Dressing Sami

Leah Thomason Bromberg visits Carola Grahn's Banff studio

Above: Vidderna ropa [Expanses(,) cry out] sound installation recording from open studios at the Banff Centre

Contributor’s note: “In Kind” Negotiations was a residency for indigenous artists that I attended at the Banff Centre. See all three studio visit conversations here.

I remember Carola introducing herself to the circle of new Banff residents. I was taking note of who would be part of our residency, “In Kind” Negotiations. Carola had flown in from Stockholm, Sweden, and (unlike me) seemed unfazed at the prospect of winter in Banff. I tried to imagine the climate of Sweden and compared it to Banff’s and wondered if all of Carola’s sweaters were as cool as the black one she wore that day. (Because in Sweden, you’d have to have cool sweaters, right?)

Carola kindly took time to talk to me about her work during our limited time at the Banff Centre. I especially appreciated her shared words, because she mentioned to me how tired she was from constantly translating her thoughts from Swedish to English for us. She and I sat around some coffee near the end of the residency.

Carola shared about being Sami. The Sami people are indigenous to the northern parts of Sweden, Norway, Finland, and the Kola Peninsula of Russia. Before meeting Carola, I did not know very much about the Sami people; and it was a privilege to learn about their politics, traditions, and contemporary lives firsthand from Carola—instead of sorting through society’s prejudices and misrepresentations.

Carola kindly took time to talk to me about her work during our limited time at the Banff Centre. I especially appreciated her shared words, because she mentioned to me how tired she was from constantly translating her thoughts from Swedish to English for us. She and I sat around some coffee near the end of the residency.

Carola shared about being Sami. The Sami people are indigenous to the northern parts of Sweden, Norway, Finland, and the Kola Peninsula of Russia. Before meeting Carola, I did not know very much about the Sami people; and it was a privilege to learn about their politics, traditions, and contemporary lives firsthand from Carola—instead of sorting through society’s prejudices and misrepresentations.

Snow installation at the Banff Centre

Snow installation at the Banff Centre

LTB: Your father is Sami, and your mother is not. Do you identify then as only Sami?

CG: I don’t like the idea of being “half.” I have decided that I am both, both Swedish and Sami.

There’s something partial or lacking in being “half.” It feels exclusionary and like a loss for me to tell people that I’m “half” Navajo—why do people question how “much” I am when I tell them I’m Navajo? Fully claiming an identity has been an important step for Carola personally and in her art practice, though she says she was late in taking back her Sami identity. Carola is extremely involved with her community and serves as the chair of the Sami association in Stockholm. Like her community, Carola is dealing with what it means to be a contemporary Sami person. She describes wearing Sami clothing with jeans—which was once somewhat controversial. While in Banff, she facilitated a time for the women of our residency to talk about how we describe our own identities. Carola’s work seems to demand questions about the hierarchies of power in these identities as both an indigenous individual and as a woman. The viewer is confronted with very direct questions or statements. I appreciate the abrupt nature of her work: I find myself mentally stammering, trying to find answers, and wondering through these questions for myself.

Installation of raku mountains and photographs at open studios in Banff

Installation of raku mountains and photographs at open studios in Banff

Photograph of the mountains at open studios in Banff

Photograph of the mountains at open studios in Banff

Leah Thomason Bromberg: How did you find art?

Carola Grahn: It always felt like it was there. My art is like how I played when I was little: out in the woods or so. My friends and I would plan and create plays together.

Carola continues to work in a project-based manner like her childhood playtime, and her work is where she is mentally. I found myself also indulging in the landscape while in Banff, and Carola’s work has a sense of being a part of her surroundings and the psychology of the individual within it.

I asked her if the landscape in Banff felt differently than in Sweden, and Carola shared that mostly all mountains feel like home to her. During open studios, Carola had an installation of two photographs of the mountains in Banff accompanied by raku mountains that she made in the Banff Centre’s ceramics studio. I could sense her presence in the photographs and the raku pieces. The photographs captured a certain ephemerality that happens in the fog of memory and history. As for the raku pieces, I remember her offhandedly mentioning in the workshop that she had made mountains; but I found a certain freedom and definite quality in them. They have the same bravado as her text installations—planted in front of you, being what they are.

Vidderna Ropa [Expanses(,) cry out], outside of Bildmuseet in Umeå City. Image via carolagrahn.se

Vidderna Ropa [Expanses(,) cry out]outside of Bildmuseet in Umeå City. Image via carolagrahn.se

LTB: I feel like that’s something we’ve been talking about here in Banff: how these larger histories affect our own personal lives and communities.

CG: It’s been a place for safe conversations here.

Safe conversations are challenging to find. Carola shares a story about visiting her cousins’ reindeer herds. The Sami people are known for their nomadic herding of reindeer, a way of life still practiced. Carola had planned to drive north from Stockholm for the visit, and an acquaintance messaged her to ask if he could come along to photograph the reindeer. Immediately Carola felt anxiety that someone (whom she didn’t know very well) would want to invade a special area for her as a Sami person.

Carola and I shared feeling protective over these sorts of things, protecting the personal, and trying to choose carefully what becomes public. Carola’s work comes from a very personal place, and she has had to learn when to keep things for herself. It struck us both that with indigenous people, these larger histories of genocide, cultural oppression, and colonialism are constantly in conversation with personal histories. The Sami people and North American indigenous people have a similar history, where invaders stole the land and missionaries stole the children to attend residential schools. In talking about these histories, Carola emphasized that she does not feel that Swedish history is hers—rather that the Sami history is.

Kan man ärva smärta? (Can one inherit pain?), October 2012, plastic film, Konstnärshuset. Image via carolagrahn.se

Kan man ärva smärta? (Can one inherit pain?), October 2012, plastic film, Konstnärshuset. Image via carolagrahn.se

Carola’s work wonders if the land keeps such pain and if the pain can be passed down to generations. If we don’t give voice to it, can the land itself cry out? Nature witnesses atrocities, and Carola finds comfort in the trees and wild. In Expanses(,) cry out, she gives nature a voice. Her installation at the Banff Centre uses the same recording. The Sami yoik subsumed my whole body as I stood in the center of the room. Outside of Bildmuseet in Umeå City, she was able to install it along with a pine tree from a march, and the viewer could sit with the tree and listen to the recording.

At the end of our coffee chat, Carola gave me a hug. We wrapped ourselves into our sweaters, scarves, and jackets to head outside. And in the shadow of Banff’s mountains, there was no good bye—just an optimistic see-you-later.

 

You can see more of Carola Grahn’s work at carolagrahn.se.

Hon fejkade att hon inte kom (She faked, she didn’t come), 2011, mirror and lipstick. Image via carolagrahn.se

Hon fejkade att hon inte kom (She faked, she didn’t come), 2011, mirror and lipstick. Image via carolagrahn.se

Oh cry. Image via carolagrahn.se

Oh cry. Image via carolagrahn.se

Vidderna Ropa [Expanses(,) cry out], outside of Bildmuseet in Umeå City. Image via carolagrahn.se

Vidderna Ropa [Expanses(,) cry out]outside of Bildmuseet in Umeå City. Image via carolagrahn.se