An indigenous people in glass

Sámi artist Tomas Colbengtson brings life to glass

Sámi artist Tomas Colbengtson outdoor installation

Photo courtesy of Tomas Colbengtson
An installation of Sámi artist Tomas Colbengtson’s art in nature.

Victoria Hofmo
Brooklyn, N.Y.

Maadter Aahka, the title of an exhibit at the UrbanGlass Agnes Varis Art Center Gallery in Brooklyn from Aug. 9 to Sept. 29, sounded rich and exotic. But it is more Scandinavian than you may know, as it is the name of the Sámi goddess that brings life.

I was excited to see how this fascinating culture would be rendered by Sámi artist Tomas Colbengtson. He had two large pieces on view, both presenting historic photographic images of Sámi people fused onto glass.

The first piece, titled Maadter Aahka, is glass with screen-printed enamel. The young female face staring at you is at a vulnerable but fearless age. She confronts the viewer with an intense, direct gaze—a Sámi Mona Lisa—adorned in traditional beads.

Sámi artist Tomas Colbengtson glass figure

Photo courtesy of Tomas Colbengtson
This photograph shows one of Sámi artist Tomas Colbengtson’s exhibition pieces, a figure in glass.

The text included a quote from the artist: “The starting point of my work is the colonial abuse of indigenous people. Specifically the Swedish governmental colonial effect on my little Sámi hometown in Tärna, Sweden, on the polar circle.”

“You really have to look at it,” was the initial reaction of a friend, Linda Boye, who accompanied me to the exhibit. Which of course is the point, as the artist aims to conjure the Sámi people, whose culture and customs were crushed and made illegal to practice.

Powerful is the first word that comes to mind in the second piece on display, Aboriginal, which is fractured into three pieces that are suspended and connected with a silver chain. The bottom piece had the most abstracted image, like a smeared fingerprint or bloodstain, cleverly combining the Sámi experience in regards to the dominant culture, which tried to smear their identity through violence. I loved the way this piece was hung so that a silhouetted reflection of the person’s face could be seen on the back wall—ghostlike, piercing your memory.

I have a passion for glassmakers and their works, but I have never seen this art form married with a social message in this way. And that is what makes Colbengtson’s work even more layered and powerful. I wanted to see more.

Through Rebecca Rader from the gallery, I was able to get in touch with Colbengtson. The interview with the artist can be read below.

Sámi knives

Photo courtesy of Tomas Colbengtson
Examples of traditional knives Colbengtson made as a child. For a long time, traditional crafts were the only aspect of their culture that the Sámi were allowed to practice.

Victoria Hofmo: Can you speak a little about where you are from and your youth?
Tomas Colbengtson: I was born and raised in Björkvattnet, a small Sámi village in Tärna, under the polar circle in the northern part of Sweden, close to the Norway border. In fact, my surname is Norwegian Sámi, meaning “black legs.” My mother’s family is Sámi from the Tärna area; Vaapsten is the Sámi reindeer herder village name. My grandfather had reindeer, but my family was forbidden to work with reindeer herding about 70 years ago due to conflict with forced Sámi migration from the very north of Sweden. The forced migration was caused by the closing of borders between Sweden and Norway.

But otherwise I was trained in everyday living as a Sámi, including fishing and hunting. We had a small farm and traditional Sámi crafts. In fact, I see this as my first training with art.

I was at some point planning to continue working with professional Sámi craft but did find the Sámi craft traditions limiting my urge to express myself. However, I now base much of my art back to my early years of working with Sámi craft.

After the Sámi had been forbidden to practice their religion, language, reindeer herding, and the annexation of their land and water, the Sámi crafts were the only thing that was not affected by governmental ban. And in these became an important carrier of the Sámi culture. A vessel that has traveled through time unchanged. This is what I reflect on in my glass art.

VH: When and why did you decide to become an artist?
TC: My mother language, South Sámi, was banned from speaking in school up until 1957. This made the South Sámi language almost extinct, and we South Sámi are now struggling to revitalize it. The children are our hope for the language, but it is also touching to see 80-year-old people trying to learn their childhood Sámi language.

I think this collective trauma was in fact the starting point for my urge to work with art. I have been working with art since I was 17 years old. And the flow never seems to stop; more just wants to come out.

VH: Have you always worked in glass?
TC: Since the material is an important carrier of meaning in art, I have always been fascinated by the material of glass. It is cold, hard, but at the same time fragile. I combine photography in or on glass, similar to the early days of photography—a container of time. It has been a long struggle to learn the methods of transferring screenprint to overlaid glass and in the exhibition, enamel on glass. I would guess I have been working with glass as my medium for 25 years.

VH: Can you explain the process of how you fuse the images you choose to the glass?
TC: I use screen printing as an image medium, working with different colored pigments that resist heat in different temperatures. The enamel is burned at a temperature around 1,000°F. Overlaid glass needs more heat-resistant pigments. And it’s a long process to find the right print medium. It feels like I have only started to research this field.

Sámi artist Tomas Colbengtson

Image courtesy of Tomas Colbengtson
After the Sámi had been forbidden to practice their religion, language, reindeer herding, and the annexation of their land and water, the Sámi crafts were the only thing that was not affected by governmental ban.

VH: How have people from the Sámi culture responded to your work?
TC: I have gotten very good response from Sámi people in Sweden, Finland, and Norway since I am telling a forgotten and forbidden history that is still affecting Sámi to a very high degree today. I have also been collaborating with Greenlandic, Inuit, and Ainu artists since the history and situations of indigenous people are often similar.

VH: From your website, I saw your planned exhibitions in 2018—from Sweden to Canada, Greenland, and even to Torshavn in the Faroe Islands. How have you been able to access such a wide breadth of places in the world to exhibit your work?
TC: I have been working with art professionals for 30 years and have always had the focus on indigenous culture. Today there seems to be a new global interest about the questions surrounding indigenous cultures. I am happy that people seem to find something of importance in my art, and the good thing with art is that everybody has the right to interpret the artwork. It’s always up to the beholder.

VH: Is there anything you’d like to add?
TC: I am very happy to have gotten the opportunity to create and exhibit my art in the world’s best town, New York, and to have met the friendly, interesting, and helpful New Yorkers!

This article originally appeared in the Dec. 29, 2017, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.

Avatar photo

Victoria Hofmo

Victoria Hofmo was born, raised, and still lives in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, the historical heart of Norwegian New York. She is 3/4 Scandinavian: 1/2 Norwegian and 1/4 Danish/Swedish. Self-employed, she runs an out-of-school-time program that articulates learning through the arts. Hofmo is an advocate for arts and culture, education, and the preservation of the built and natural environment of her hometown, with a love for most things Scandinavian.