political message in my music, but if I can release a song that has a personal statement, then I am happy.”

Stefánsson is will be releasing more of his solo “minimal” tracks over the next few months. He will be playing at Iceland Airwaves and in Toronto later this year. As for Retro Stefson, they will start recording a new album in January.

While Stefánsson doesn’t put much stock in naturalism, he says that the crescendo that the track’s three minutes slowly build up to is meant to sound like a volcano erupting. What’s a more Icelandic sound than that?

Photo by Saga Sig

Why Leith is Edinburgh’s Coolest Neighbourhood

Boda Bar, Leith
Boda Bar, Leith

At Condé Nast Traveler, I wrote about one of my favourite areas in Edinburgh: Leith.

Leith never used to be so cool; in fact it was a pretty bad neighbourhood when I lived in Edinburgh, just a few years after Trainspotting, which was set there, was made into a movie.

Now, the area is filled with hip bars (like Boda Bar above) and shops and is home to some really interesting festivals, particularly the arts festival LeithLate. One of LeithLate’s initiatives is the Shutter Project and Mural Project, which brings street artists to the area to paint shop shutters and other vacant spaces. This mural below was one of my favourites.  Painted by Guido van Helten, it depicts one of the last surviving members of the 1915 Quintinshill rail disaster in his old age. 200 men lost their lives in the disaster — the worst rail crash in the United Kingdom. Most of them were soldiers from the Leith Battalion heading to Gallipoli.

Guido van Helten, Leith
Guido van Helten, Leith

There are murals throughout the neighbourhood, including this one by Skint Richie on the shutter of Origano. But to see them, you need to get there early, before the shops open for business and the shutters go up.

Skint Richie, Leith
Skint Richie, Leith

Read more about Leith at Condé Nast Traveler.