By Bodil Kjelstrup
I have always loved maps. Imagining unknown places through the symbols and lines of a map creates new landscapes in my mind.
Maps are always fixed in my consciousness, consistently balancing my knowledge of where, and intuitively calibrating my feeling of place.
The North has been my life arena. From before I considered challenging the term North, my experiences took place in the north of Norway. I even think my body is built for the North, as everything above 17 Celsius feels rather unnecessary. I thought I lived in The North, with little understanding of the Arctic communities, homelands, cities, and lives north of me.
Whenever we would leave Tromsø, my hometown above the Arctic Circle, we would say we went south. It did not matter if we travelled to Spain on holidays, to Oslo to visit family, or to any other part of Norway. “Sørover” – southbound – was not a fixed place, but was simply anything south of Tromsø.
East was Russia. Period.
West was the ocean.
A global view centering around the North Pole as the midst redefined my understanding of our global connections. When the opportunity to do an exchange at the Anchorage Museum rose a few years ago, I grabbed the possibility eagerly. A 30-hour plane ride and 10-hour time difference later, I stepped out to a landscape so familiar – mountains, birch, fireweed, crisp air, the smell of the ocean––all as if I had travelled to a neighboring city in Norway. I felt an instant connection to this place, 5433km from my home––a connection and resemblance that never was emphasized on the maps present in my younger days. Even though west was Russia, east was land, south was still not a fixed place, north was the same.
The Sami and Norwegian artist Hans Ragnar Mathiesens work Davviálbmogat portrays a map of the Circumpolar North, where the midnight sun illustrates the middle. On the map, Mathiesen has included names of Indigenous peoples and their homelands, written in his Sami mother tongue. This map is part of a larger practice where Mathiesen uses Sami language, Sami place names and Sami ornaments on maps of Sapmi, Norway, and the Circumpolar Indigenous North. The accuracy, detail, and visual impact of these maps almost overrides the social impact it has had on Sami identity in the north of Norway. For me, his maps illustrate a loss in my own knowledgebase. These are names that my own Sami ancestors used for centuries, place names packed with understanding and closeness to nature, as well as relationships between people. Hi maps imply a relationship to place that was lost through the period of Norwegianization––an official policy, the goal of which was to assimilate non-Norwegian-speaking Native populations into a uniform Norwegian population. I was a part of that uniformed population for most of my life. While I have always loved maps, by acquiring new knowledge, I redefined my own map through understanding new symbols, marks and family lines, and that has created a new landscape in my soul.
When looking for innovation and change, it is commonly recognized that the view is forward and that the aim is progress. I strongly believe that to look for a way forward, we need to investigate where we are today. When reading a map, it is essential to know where you came from, so you can position yourself to look for a way forward through having the perspectives of your surroundings. The biggest mistake we might make today is to think that there is only one uniform map describing our understanding of the past, our reading of our present society, or the imagining our future destination.
A friend showed me a poster the other day by Tove Jansson, the creator of Moomin. The poster stated: “All things are so very uncertain, and that's exactly what makes me feel reassured (Jansson, Moominland Midwinter).”
Whatever maps we use, whatever terrain we are trying to read, and whatever path forward we look for, there is freedom in the uncertain and in the unknown. Every new step gives new information and a possibility to redefine the path. Knowing where you came from always gives better perspectives.
I still love maps, because I know I want to make the journey and imagine landscapes of tomorrow.