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Mats Jonsson / Still Sámi

2022-06-17 to 2023-01-29

It was not until the death of Mats Jonsson’s grandfather that his children and grandchildren discovered that they were Sámi. This secret had remained hidden in a bentwood box filled with documents from the grandfather’s time as a reindeer herder. 
Jonsson has drawn the story behind the family secret in black ink on white card as he uncovered it in the archives and memories of old people. While working on the graphic novel När vi var samer [When We Were Sámi], he realised that he always had been surrounded by Sámi artefacts and traditions without understanding their meaning. In his exhibition, he compiles the traces of Sámi culture and places them side by side with his drawings in an attempt to fill the space that silence hollows out in those who grow up assimilated. 


“Drawing a graphic novel is astonishingly time consuming. The book När vi var samer consists of just over 300 pages, normally with between 10 and 12 panels a page. So, that’s over 3,000 ink drawings. Each page was first drawn as a storyboard, then a simple pencil sketch, and then as a detailed pencil drawing that is inked, edited and erased by hand before finally being scanned and edited on the computer to create the finished book page.

Displayed in the exhibition are original drawings from four parts of the book: the legend of Stalo and the glass ball, the sections on Grandfather’s youth and the cultural genocide, and the final pages of the book in which I and my family visit our ancestral encampment, Dammbacken, for the first time. My intention is that these extracts should reflect the different facets of the book: myths and legends, Grandfather’s life, the impact of Swedish policy on the forest Sámi, and the explora-tion of my Sámi identity.

Originals are complemented by storyboards, sketches, notes and sources of inspiration to give an idea of the outer and inner turmoil from which they emerged. As time passed, my studio increasingly came to resemble a serial killer’s lair in a film – a jumble of notes, photos, books, archival finds and clues. Working on the book had taken over my life and the results, the originals themselves, are only the tip of an iceberg.”

The Mural

“The episode in which the character Mats wanders the hollows in his interior before breaking out with a sledgehammer is a key scene in the graphic novel När vi var samer. By coincidence, while working on the book I came across Philippe Sand’s East West Street, which among other things is a kind of biography of two Jewish lawyers: Hersch Lauter-basch, who formulated the concept of ‘crimes against humanity’; and Raphaël Lemkin, who coined the term ‘genocide’. It was reading East West Street that made me realise that the Swedish state had actually committed cultural genocide against the forest Sámi, but it also helped me understand my own search for identity.

The book quotes the psychoanalyst Nicolas Abraham: “What haunts are not the dead, but the gaps left within us by the secrets of others”. These words stayed with me. How big are the gaps inside a person when half of his family history has been kept secret? Where memories, knowledge, stories, places and people ought to be, instead there is nothing. I chose to represent this in classic comic-book style. The character walks through his own dark interior passages; by chance, he finds a large sledgehammer – it just happens to be there – and violently smashes a hole in the tunnel wall, filling his hollow interior with air and light. On the other side of the wall is Koppsele, the abandoned Sámi camp that is something of the family’s ancient home. Memories and knowledge can flood into the gaps, and my life changes forever.”

The Silver Collar

“As a child, I admired the magnificent silver collars at Silvermuseet in Arjeplog and could hardly believe my ears when my father told me that our family had also once owned one. It was not until I was middle-aged that I saw it for myself at the Malå local history museum.

The silver collar was once owned by my grandfather’s maternal grandparents Erik Nilsson and Maria Kristina Sjulsdotter and was inherited by their daughter Ers Brita. As told in the graphic novel När vi var samer, this was sold at auction in Dammbacken and subsequently donated to the Malå Sámi Association. It is hand-sewn in blue and red cloth and embroidered with tin thread. It is lined with blue cotton and the collar is edged with reindeer leather. The chest and front are richly decorated with silver.

The silver collar, or halsie, is part of Sámi women’s formal dress. It is a loose collar decorated with silver, ornaments, buttons, and buckles. The collar may be worn either under or over the traditional dress. For the Sámi, silver was a status symbol that reflected their reindeer husbandry and trading prowess. Silver was also thought to protect against evil spirits. The collar itself was made by Sámi women, while the silver ornamentation was commissioned from silversmiths in coastal market towns.

The roots of the Sámi silver collar date back to the Middle Ages and it has been described in writing since the seventeenth century. The original ornamentation was based on Catholic symbols. Silver collars are still worn today at weddings and other celebrations.”

The Bentwood Box

“For me, there is no artefact more symbolic than ‘Spanna’, the bentwood box that remained locked in my grandparents’ home, keeping its secrets throughout my father’s upbringing and my early childhood. It remained untouched by two generations of children, as they were bound by some unspoken pact. It existed and yet, somehow, it did not exist. When my grandfather died, Uncle Roger managed to pry it open, revealing the family secret. It was not until later that the key was found.

The bentwood box is a gïjssa, a traditional wooden chest in which the Sámi kept valuables and other personal belongings that they needed to keep secure while on the move. Together with the infant’s cradle, the gïjssa was often the only furniture in the Sámi cot.

A gïjssa was made from thin birch boards carved with an axe, softened in water and then bent into an oval shape fastened with wooden dowels. The base and lid were also made from birch. Metal hinges and fittings were riveted on, and a lock fitted. The bentwood technique makes the box light for its size and ideal for travelling with. Many of the gïjssa that are preserved are painted in bright colours and traces of paint in the box shows that it was once painted red.

The records of the auction of our great-grandmother’s things in Dammbacken in 1938 show that Grandfather’s successful bid for the box was 25 kronor, probably including contents.”

Root Craft

“In the final part of the graphic novel När vi var samer, “Stjärnan från Vuorbejaur” [The Star from Vuorbejaur], I show Grandfather teaching Grandmother root craft. This is a narrative device I use so that he can teach readers at the same time. In reality, Grandmother, who grew up in a settlement with strong family ties to the Sámi, was equally familiar with root craft since childhood. They also attended a handi-craft course together.

The tradition of Sámi root craft probably dates back thousands of years and was used to craft both utensils and ornaments. It is a particularly timeconsuming business. The roots must be dug up from bogs or mountainsides during spring or autumn. The roots are peeled and can then be stored hanging until they are worked. After softening in water, the roots are trimmed and, if necessary, split with a sharp knife. Only then are the roots crafted, which depending on the object and patterns might take days or weeks.

All exhibits were made by my grandparents during the 1970s. The larger dish hangs on my parents’ wall as an ornament; the smaller, I use myself as a cake stand. The bridal crown was made for my uncle’s sister-in-law’s wedding. It was also worn by my cousin Frida. The star is placed in the window by my parents every Advent.”

Other Traces of the Sámi

The Cot on Murberget

“At the open-air museum Murberget in Härnösand there is a traditional Sámi camp that I visited many times, both as a child and an adult. I have always considered it an exotic place but, while working on the graphic novel När vi var samer, I interviewed the reindeer herder and joik singer Jörgen Stenberg. I learned that the wooden cot in the museum was moved there from Bomudden in Malå and originally belonged to my great-great-grandfather’s brother, Nils Nilsson Strömberg. This strange place was actually my own family’s old home.”

The Money Pouch at Nordiska Museet

“Another place I frequently visit is the Sámi exhibition at Nordiska museet in Stockholm. While I was working on the book, my second cousin Andrea Brånemyr told me that some of the artefacts I admired there were made by our great-great-grandmother Maria Kristina Sjulsdotter. I always thought that I was the first artist in the family, and then I find out that my great-great-grandmother has been represented at Nordiska museet since the nineteenth century.”


Mats Jonsson / Still Sámi
Interview with Mats Jonsson

Mats Jonsson (b. 1973, Södertälje) lives and works in Sandslån, Ådalen. He has published seven autobiographical graphic novels and four illustrated children’s books. När vi var samer (2021) was awarded the Björn Nilsson Prize for cultural journalism by national newspaper Expressen and is the first graphic novel to be nominated for the August Prize in the fiction category. Mats Jonsson’s goal is to depict his entire life in comic-book form.