Shadows of the Colonial Archive
This is part of our special feature, Decolonizing European Memory Cultures.
In this exhibit, two artists reclaim the colonial gaze by using photographs of colonized subjects to challenge the layered past and painful histories of domination, power imbalances, and cultural eradication from Saamiland to the Maghreb. Tomas Colbengtson and Amina Zoubir represent two geographies of postcolonial artistic production, ranging from the very north of Europe to the North African Mediterranean shores. Both artists interrogate the present and the future of their respective societies by reviving, transforming, and transfiguring colonial images and making viewers ponder on their responsibility and role in effecting change.
Tomas Colbengtson: Carrying the Burden of Silence
Although his last name is Norwegian, Tomas Colbengtson is a Saami [i] artist who was born at the Arctic circle, this imaginary line north of which days and nights last up to several months. We spoke with him to understand the source of his inspiration, his activism on behalf of the Saami people, his approach to the media he utilizes, and the way his work has been received locally and globally. He tells us that his family has lived in the “Saami village,” a geographic area that spreads across the Swedish-Norwegian border, for generations. Cutting through Saamiland, that border was drawn in the mid-1700 and, as the artist reminds us, remains an issue today as it has been materialized with a fence, hence limiting travel and migration of the Saami, a European Indigenous nomadic people. He laments that these problematic borders are not spoken about in the school curriculum or in public debates and that people have mostly conveniently ignored the plight of the Saami, not only in the Nordic countries but in Europe more generally. Moreover, as politicians have avoided the issue, often racializing the Saami people, he mourns, “we have been made into lower class people.”
The pain in Colbengtson’s reflection is palpable: “this is the burden I was given; it is my heritage; it is also the burden of silence.” He recalls that in his youth, the Saami language was forbidden in public spaces, so that the Saami mostly turned to Swedish. Along with the ban on language (there are eight living Saami languages today), traditional practices such as the joik (Saami chanting) and religious rituals were made illegal, in what the artist describes as the authorities’ effort “to make the Saami either Swedish or Norwegian.” Colbengtson recounts the way in which, since the 1900, the Saami culture has been progressively “broken” and “destroyed” and his people scattered through forced migration, in particular when their villages were flooded after the construction of a dam in the region and in spite of protests and hunger strikes against the project. When confronting his Saami identity, Colbengtson shares that he lives it as a duality, as being Saami is fraught with feelings of pride and shame at once—shame to speak the language in public and shame not to speak the language, pride in the Saami heritage as a source of self-realization and shame from being different, a difference he has felt as early as his schooldays. He confides this deep-seated tension between finding fulfillment in being Saami and feeling held back: “my heritage is both my burden and my stretch.”
Colbengtson’s artistic ventures emerged out of this communal history of cultural and territorial losses and his personal self-awareness and ethics of belonging. He uses archival photographs from digital museum archives or private sources, such as his own relatives, to bring to life the Saami culture and reposition it not only in the physical landscape (or museums) but in a historical continuum of internal colonization. Colbengtson recalls that, as a young boy, he started with traditional handicrafts, carving knives out of bone and antlers. For him, the move from carving to printmaking came easily. He tells how his heritage in the reindeer herding district has shaped his approach to art and how he felt he had to “transform into a Swede” to attend an art academy, where he would ironically become a teacher years later. As he instructs his students, his approach to creativity is that artists must first investigate their own realities, which are unmapped. Hence, archival photos serve as a mere starting point for his artistic meditation and production. He remains acutely mindful that these images evoke traumatic memories for the Saami people and that manipulating them, transforming them, and bringing that history to the fore carries with it a heavy responsibility. However, for him, using these “biological photos” (some are of young boys photographed as “specimens” to be studied) as part of artistic creation is also therapeutic and a source of healing for himself and the Saami community as a whole. He sees these pictures as a testimony of how the Saami were used as “raw material” in a colonial project that started in the late 1500, accelerated in the 1900, and has never stopped since. Thus, the reclaiming and détournement of these images constitute a deliberate act of reappropriation that serves not only as commemoration and homage to ancestors but as resistance to the violence of colonization and ultimately as an openness—to the past but also to a future in which dialogue is the beginning.
The other medium Colbengtson favors is glass. For him, working with glass is not unlike working with bone or antlers. However, beside the malleability of glass, what also attracts him is the medium’s minerality and enduring qualities. Indeed, glass provides the artist with the possibility to reinscribe the Saami onto the territories and landscapes they have lost, to revive their reindeer herding culture in situ, and to exorcize the ache and the longing. The photos encapsulated in their transparent glass casing echo the ghostlike figures of his layered print work, reminding the viewer of what was, but also of what has been resiliently preserved. “It’s like a parallel world, a shadow world, a fog, where past generations still exist with us.” This dualism expresses itself, for instance, in the Saami’s relationship with spirituality and religious beliefs. Indeed, although “the Saami are Christians, we also carry the old Saami religion inside, hidden.” However, as nostalgic and melancholic as Colbengtson’s work may seem, glimpses of hope also emanate from it, for example through the evocation of global activist movements such as Black Lives Matter. Moreover, the artist is part of “Artic Highways: Unbounded Indigenous Peoples,” an international exhibit that is currently touring the United States, in which twelve Indigenous artists from different continents have joined to tell their respective stories of separation, rupture, cultural loss, sorrow, outrage, resistance, resilience, aspiration, and hope. Rejoicing in the fact that the time seems right for a novel awareness to take hold across and in spite of borders, Colbengtson reckons, “we were forbidden to tell our stories, but now people have started to listen; and the old generations still teach us.”
—Hélène B. Ducros for EuropeNow
All images @Tomas Colbengtson, with permission of the artist.
Amina Zoubir: Archaeology of the Colonized Body
Amina Zoubir is an Algerian visual artist and videomaker who works on the notion of the body and the ways in which it interacts with public spaces. Through her art, she explores the representation and objectification of the colonized Algerian bodies—in particular those of women—using archival photographs and postcards from the colonial era. The ways in which she cuts these difficult images and makes collages out of them constitute an act of deconstruction of the colonial imaginary that results in a reappropriation of socio-political norms and cultural codifications. Her technique creates a distortion and historical rupture that thwart and resist the established order. Her artwork provides a new gaze, which is directed toward the future of Algerian society, as she separates colonial images from their context and challenges the medium itself by imprinting her own viewing and recording of colonized bodies. The works presented here are part of a wider project on the “Archaeology of the Colonized Body.”
All images are from the Archaeology of the colonized body series: Mamounia. Collages on canvas, from the photographic collection of the Markk Museum Hamburg, 2021. © Amina Zoubir, ADAGP.
Tomas Colbengtson grew up in a small Saami village near Björkvattnet in Tärna, under the Arctic circle in Sweden. In his artwork, he asks how colonial heritage has changed Indigenous lives and landscapes, both of the Saami and other Indigenous peoples. Having lost his mother tongue, the Southern Saami language, he works with visual art, using Saami history and collective memory as the source of his art. He is continuously experimenting with new forms of media and material, from overlay glass and metal printing to etching and digital art forms. This way, he seeks to assemble a language to formulate the loss but also rejuvenation of Saami identity.
Amina Zoubir holds a master of theory and practice in contemporary art and new media from Université Paris 8 and a DESA in graphic design from the Superior School of Fine Arts in Algiers. Her work has most recently been exhibited in biennials in Lahore (2020), Venice (2019), Cairo (2019), Dakar (2018), Lagos (2017), Casablanca (2016), and Pontevedra (2008), as well as at the BISO Sculpture Biennale in Ouagadougou (2019), the Lagos Photo Festival (2017), the Addis FotoFest (2014), and the Biennale BY 14 Yakutsk Russia (2014). She has been featured in group exhibitions at museums such as the MAXXI Museum Rome Italy, MUSAC Leon Spain, CAAM Las Palmas in the Canary Islands, the Torrance Art Museum in California USA, as well as in galleries such as the Primo Marella Gallery, PasaJist Gallery, Pink Gallery, Vovatanya Gallery, Photon Center for Contemporary Photography, Artos Foundation, and the TAC. She has also participated in video programmings at the French Institute in Dakar, Casablanca, Algiers, Stockholm, and the Leonardo Palazzo d’Arte Contemporaneo. Her artworks have been included in public and private collections at the Markk Museum (Hamburg, Germany), Etnografiska Museet (Stockholm, Sweden), Fondation Donwahi (Abidjan, Ivory Coast), FRAC Occitanie Fond Régional D’Art Contemporain, Les Abattoirs (Toulouse, France), and the African Artists for Development (Paris, France).
Hélène B. Ducros, JD, PhD, is a human geographer whose research has focused on placemaking through heritage-making, landscapes of remembrance and commemoration, and the circulation of cultural models of heritage preservation.
[i] The spelling Saami has been chosen here, but Sámi, Sæmie, or Sápmi constitute other accepted orthographies.
Published on February 21, 2023.