How strange to step from snow-filled streets and the twilight of a late winter afternoon in Helsinki into Kohta’s radiant space and find oneself confronted by scenes executed in similarly atmospheric and subdued tones. Looking reveals an unfamiliar world, fashioned by Britta Marakatt-Labba’s unique cultural background and artistic approach. The fact that she primarily stitches pictures together using traditionally homespun techniques, like embroidery and appliqué, is one of the things that sets Marakatt-Labba’s work apart. There’s nothing especially new about this, as craft-based forms of contemporary art have been with us for a long time. But in recent years an obvious resurgence has taken place both in terms of production and the attention it receives. Similarly, interest in work being made by indigenous people has witnessed a parallel upward swing. Marakatt-Labba, who hails from the north of Sweden and is Sámi, is but one representative of this expanding sphere of diversity.
Marakatt-Labba creates what appear to be bucolic depictions of nature. In the scroll-like ‘From Summer to Winter’ (2017) she presents a panorama of the seasons and then offsets them with images that reference their relentless vicissitudes. The danger posed by storms, wolves, the harshness of life in a barren and frozen landscape – let’s not forget global warming – not only punctuate the presentation, but also recall the precariousness of day-to-day life. Casting a wide net, her scope also focuses attention on religious influences, governmental intrusion and the impact of modernisation on a culture that lacks the capacity to ward them off. In ‘Journey’ (1985), for example, she delivers a child-like view of what happens when Læstadians, adherents to a pietist form of Lutheranism, succumb. People file into church, are lowered into the ground and then their souls fly away with the aide of newly sprouted wings. The process is wholly linear and the composition conveys a jarring sense of strangeness.
Marakatt-Labba’s bare bones way of describing space incidentally echoes the leafless trees and snow-covered terrain of watercolours produced by David Milne a century ago. But the isolated threads resembling beads of rice and mounds of stitches that define the outlines of figures transmit a physical presence that edges into the 3-dimensional realm. And then one encounters the frayed and, possibly, even selectively burnt edges of ‘The Move’ (2016). Though it proposes an interest in fabric’s sculptural potential that superficially recalls work by Robert Rauschenberg or Joseph Beuys, closer scrutiny reveals that it is a map. Stitched lines representing roadways and tiny symbols – everything from mysterious red-capped figures to markers denoting parking lots and roadside deaths – dot its surface. Together, these seem to chart the latest wave of cultural and economic transformations affecting the Marakatt-Labba’s home.
Many of the works have an ethereal presence, a quality that derives from the way the artist shapes and layers bits of gauzy damask and hand-dyed fabrics. She uses them to suggest frosty surfaces, atmospheric haze and various types of terrain. Moreover, the subject matter and structure of the compositions contribute to this alluring sense of intangibility. Using a few essential visual elements – lines, geometric forms and pattern – Marakatt-Labba constructs scenes that hover somewhere between abstraction and representation. And whether gleaned from reality, dreams or folklore, the preparatory studies and finished pieces all come across as highly intuitive, visually potent and adroitly complex works. Stand out examples spanning her career include ‘Fog’ (1988), ‘Tracing the Wolf’ (1999), ‘Global Warming II’ (2008) and ‘Skulls’ (2016).
For those wanting to know more about the context out of which Marakatt-Labba’s work springs, the catalogue from her Lunds konsthall retrospective, which closed 13 January 2019 and from which the bulk of this presentation derives, is available for consultation. Here, in his illuminating essay ‘Britta Marakatt-Labba: Images Are Always Stories’, curator Anders Kreuger highlights the issue of cultural rupture. He writes how the artist frequently asserts “that the Sámi need to restore knowledge of their history, which was never taught at school, either to Sámi children (forced to attend boarding school far away from their families) or to their peers from ‘majority society’.” Thus, he proposes that this process of stitching history could “be interpreted as an act of suturing, of healing.” It also, undoubtedly, serves to launch people on a voyage of rediscovery through which their sense of identity and dignity can be reclaimed.