Art activities and formation of a Sámi Artist group

6. Art activities and the formation of a Sámi Artist group.

I started my career as an artist by both writing and also by making pictures. Both of them went hand in hand so to speak, because I was far from sure which to choose. In fact, have I had the possibility, I would have become a musician, perhaps even a composer. But that would mean mastering at least one instrument, and I realized to my sorrow, that it was too late. I left the excellent tutoring of Madame Fosse Strand at Markveien in Storskogen and her piano lessons after just one year, despite the fact that she claimed I learnt as much as others would in two, I was too impatient, and would rather play outside with friends than at the keyboard. Not a totally surprising conclusion for an active boy of 12. Had I instead continued, I might have had a much better chance to fulfill that later dream, but such is life! However, throughout my school days, my interests and abilities pointed in a direction of creative activities, and I was already considered to be good at drawing, even in high school, where I graduated in 1966. I had written my thesis in History about the fall of the Inca empire, as a drama Den siste Inka (The Last Inca), to the great astonishment of my teacher. However, it was accepted.

My early art activities

Apart from writing poems and drama, including one that won third and only price in a drama contest in 1979/70, I eventually ventured into the art of drawing and painting with full force, since two of my paintings were accepted at the annual regional Exhibition “Nordnorsken” in 1969. And my choice was confirmed in 1970 when another of my paintings “Máná niekko, –… Stallo / Barnedrøm” was accepted at the even more prestigious National Art Exhibition “Høstutstillingen” in 1970. I have reason to believe that this was the first time an artwork with a Sámi title entered this particular event. This resulted in a lot of interest from the media, i.e. newspapers and radio, and I had no choice but to enter admission application for the Art School in Oslo. I initially did not want to do so, because I hated the thought of not living in the north, but my years in Oslo became fruitful as well. I spent 2 years at the Art and Crafts School, and then applied and was accepted at the Art Academy. I remember Professor Vorren said he was skeptical to that idea, but at least John Savio had attended classes at the former.

During my years at these institutions, I learnt of course the basics in various techniques, freehand drawing, the basis of all art, I was told; technical drawing, painting in various media (water colour, tempera) and eventually graphic techniques, metal (cold needle, etching, aquatint), wood block and lino printing, and lithography. I concentrated on the latter as far as graphic was concerned, knowing that I probably would not get another chance at such a resource-demanding technique, up north. I also started wood block printing, and broke the ban on it that I had put on myself after watching the elaborate preparatory work involved before the actual printing took place, as demonstrated earlier by my fellow town artist Marit Bockelie. There was one graphic technique I never tried, because of the smell: silkscreen printing. Per Kleiva was a well-known artist who had made many famous prints, and a French co-student gave me one print. But I was a bit afraid of the enclosed rooms with the dangerous vapors. I even saw one older female artist come out of there in a state of “drunkenness”, so I decided that I would never try it as long as the conditions were as they were then. And I never did. Lithography and woodblock printing was more than enough for me, and I used the possibilities to the full.

As a Sámi activist, I was concerned with the status of Sámi art in general, we were not alone any more, we were alert and did not hesitate to speak out for what we saw as Sámi rights to our own culture.

One topic of interest was the famous Guovdageaidnu uprising of Nov 8th 1852.

Here is a letter concerning the plans to make a film about this, and our rejection of the plan, on the ground that it is yet again to be made by non-Sámi:


(kommentar til melding i avisene aug.73)

Hvorfor er det bestandig ikke-samer som skal "bruke" stoff som egentlig er samiske anliggender?

Er ikke Kautokeino-opprøret enda et litt for ømtålelig og brennbart stoff for en film, som likevel neppe kan gi et helt korrekt bilde av forholdene, fordi det atter en gang er daža som skal presentere det ?

Hvorfor kan ikke utenforstående vente med sin  interesse og initiativ til samene selv får muligheteen til å presentere stoffet, dersom de da mener dette er ønskelig ?

Dette gjelder ikke bare film-prosjekt, men alle forhold som har til hensikt å 'presentere' samiske forhold.

Har man spurt de samene dette angår, hva de mener ?

Tror virkelig Pål Bang-Hansen fra Oslo at dažat via en slik film kan danne et riktig bilde av opprøret i 1852 ?  Dette er spørsmål som han må tenke og svare på, før et slikt omfattende filmprosjekt blir satt igang.

Samene er ikke tjent med en lettvint behandling av et så vanskelig og dyptpløyende stoff, og vi mener at  d e t  lett kan bli resultatet dersom det ikke blir tatt hensyn til ovenstående.

Tilslutt vil vi stille et åpent spørsmål til Kirke- og Undervisningsdepartement: Hvem innen KUD godkjenner dette prosjekt ? Er samene og deres organisasjoner (NSR, NRL) med på avgjørelsen ?

Kautokeino 8.september 1973

Johs.Kalvemo  Hans Ragnar Mathisen  Marit Oskal  Nils Eira”

(“SHALL THE GUOVDAGEAIDNU UPRISING BECOME FILM? (Comment on a message in the media august 1973)

Why is it always non-Sámi that should “use” topic material that strictly is Sámi affairs? Is not the Guovdageaidnu uprising still too touchy and controversial a topic for a film, which nonetheless hardly can give a completely relevant picture of the circumstances, because yet again it is to be presented by Dáža (slightly derogative for a non-Sámi in general, a Scandinavian in particular: Dáža = Danish)?

Why can’t outsiders wait with their interest and initiatives until Sámit get the capability to present the topic, if they regard it as beneficiary?  This goes not only for film-projects, but all initiatives aiming to “present” Sámi circumstances.

Are the Sámit for whom this is of concern been asked about their opinion?

Does Mr. Pål Bang Hansen from Oslo really believe that Dažat via a movie like this can give a proper representation of the uprising in 1852? These are questions he ought contemplate and solve, before such an enormous undertaking is to be commenced.

Sámit are not being well served by a superficial treatment of such a difficult and deeply spiritual and social topic, and we are of the opinion that just that might be the result if the above is not considered earnestly. 

Finally we would like to ask an open question to the State Department of Church and Education: Who within your staff will accept this project? Are the Sámit and their organizations (NSR, NRL) to partake in the decision?

Guovdageaidnu 8. September 1973

Johs.Kalvemo  Hans Ragnar Mathisen  Marit Oskal  Nils Eira”

(my translation)

A similar incident was when the music company Arne Bendiksen published an EP-record with a sloppy version of a Sámi Yoik (the so-called “Ante” yoik) with instrumentation and coda in the form of a popular melody, as if composed by a Norwegian composer, and not properly acknowledging the original. We saw this as an unacceptable abuse of Sámi music and culture, and Inga Eriksen (Inga Sara Eriksen, later better known as Inga Juuso) who had worked at Arne Bendiksen company, joined Ailo Gaup and me in writing a public protest against it. We received only a scornful reply via telephone bordering on racism.

Oslo Sámi Association and some of its members acted as a watchdog towards any attempt of the Norwegian Government or others against Sámi Rights as an Indigenous people. But the main effort was put into creative art, the renewal of an old culture. Slowly and steadily this creativity resulted in an increasing number of young and old Sámi contributing creatively to a tide-wave that was not to be stopped, the re-vitalization of our nation.

I made sketches and logo for the ČSV symbol, not as a commission, but out of the conviction that it was needed. Before I came to Oslo, I had sent a suggestion to the editor of Ságat Sámi Newspaper (most of its texts were in Norwegian) to suggest a competition for a Sámi flag, and delivered some sketches as well. However, since these were in colour, and probably because the editor though it a bit too risky, the text was never printed. And it was returned to me.

The idea of a Sámi Artists’ Collective

When I was studying at the Arts and Crafts School in Oslo (SHKS) 1971-73 there was only one other Sámi artist, if one do not reckon those who might be Sámi without knowing, accepting or revealing it, and it was Berit Marit Hætta from Máze.  The largest newspaper in Norway at the time Aftenposten presented an illustrated feature article about the Sámit in Oslo “Naturfolk i storbyjungel” (“People of Nature in a city jungle”) written Aslak Gaup in their weekend magazine A-Magasinet No. 28, 14. July 1973 with photo of two of us in the Art School’s sculpture studio.

As is mentioned in the article, many of us did not plan to stay in Oslo, but to go north to our homeland and start our careers there. When this photo was taken during the late spring of 1973, we had already been considering the idea of joining efforts. This photo represents not only the nucleus of the coming Sámi Artist Group, it is already a group in itself, and consequently the very start of Sámi Artist Organizing as far as creative art (painting, graphic, drawing, sculpture, etc.) is concerned. Another consequence of this claim is that this part of history must be rewritten.

In 1974 and 1975 there were several important public Sámi meetings,

The 8th Nordic Sámi Conference 26. – 29. 06. 1974 at Snoase/Snåsa, where tragically part of the delegation from Finland was lost, their airplane has never been found. After the political meetings during the day, there were cultural celebrations in the evenings, as well as a large barbeque outside. Being present there, I used of course the opportunity to tell about the plans and hopes for Sámi artists under education in Norway to go back north and work for a common aim, and we welcomed participants from the other Nordic countries as well. Artists Rose Marie Huuva and Folke Fjällström were there.

Then there was the Sáminuorra (Sámi Youth Conference) at Ammernjárga in the summer where there were several young Sámi artists present. I also presented the blueprint copy of my Sápmi Map here.

Debut exhibition in a Sámi village

During this time Alf Isak Keskitalo was the leader of the Cultural department of Sámi Institute in Guovdageaindu, and he was very helpful in realizing my own Art Exhibition there during the Easter Festival 1975. In had graphic art and watercolours in the basement of their rented building, and oil paintings at the SII’DA building a bit south of the village center. This was the first time an artist in Norway and Sápmi has a debut exhibition not in a town or city of the south, but in a Sámi village. It was considered remarkable. By doing this, I tried to bring our hart back home, where it belongs, and later the same exhibition was shown both in Karasjok and Deatnu.

At the Art Academy there was in 1976 one hospitant who ventured to make a print for a Sámi flag, it was Synnøve Persen from Porsanger.  I immediately recognized that it was an identical reproduction of an already existing design printed as the cover of the Sámi bibliography from 1971. Since I was not sure who had made it, I did not comment on that further. But I told her that in my opinion this was not fit for a flag - after all it had already been used for other purposes; it was too simple, but perhaps it would be better for a long triangular flyer (vimpel) instead. So she made a print with these, which was much better. I have later thought that perhaps I should have claimed the originator of that flyer, especially since the much later controversy about the origin of the flag design. It was later also used by Berit Marit Hætta as illustration on the cover of the book “Samer tier ikke lenger” by John Gustavsen.

I contacted one of the workers at Karasjok Produkter where the mentioned book cover had been printed about its origin, and he categorically stated, “This is not Synnøve Persen’s design!” So I took it on to find out whose it was, and only very recently I have found out. However, I plan to write a longer article or perhaps a book about the Sámi flag topic, so this is enough for now.

In 1976 and 77 I had travelled in several countries meeting Indigenous peoples wherever there was an opportunity of it. I visited Khonoma and Kohima in the homeland of the Naga people of South East Asia, occupied by India and Burma. When I came back I went directly to the World Conference of Indigenous Peoples at Girun/Kiruna, and spoke up for the situation that I had just come from, and the plight of the Naga people, who had asked me for help to make their cause known internationally. I also used the opportunity again to urge Sámi Artists to join our plans for a Sámi Art Collective, that now more or less was decided on to be at Máze, where Trygve Lund Guttormsen was in charge of some buildings that we could hire for the purpose. This time another Sámi artist from Sweden responded positively, Britta Marakatt of Soppero.  

Berit Marit Hætta and Maja Dunfjeld produced a very important exhibition at the Norwegian Folk Museum, “SÁMI ÁLB’MUT” THE SÁMI PEOPLE, the very first contemporary Sámi Arts & Crafts exhibition in Norway, as an alternative to the exhibiting of old artifacts and art by museums and other institutions.

All the art was either made for the exhibition or made by artists and craftspeople that were active at the time. I made the poster, and found to my surprise that in a book of 2007 it was attributed to someone else! It really made me mad, and convinced me that the full story of our Sámi people has not been properly told yet, one important reason for my flow of words here!

The exhibition was a sensation and received acclaim and media coverage. A Japanese friend Koji Tsuda photographed the whole exhibition, at least that of the duodji, and gave the pictures to me. It shows both traditional and innovate Sámi handicraft on a high level. Berit Marit Hætta showed some very nice clothes, and her career as a textile designer was secured. She has made most of the costumes for the Beaivvás Sámi Theatre performances.

I have to relate a rather unpleasant incident, when one of the Persen sisters said to me that I was dominating the exhibition too much. I replied that Nils Aslak Valkeapää hade more number of artworks, but the reply was just “that is different!” I wasn’t sure what to make out of that, but clearly I had been targeted as less valuable and wanted. I mentioned this to Biret-Máret, and she did not agree, but insisted on my participation as it was, although I had suggested removing some of my paintings. She was, after all, responsible for the content, so I let it remain so. Other similar incidents also occurred, but all in all it was a hugely positive experience, and a great honour to the two women in charge, Maja Dunfjeld and Berit Marit Hætta!


Another smaller, yet very important exhibition was held at Galleri Alana 17. – 30. 11. 1978 in downtown Oslo (Teatergata 11) not far from the office of the Oslo Sámi Association. 70 % of the income from this exhibition was to go directly to the establishing of the Sámi Artists’ Workshop at Máze, 30% was commission to the gallery. Again I made the poster, and this was the very first exhibition of the Sámi Artist Group (Samisk Kunstnergruppe) and the first one to get media coverage in Oslo. There was  mention of it in Dagbladet and a more detailed critique (our first) in Morgenbladet:


«MORGENBLADET» mandag 27. november 1978:

Samisk kunst i Galleri Alana

Samisk kunstnergruppe – maleri, akvareller, grafikk, Galleri Alana, 17. – 30. november

Under titelen «Samisk Kunstnergruppe» viser Galleri Alana fram til 30. november en utstilling av en nyetablert gruppe.De seks kunstnerne som skuler seg bak tittelen har til hensikt å opprette et kunstnerverksted i Masi i Finnmark. Mønstringen er således ikke resultatet av et veletablert samarbeide, men snarere å betrakte som en forhåndspresentasjon, en manifestasjon av vilje, og et forsøk på å reise noe av startkapitalen. De har alle sin utdannelse fra tradisjonelle institusjoner som f.eks. Kunstskolen i Trondhjem eller Statens Kunstakademi. Det er således ikke tale om folkekunst, men om å søke en fruktbar utveksling mellom to kulturtradisjoner.

Utstillingen er preget av kunstnere på vandring, på jakt etter ett-eller-annet. Tematisk går interessenei forskjellige retninger og bærer i seg klart forskjellige tendenser. Åge Gaup er, med sine 35 år, gruppens eldste. Han viser skulptur og linoleumsnitt. Av skultpurene er vel «Fra Urtiden» det beste artikulerte arbeidet, selv om det mangler noe på helt å frigjøre seg fra stenblokken. Linoleumsnittet «Kjøreslede» er det derimot driv over. Hans Ragnar Mathisens grafiske arbeider virker gjennomarbeidede.

Fargetrsnittet «ČSV» og litografien «Ornamental fantasi» åpner for interessante muligheter. Berit Marit Hætta stod for illustrasjonene til den første barneboken på samisk. Den kom ut for et par år siden under titelen «Ammul og den blå kusinen» og var skrevet av Marry Aslaksdatter Somby. På mønstringen viser hun syv av disse illustrasjonene. De er utført i akvarell, ikke helt gode i formen, men umiddelbare og friske i farven.

Forøvrig viser Rannveig Persen 6 habile akttegninger, nærmere bestemt croquis. Josef Hasle {skal være Halse} mønstrer fire kraftige og koloristisk interessante landskaper i tempera; og Synnøve Persen 5, litt løse landskapstemninger i olje.

Som man skjønner, det spirer, men det er ennu en stund til vårløsning.

Kjell Norvin.

(illustrasjon: «Ilpost»)

Hans Ragnar Mathisens grafiske arbeider virker gjennomarbeidede. Hans farvetresnitt og litografier åpner for interessante muligheter.


At the end of my time as an art student, I launched a comparatively huge art project: I made lithographic versions of some of the portraits (mainly Indigenous people including Sámit) from my sketchbooks that I frequently had used during my travels abroad or whenever meeting such visitors here. The idea was a comment from one of my teachers at the Bookbinding course, who found my sketchbooks very interesting, and liked my portraits. “You have caught something in these portraits, something almost mystical, you should publish them!” I took him on his word, and folded the prints and sew them into signatures and bound 32 books (my age in 1978) all numbered and signed. I hoped to sell them and raise money for further travels, and for the benefit of other Indigenous peoples. (In Japan it was sold for US $ 1000 for the benefit of the “Boat people”, refugees from south East Asia.) The hard cardboard cover was decorated with painted paper, and the spine and corners with reindeer leather, hand prepared the traditional way by Máret Pentha Logje, whose portrait was one of the first in the book. I believe the Library in Karasjok has secured one of them, and I still have some left, if anyone is interested.

In addition I made some prints that were sold separately, and made into an exhibition of its own: “Portraits from the Fourth World” (synonymous for Indigenous People and the title of George Manuel’s groundbreaking book, the first and second “worlds being the political West and East, the Third the “developing or nonaligned” countries, and finally us, the Indigenous people, the “Fourth World”).

The exhibition included also relevant posters that I had collected highlighting Indigenous issues around the globe, a truly international show. It opened Tuesday the 29th of May 1979 at the Historic Museum in downtown Oslo, by no less than Thomas Cramér, at that time fighting a legal battle for Sámit in Central Sweden (“Skattefjällsmålet”). When the report of the opening was printed in Aftenposten the next day, I was already sitting on the train with other artists and journalists on the way to China.

Victor Lind at the Art Academy had given good advice regarding the poster, and Tom Svensson at the Historical Museum prolonged the exhibition, and told it had been a reference point during the now escalating Alta conflict, where the Sámi participation started in Oslo.

The guestbook that I had left at the exhibition was full when I returned, and many interesting comments and support from visitors from around the world, they used it to state their support for Sámi rights.


After my second world travel, I returned here in march 1981, when the Group was well established, and received commissions that was (supposed to be) distributed among the members. I immediately sensed there was a mood of apathy and fatigue, that often spilled out into outbursts at social meetings when alcohol made it easier to give vent to frustrations. I do not know what the others really thought about my return, because I had seriously contemplated to stay on in Asia and not return, at least not to Máze. But I was pleased to hear at least from one of them that “ It was good that you came back!” I did my best to give some creative input and eventually the mood changed, and activities escalated, a natural consequence when an active member increases the group. I stayed at Máze until the end of 1983, as the leader of the Group, which we eventually peacefully put to rest. My 2 odd years in Máze were a time of high artistic activity, and I worked mostly on wood block printing (mainly black and white), painting and bookbinding. I bound all my lithographs into books, and made sketchbooks as well. In 1981 one of my wood block prints (“Flokk på vidda”) was accepted at the National Art exhibition (“Høstutstillingen”), and I was also accepted at the Regional Art exhibition (“Nordnorsken”) several times, in 1981 one of my prints illustrated the Exhibition poster (1981). By this time I was already planning to leave the village and moving to Romsa/Tromsø, where I had a lithograph exhibition the same year 1981. This sums up more or less my involvement in art activities during a very crucial time in recent Sámi history.


Hans Ragnar Mathisen, Nástegiettáš 08.11.2015



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