17/04/24 • ◠ Focus: Art and Responsibility : Sofie B. Ringstad

Conversation with Synnøve Persen

17/04/24 • ◠ Focus: Art and Responsibility : Sofie B. Ringstad

Conversation with Synnøve Persen

In her poetry collection Balvvat bullet (The Skies are Burning), Sámi artist and activist Synnøve Persen wades through eight generations of foremothers. In the below conversation with Sofie B. Ringstad, Persen discusses the interwoven histories of her family lineage and Nordic colonialism, uncovering veiled injustices and identifying anger as a generative method in artistic practice.

This conversation took place early 2023, before Synnøve Persens poetry collection Balvvat bullet (The Skies are Burning) was published. The book is now available in Sámi and Norwegian through the publishing house ČálliidLágádus.

Sofie B. Ringstad: Tell me about your upcoming poetry collection.

Synnøve Persen: I just sent the final version to the publisher today! It’s the Sámi version, so it will be published by a Sámi publishing house based in Karasjok called ČálliidLágádus. The preliminary title is Balvvat bullet (The Skies are Burning). I’m still not sure about it, but it came to me in the process, as titles often do. In the poems, I trace back my foremothers until the 1600s, which totals eight women, where the most recent is my mother.


Looking closely on the lives of these women, the day-to-day but also the essence of the society they lived in at the time, has been quite challenging. There’s just so much sorrow and pain and death. Themes such as infant deaths recur throughout, and the oldest stories include witch hunting in Finnmark, of which my foremother was a victim. Finnmark had the worst cases of witch burning in Norway. In total, around 300 people were burned in Norway and one third of these burnings happened in Finnmark. This left incredibly deep marks in the society there, because the area had a small population. Everyone knew each other. Just unbelievably gruesome methods took place.


My foremother was put on trial for being a witch and, was it not for the fact that the court was led by a lawspeaker [1] named Mandrup Schønnebøl, who had a completely different attitude to the awful human burnings that were happening, she would be dead. Instead, she is the starting point for the lineage that this collection of poetry is based on, because her life was saved.

SBR: These eight generations are chronological – it’s a direct lineage, right? Is there are reason why you stopped in the 1600s? Could you have gone back further?

SP: I could have gone back further but, to be honest, I began this work so long ago that I don’t remember the original logic of starting where I did. Throughout, I have needed assistance to gather historical material on these women. It required a person with access to certain archives and sources that were unavailable to me. Church records and so on. Luckily, my younger sister is such a person, so we have worked very closely around these histories and fates. Probably she provided me with an overview first, and I choose which individuals to study further, upon which she gathered more material on them. That alone was a large task. And now I will publish what we found, but in a fictionalized form. They are historical records processed into poetry.

SBR: How did you transfer the material into its new shape?

SP: It’s happened surprisingly smoothly. I wouldn’t say it was easy, but it was not problematic either. It will be possible to sense in the poems that they strain from facts. I think that transmitting these stories into prose would make it more difficult for me, because through poetry I could release some tension in the material. I could break free from the purely historical aspect of it.

SBR: I remember seeing you perform some of the poems in Norwegian during Coast Contemporary in Tromsø in October 2022, and for sure they painted a somewhat clear picture, conveying specific places and people. It was quite intense. How many poems will be published in total?

SP: In total, fifty-five poems, I believe. What I sent to the publishing house today was seventy-five pages. It needed to be broken into chapters, out of respect to the different women. I couldn’t just continue from one story to the other without marking the change. The poems will also be illustrated with photographs by Kjell Ove Storvik, a photo artist from Kabelvåg. They are black-white photographs – not too many. I gave him no directions on style or motive, and he got back to me with some very interesting photos of the landscape in Finnmark that fit very well because we have an animistic relationship to nature in Sámi culture.


His photographs emphasize this – that nature has its own life and soul. I also find it interesting because it binds the stories to the current status, where all kinds of extracting companies are coming into the area here and to the sea, mines, and so on. Everything must be exploited. Everything. The nature will give its answer some day, in ways we don’t know yet. Through these images, the collection of poems – stretching back to women’s lives centuries ago – becomes relevant, making the point that it’s an ongoing history.

SBR: Is this the first time you’ve worked on the theme of your foremothers?

SP: Yes. As a poet, it’s the first time I work in this way. I’ve had to find a new method of working but, after I’d managed to penetrate the historical material, the rest happened kind of on its own. When I write with poetry, I work a lot with rhythm – finding the rhythm – and, once I have that, the poems formulate themselves. I had to listen my way into what I was reading, what these women were telling me… it’s about immersing myself in their lives, their movements. Like I mentioned, there was so much sorrow and grief in the material, because life has been so hard on them.

SBR: Are there any specific incidents from their lives that have stuck with you?

SP: There’s many. Of course, my mother is the person closest to me – and both my grandmothers. I was my mother’s first child, and the second child, also a girl, was born eighteen months after me. That child got pneumonia and died at four weeks old, as an infant. My mother passed away almost thirty years ago but, before that, she told me that when the little girl died, she simply could not understand what had happened. So, she carried the dead child all night, singing to it.


Back then, there were not really any funeral agencies here, so my father built a coffin himself. That story has made a deep impression on me. The fact that I’ve grown up with this event, that I was a year and a half old when this happened… I don’t have any tangible memories of it, but I must have sensed something in the house. It took time before they had a new child, understandably.

SBR: That sounds incredibly hard. I have two boys who were born eighteen months apart to the day. I can’t really imagine what that must have been like… I’m curious, as you’ve been working with this material, has it changed how you think about time? Has history been compressed?

SP: Yes, for sure. History comes closer in a totally new way. Through this process, I have learned something new about my own, our own, history, that I never learned in any school. Through my mother, I could look closer at the hardline Norwegification process, which started while she was in school, before World War II. I’ve learned a lot… I started school in 1957 and have twenty years of education in this system. We learned nothing about Sámi history. We did learn about Gudbrandsdalen, Norwegian farmer’s history, the National Romantic period, but nothing about ourselves. By releasing this collection of poetry, I’m telling a story no one from my generation ever heard. Today, we are the old ones, but this is also true for the ones coming for decades after us. So, I feel I’m doing something very important, also in terms of telling the stories of the women. The women, giving birth to children, raising children, losing children, staying at home, taking care of man, child, house. That was their life… and still they were abused, disregarded. I remember from when I was a little girl how I saw my own mother being treated badly by anyone who felt they were above her in some hierarchy, Norwegians… and it felt so incredibly wrong to me. By writing these poems, I’ve told a small part of women’s history.

SBR: Yes, it’s like this project is about remembering your foremothers, but also remembering through them – pinpointing a time and place and lives lived that are not well documented. I know you’re also addressing active forgetting in this work – how, for example, one of your foremothers was placed in an institution and disappeared. Would you say it’s not just about acts of not remembering, but also of purposeful forgetting?

SP: The story you’re referring it was my great grandmother. She was the reason I started working on this at all, because I’d never heard of her! And the reason I never heard of her was that she was in a psychiatric institution. I started untangling this terrible story and I thought… what is this? Why has no one ever talked about her? Why not? Of course, the reason was that they felt shameful. But, that my grandmother, who was so close to me, didn’t mention her own mother once… it was shame.


My great grandmother was mentally ill and her husband couldn’t take it anymore, so she ended up living with her sister until the Germans came here during the war. People from Finnmark were evacuated south, and that alone is a horrific story. They were taken by German cargo ships. 1,850 people placed in the bottom of the boat without daylight, in complete darkness, toilets filling up, people got poisoned and sick, people died without their bodies being removed, children were born there… When they arrived in Trondheim, it was arranged that sick people would be sent to Hedmark [2]. My great grandmother was sent to a place called Høsbjør Hotel, and she lived there in the area until her death in 1947. She only knew how to speak Sámi, there among the Nazis. That alone is completely unfathomable… That story took a hold of me emotionally. I felt so angry! Many of the poems are written in pure rage over how history has been! I think that’s another reason why the words came so easy once the tap was open. I was just so furious about how people have been treated through the ages.


I went to Høsbjør Hotel with my sisters in 2016 when I started this project. We also went to Brøttum churchyard, where we walked all over without finding her grave. A young female priest came out and felt moved by our story, so she opened the church for us. She told us that our great grandmother probably had her burial at that church, as it would have been the only one old enough in the area. But she also told us that people from Finnmark were thrown in mass graves. Probably she is there, in a mass grave in Lillehammer. I didn’t have the chance to visit it yet, and I’m not even sure if there is a name there. And that is just horrible. There was a kind of comfort in being in the church there, where her coffin probably stood at some point, where her life ended.

SBR: Do you think your grandmother was aware of her mother’s fate, or was she lost to them in the chaos of the war?

SP: They completely lost contact. There’s a poem about this in the collection – how the policeman in Porsanger received a telegram from the home in Brøttum that she was dead, so he brought the news to them. I don’t think they knew where she was. You must imagine… there was a war, my mother and her family were taken to Nordmøre and placed at Svanviken Arbeidskoloni [3], a colony for Tatars. That was a suitable place for Sámi. There are just so many unbelievable things in these stories. If I’d written prose, I’d write with much more anger, I think, but poems are softer to me. So, I just brush lightly over history. Perhaps I’ve also done it this way because we are a big family, and those alive today have many versions of events, so I’ve felt the need to be a bit careful. Some people might even say that what I write is not true. There is a certain denial of history.

SBR: How do you feel today, as you’ve handed in the final version? Do you feel relief? Do you feel done with the material?

SP: The first feeling, as I pressed send at eight minutes to twelve today, was exhaustion. The past few months have been very intense. I took a Christmas break. Otherwise, I’ve worked constantly. Last night, I realized… “God! There’s one poem I have forgotten to write!”. The first in the collection – a poem about our journey to Hedemark and Høsbjør Hotel. I wrote that one last night. I think I will always feel like I could have continued, but there must be a conclusion for one’s own sake.

SBR: You mention that many of the poems came from a place of rage. I read in an interview that the work you made, Sámeleavgga árvalus / Draft for a Sámi Flag (1977) – which formed the basis for the now-official Sámi flag – also emerged out of fury. Is anger a method for you in your practice, both as an artist and as an activist?

SP: It seems so! [laughs] Not always. For example, in earlier poetry works I’ve done, there was little anger. Not in painting, either. I’ve had long processes of immersing myself into compositions and colors – working in abstract forms – which fits well with my nature when it comes down to it. I’m quite thoughtful. I work with long perspectives. I’ve always been like that. Then there are moments which people associate with me as an activist – the blowouts. Right?


The landscape remembers. Nature has its own life. That’s why I’m so opposed to mining and so on – anything that has to do with disrupting nature. Since the 1970s, when I participated in Alta-aksjonen [4], I’ve heard the same arguments… “But you also want electricity, right?”. Of course, yes! But, there’s a limit. One doesn’t need to turn all of nature on its head to achieve this – to feed the world, as they say.

Synnøve Persen, "Bueprint for Sami Flag" / "Sámeleavgga árvalus", 1977. Photo: Nasjonalmuseet

SBR: I mean, there is a direct line from the dawn of colonialism to capitalism and the extractivist destruction we see today. It becomes a metaphor, doesn’t it? The injustice that you’ve uncovered while working on the poems about your foremothers and what we see happening towards nature…

SP: Yes… yes. There’s something about the 1600s and 1700s. That’s when Christianity came to the North… I view the forceful introduction of Christianity here as a tool used to steal land. In the beginning of the poetry collection, I describe the Norwegian-Danish King Christian IV’s travel to Finnmark in 1599, which cemented the region’s belonging to Norway. King Christian IV had two scribes with him on this journey and a total of eight ships. On his ship alone they had two hundred people and eight canons. All to impress the Russian Tsar and the Swedish king, who both had interest in Finnmark at the time.

SBR: And, with your poems beginning around this era, it’s in effect a recounting of Norwegian colonial history, seen from the lives of a series of women, Sámi women.

SPExactly. Because, after Christian IV’s visit, the witch burning starts, because he was convinced that the devil lived in the north. That’s why he traveled all the way north, to Vardø. The king was sure it was the home of the devil and that the people who lived there were tools utilized by him. For this reason, it was important to turn them over to Christianity. It’s completely… [sighs] His travel took three months and included his entire staff from the royal court in Copenhagen. The scribes recount how, when they came back, the entire crew said, “Let’s not go back there again”. Imagine… Finnmark had a sparse population, in deep poverty. But they also had completely different lives from the Danes. After this, the missionaries and priests started to arrive. And then, to discover these women, from my own family, tracing back to this time… it’s been intriguing.

SBR: It’s like what we talked about earlier – the past comes much closer. Suddenly, it’s not so long ago – which it isn’t, either! It’s just a few generations back. And still these stories are not taught in school. Also not the Danish-Norwegian colonial history, which encompasses many brutal scenes from around the world. Not to mention that Denmark still has a colony – Greenland.

SP: Right! The first time I went to Greenland was in 1981. I participated in a poetry festival arranged by a Dane. We started in Ilulissat and took the boat down the coast for three weeks, going ashore many places and doing readings. When we arrived at our destination, Nuuk, there was a closing party and I was so furious. I was standing on a table, holding a madly fiery speech against the Danish! All the things they had done… it just became so clear to me there! We Sámi are not dark-skinned, we don’t have dark hair, we look like any Norwegian or Scandinavian person. But, seeing the Greenlanders, who look different… it just became so evident, so visual – what injustice they were suffering. I was unbelievably angry!


[1] A lawspeaker was a unique Scandinavian legal office, where a person recited and upheld the law.

[2] A region in Norway, north-east of the capital Oslo.

[3] Svanviken Arbeidskoloni was a work and living colony used to assimilate travelling peoples of Norway.

[4] A series of protests in Norway in the late 1970s and early 1980s concerning the construction of a hydroelectric power plant in the Alta River in Finnmark, Northern Norway.

Synnøve Persen (b.1950) is a poet and a visual artist, living in Finnmark, the northernmost county of Norway. In her abstract paintings the northern landscape is present through use of colour, line, air, space; this landscape is also mirrored in her poetic texts, published in Northern Sami and translated into Norwegian, Finnish, Estonian, Icelandic, English, Spanish, German a.o.

Sofie B. Ringstad (b. 1992) is a Stavanger-based curator and writer. Building on her career as a manager in fringe music and art fields, she consults artists and institutions at the intersection of visual and time-based art. Sofie holds a Masters Degree in Spatial Strategies from the Weißensee Kunsthochschule in Berlin, and is currently engaged as a curator for KORO. In addition, Sofie is the current interim editor of CAS. 

This conversation was part of Ringstad’s master’s degree Mothers, Mothering and the Mnemonic (Weißensee Kunsthochschule Berlin, supervised by Dr. Prof Bonaventure Joh Bejeng Ndikung and Prof. Nasan Tur).

Focus: Art and Responsibility is supported by Fritt Ord.