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First Arctic European Capital of Culture Opens in Bodø, Norway

Mar 07, 2024
by Jessica MacDonald

For the first time in the event’s nearly 40-year history, the European Capital of Culture is being hosted within the Arctic Circle, on Indigenous land, in Bodø, Nordland County, Norway. Bodø sits on the traditional territories of the Lule Sámi and the Pite Sámi, who call the city Bådåddjo and Buvvda respectively. As one of three cultural capitals for 2024, Bodø will play host to 1,000 events throughout 2024, marking the largest cultural happening in Norway in a decade.

The European Capital of Culture is designated by the European Union for one calendar year, during which the city organizes a series of cultural events. It has grown from a traditional arts festival in the 1980s to a complex programme tied to economic and social objectives today, factors which attract thousands of people and raise the host city’s visibility and profile on an international scale. 

Because the event is being held within Sápmi—the traditional homelands of the Sámi people which spans the northern areas of Sweden, Finland and Russia, in addition to Norway—the opening was scheduled for February 3 to coincide with the start of Sámi Culture Week, including Sámi National Day on February 6.


(Left) Iver Jåks Smiling days, Nikkæ (1981–97) and Free reconstruction of two installations (n.d.) (Right) Tomas Colbengtson Inbetween Colonization (2024)

Although Bodø2024 has three official themes (Nature, Fish and Ships, and Transition), centring Sámi artists is an unofficial fourth, with a specific curatorial agenda for Sámi arts and culture that will include artists from all regions of Sápmi. The Sámi arts program is curated by Norwegian curator Kristoffer Dolmen, former Director of the Sámi Centre for Contemporary Art.

Five programming themes will divide the year according to the movements of the sun: Here comes the sun, Spring optimism, Midsummer madness, Autumn storms and Arctic light. Having been hit in the week leading up to launch by Ingunn, one of the strongest storms to reach Norway in decades, organizers had to move outdoor events indoors and secure the floating stage set up for the opening ceremony, to keep equipment, performers and guests safe and comfortable for opening night.

February 3 was opening day, featuring a centrepiece ceremony held on a brightly lit floating stage in Bodø’s harbour during the evening. An estimated 15,000–20,000 people gathered around the mouth of the harbour in the cold and darkness that night where the circular stage floated, made of reused wood that will be broken down and reused again. Bodø2024’s patron, Her Majesty Queen Sonja of Norway, opened the ceremony. 

Delivered by Berlin-based performing arts collectivephase7 in collaboration with Nordland Teater, the ceremony featured theatre, dance and drumming, choreographed by Sámi director Ada Einmo J (co-founder and former artistic director of South Sami Theatre) and set to music by Nordland composer Raymond Enoksen (of Frozen fame). 


Ella Marie Hætta Isaksen
performs during the opening ceremony for Bodø2024

The performance began with joik—a traditional form of Sámi song—by celebrated joiker John André Eira of Sámi tundra blues band Gabba, who sang in a series of enormous animatronic cod fish. Lit with green lights, each fish rode atop its own boat, forming a school of fish that slowly circled the harbour waters throughout the performance. 

Norwegian actors Reidar Sørensen and Hannah Schulte Strid then took the stage, playing the grandfather and granddaughter who narrated the performance. Their dialogue, written by Einmo J and German author Christiane Neudecker, centred on the concept of the otolith, which in Norwegian culture is a stone taken from the ear of a cod which carves memories of what has been. Through this metaphor, the actors told the story of Norway while dancers from the local high school moved around them, playing people and herds of reindeer. 

Following their performance, Norwegian violinist Eldbjørg Hemsing played while white-clad dancers on long, undulating poles whipped across the crowds at the harbour’s edge. Then well-known Northern Sámi singer Ella Marie Hætta Isaksen took the stage for a centrepiece performance of joik, wearing a black jacket with the words “This is Sámi Land” emblazoned in large white letters. 

“To everyone who will be joining the celebration, I want to say: We are standing on Sámi land, and the name is Bådåddjo - Buvdda,” Hætta Isaksen explained in a statement written shortly before her opening night performance.

Hætta Isaksen’s desire to recognize Sámi lands in this way came out of a music festival she attended in Whitehorse, YK, a few years ago. “The fact that we were on [Indigenous] lands was recognized by everyone who spoke at the festival,” she wrote. “Land acknowledgement, they called it, and the world was never the same for me.” Although land recognitions are relatively common in Canada, they are generally not done in Norway or Europe more broadly. Hætta Isaksen wanted to use her performance on opening night to recognize the Sámi land where she was singing.

The following days featured a number of Sámi events, from the theatrical premiere of Eallugierdi - The Tundra Within Me, the first feature film directed by Sara Margrethe Oskal, to a mini-concert held for Sámi National Day in Stormen Concert Hall that was so packed with attendees they were turning people away at the door. Stormen Library featured installations by Sámi artists Tomas Colbengtson, Gunvor Nervold Antonsen and Iver Jåks, while local restaurants like PåPir BibliotekBar and the cafe in the Jekt Trade Museum served Sámi dishes such as reindeer waffles.


Inside the Lavvu at ÁRRAN 360° 2.0

Screenings of the 360° films from ÁRRAN 360° 2.0 were originally to be held outdoors, but due to the stormy weather the custom-built lavvu—the world’s largest, nearly four stories at its tallest part—was moved inside a nearby building instead. Inside, they screened five films: Siljá Somby’s Duiddo, which takes the viewer on a magical, first-person walk through the land that speaks to ancient holistic beliefs about humanity and its connection to nature; Ovias 2, a follow up to Ann Holmgren Aurebekk’s Ovias from the original ÁRRAN 360° that explores the concept of saivo (one of the Sámi regions of the dead) showing this otherworld through a series of kaleidoscopic animated images; PCA-TV 270 by Ken Are Bongo and Joar Nango, which uses the conversations held in and around a van to examine architecture, built environments and the concepts of nomadism; Máilmmittkus, a surreal look at the different stages of technological advancement and their effect on Indigenous peoples, which directors Hans Pieski and Arttu Nieminen tell through an abandoned factory that switches between real film and animation; and Marja Helander and Liselotte Wajstedt’s In My Hand, which uses documentary reenactment and magical realism to retell the life of Sámi activist Niillas Somby, who lost an arm during a sabotage action undertaken in the 1970-80s Alta controversy. Narrated by and starring the real Somby in the present day, some in the audience were moved to tears to hear him speak passionately about the importance of protecting the land and the sacrifices he made to do so.



(Left) Programs for the three parts of Bïegke Beahteme - Betrayal of the Wind (Right) Bodø’s city hall, where the first performance in the trilogy was held

Conversations about Sámi activism and ongoing protests about Sámi human rights prefaced the performance of Bïegke Beahteme - Betrayal of the Wind, a theatre trilogy written by Cecilia Persson and mounted by Åarjelhsaemien Teatere and South Sámi Theater whose underlying message is about natural resources and rights and climate justice. The performances were played in a mix of South-Sámi, Norwegian and English.

Part one of the trilogy, Giedtine — gïen dihte bïegke / Who Owns the Wind?, was held in Bodø’s municipal council chambers and starred Emma Sofie Joma Rustad as a young Sámi girl. The production used a combination of monologue, video and live and pre-recorded joiking to speak about how the establishment of Norway’s largest wind farm will damage the vulnerable and ancient South Sámi reindeer herding culture.  

Part two, Allaq — dållen gïele / voice of fire, was mounted in Beddingen kulturhus across town. A co-production with Turnéteatret i Trøndelag, the play takes a look at a potential future informed by magical realism and the elements of three traditional stories told throughout the Arctic, using a circular stage and featuring an aerial silk artist. 

The final part was staged at the Bodø cathedral, where Aahka — tjaetsien mojtele / memory of water was performed in a much larger space before an audience that included the Queen and the mayor of Bodø. In collaboration with Norwegian orchestra Helgeland Sinfonietta and featuring well-known Sámi singer Marie Boine, the piece told the story of a war-torn Europe where a young Sámi boy and a young girl—played by Bernt Bjørn and Ebba Joks respectively—who have both been forced out of their homes and later meet and fall in love. Their love forms a new path together in harmony with nature, a different kind of spiritual healing than that provided by religion. The actors walked across a tiered stage while Boine and the musicians played in the nave, with the architecture of the cathedral providing acoustics and white surfaces against which nature imagery was projected.

Upcoming Sámi Programming

The coming months will welcome yet more Sámi art and artists to Bodø, as well as other Norwegian artists and art events. Repurposing a former Nordland museum into a more accessible space for Sámi art and culture, the Bådåddjo/Buvvda Museum will showcase both historical and contemporary Sámi art, with four distinct exhibitions mounted throughout 2024: Giving It the Right Shape, Girjegumpi, Sápmi Trienniale and Ruoktot

From June to August, the exhibition Giving It the Right Shape will put contemporary examples of Sámi traditional tools and craft on view, featuring 50 practitioners who work with natural materials like birch burl, leather and tendons from across Sápmi, many of whom are active tradition bearers and practitioners today.


John Andreas Savio
Lappepar (n.d.)

May will bring a revisited version of Joar Nango’s architectural library Girjegumpi, reimagined with five additional Sámi collaborators: Anders Sunna, Elina Waage Mikalsen, Katarina Spik Skum, Mati Aikio and Olof Marsja. From August to October visitors can view the Sápmi Trienniale, a contemporary art exhibition featuring artists from across Sápmi that is put on in collaboration with the Sámi Centre for Contemporary Art in Karasjok, Norway. 

The last exhibition on view will be Ruoktot from November to February 2025, which aims to trace five significant Sámi traditional drums from their origins with makers in Sápmi to their current whereabouts in collections around the world. It will feature 3D animations of the drums as they exist today alongside the work of contemporary artists who still make drums today such as Hans Ragnar Mathisen, Iria Čiekča Schmid, Per Anders Noaidegárri, Folke Fjällström, Fredrik Prost, Håvard Larsen and Per Isak Juuso. 

All of these events are taking place at a time when sympathy for Indigenous rights in the Norwegian population is rising and the Norwegian government has tabled their own Truth and Reconciliation report. Using Bodø as a stage for showcasing Sámi art, culture and voices can amplify these discussions, not only throughout Norway but also on the world stage. 

As Hætta Isaksen wrote, “I hope Bodø 2024 not only wants to ride the Sámi wave for this year, but actually helps establish Sámi culture and language as a natural part of the cityscape and everyday life.”

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