A Letter from Norrbotten

Critical Text: Silvia Colombo takes us on a journey across Sweden through artist projects by Norrakollektivet and Anders Sunna. 

Activism Climate Land
Five portraits of Sámi women painted on clear plastic in a forest with the words “WE ARE STILL HERE!” below.

1. My place

I am sitting here, in the corner of an aseptic office illuminated by neon lights—the computer screen in front of me, the rest of the room behind my back. Yellow walls, yellow light, sort-of-yellow desk, orangey floor—a monotone palette, I should say.

I am writing during a break, while I am still at my desk, surrounded by a multitude of work-related objects. Books, post-it notes, magazines, old advertisements suggest that I am in my office at the library, at the moment. Overall, the environment is silent, except for the clock that is ticking and for the laptops that are buzzing.

Sometimes the phone rings, the doorbell rings, I also hear people talking, from afar.
Here and now, this is the place where I am.

Five portraits of Sámi women painted on clear plastic in a forest with the words “WE ARE STILL HERE!” below.
Anders Sunna, Still Here (2015). COURTESY THE ARTIST.

2. The lines of the landscape

The rest is around me, the rest is outside. I sit here half of my workweek, at the ground floor of a peculiar building. It used to be a hospital, once, and then became a nursing home. Today it is a weird mix of various activities: the main entrance suggests that it is a medical centre, with a bar, a pharmacy and a hairdresser. But one must pay attention to the signs, like hints spread all over the building. Only then, one will discover that the building houses also a kindergarten and a school. Plus, three departments of the regional museum: the conservation, the cultural department and the library/archive.

Finding your way to the offices, the collections and the archive is challenging. For us, employees, but especially for the visitors coming from the outside. They ask, they call, they get lost. All the time. Every morning, when I start working, I park the car, pass through a secondary entrance and walk along an incredibly long corridor, stepping on yellow and burgundy linoleum. Tip after tap, tap after tip. So little natural light is coming in, and this makes me suffer – this makes everyone suffer, I guess. Particularly if we are talking about an architectural structure located in a place so up north, where one needs to see and enjoy the light as long as there is some. Even the weakest ray. 

I consider this peculiar building, with its multitude of identities, as a metaphor for Norrbotten, the place where I have been living for almost four years now. A region that is so beautiful and yet so dramatically full of contradictions. A wild territory where nature is predominant but also intensively exploited by humans and companies. Where cities are moving (or have been moved, according to the point of view) and historical buildings are being demolished – everything changes, but at the same time, nothing changes. Welcome to the place where the population is diminishing but somehow new buildings are designed, planned, built, day after day. Minute after minute.

This is the area where minorities and majorities live together, side by side, enriching the local culture and its way of being. But then, what is “minor” and what is “major”? Is quantity making the difference here? Who has the right to decide where the border between them is? 

You, I, every one of us could read this through the lines of the landscape. Through the pages of nature, retouched, rewritten and modified by humans. Natural and artificial, wild and domesticated, trained. Erected and destroyed. You, I, every one of us could read this through the lens of art.

Wide landscape photograph of an open-pit copper mine below a grey, cloudy sky.
Norrakollektivet (Anja Örn, Fanny Carinasdotter & Thomas Örn), Using Landscapes (2017).

3. Art raises its voice

In Norrbotten art doesn’t speak just for itself. It’s not art for art’s sake, l’art pour l’art. It’s not just an aesthetic tantrum. Art takes the mic, raises its voice and talks—for me, for you, for the whole society.

Or, better, for those who (want to) listen.
Will you listen? Can you hear it?

Norrbotten’s art, nowadays, has a verve that got lost in most places. Places where the exhibition system and the art market have ingurgitated and assimilated authenticity.

Here we might live in the periphery of the world, as ‘they’ say, but the engagement and the genuineness of the arts are intact. I admire the involvement the artists show and the efforts they put in creating meaningful expressions, in finding appropriate verses, in building and sending proper messages. In mirroring the naked reality we live in. In speaking the truth – no filters needed. Let me tell you about two different art projects where this comes to the fore.

Norrakollektivet—From mining to art

Again. We find ourselves in Norrbotten, Gällivare municipality and, even more closely, just outside the open pit copper mine of Aitik, owned by a company called Boliden and put in production in 1968. FYI. The mine has been active since then.

What does it mean that a mining site is active? It means mineral extractions, territorial impoverishment, and nature exploitation. Finding a new, disruptive balance. Plus, being an open pit mine, implies digging a hole. A big one. If you compare historical and current maps, you will see the difference. You will understand the impact caused by the industrialization of this land. Norrakollektivet, which consists of the three artists Fanny Carinasdotter, Tomas Örn and Anja Örn, has focused on this mine and its implications in their art practice. Together, they identified: A place (Aitik), a time (present), an issue (the encounter/clash between nature and industry). And they have formulated a question: “Where does nature cease to be nature and where does the memory of the cultural landscapes end up?” Their work started four years ago and continues with those principles in mind.

Through a double-edged dynamic they engage themselves and their viewers, moving the focus in their film and photo documentation from one pole to the other. The result is a two-sided story told by images that mixes up Dante’s “Inferno” and “Purgatorio”, negativity and glimpses of positivity. Where one part of their project, called “Using Landscapes”, is the pars destruens, the one dealing with the natural consequences caused by the mining facility. And the other part, called “A place disappearing”, embodies the (semi) pars construens, representing the attempt of saving the microorganisms living inside the wood of the trees that have been moved because of the mine expansion.

Photograph of a brown log which is cut and tied up on a mossy forest floor surrounded by trees.
Norrakollektivet (Anja Örn, Fanny Carinasdotter & Thomas Örn), A Place Disappearing (2020).

Even if I have never been there, I can clearly picture myself standing right by this giant pit, “one of Europe’s largest open pit copper mines”, actually – as Wikipedia meticulously reports. I am looking at this empty plot of land, a series of oversized steps suitable to giants, while the wind is whipping my hair against my face. Redundantly. Infinitely.

I can clearly imagine all the people who have visited this place, from time to time, staring at the same, huge void surrounded by a disappearing forest, dismantled piece by piece.

Tree by tree. Trunk by trunk. Branch by branch. Until nothing remains.

I picture this in my mind, all this, because Norrakollektivet turned ugliness into a frantic lament.  They have turned this mine into art.

Anders Sunna, Still Here (2015) COURTESY THE ARTIST.

Anders Sunna—(We Are) Still Here

Now it’s time to leave, it’s time to leave Aitik behind. Remembering but passing over, in need to go somewhere else, with the urgency to experience more. And more. 

We abandon the mine to embrace the forest, moving towards the woods. We walk around the trees where someone once passed, some others lived, or—I guess—at least stopped by. We retrace the path cut through by people who have been here before, we keep the same pace and yet we are so different from each other. 

Running around, our look is captured by shadows claiming their territories—against unfair appropriations, undeserved and forced migrations. The transparency of their presence alludes to the crystalline truth they are speaking. Their traditional costumes are a clear reference to their identity. Those female profiles painted with spray colours that will certainly fade away with time are Sámi women claiming their presence in the society they belong to. Their stencil faces are repeatedly sprayed on a plastic film suspended between the trees. Once, twice, maybe thrice. They emerge from the dark, from the snow, rising against the forest, in order to remind us that they have been and will be here. Forever.

Anders Sunna’s artwork is site specific and deliberately includes a multitude of references. It lies in a secluded place, but it has been spread publicly. It talks about the injustices Sámi people have been suffering – then and now, here and there, a never ending loop. Anders Sunna, with his direct and unfiltered images, tells the unbearable truth.  

At this point, the forest begins to fade. The dark hour has come, and the road has reached its end. It is time for me to go back to where it all started. Suddenly, I find myself in my office again—facing the wall, the window on my side. A quiet environment that lets my thoughts swim freely.

This is Norrbotten. Or at least, a bite of it. Eat it, read it, comment on it, absorb it. Much more is left to say, much more is left to write. Next time it will be your turn. I am back—here and now, in the corner of an aseptic office illuminated by neon lights.

This story is part of the Sweden Spotlight. View more content from the Spotlight here.