Indigeneity, Language and Authenticity

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Jåvva Johansson from Såahka


This is actually a detail from a much bigger painting by the Swedish painter Carl Larsson, called Breakfast in the Open, and the story behind it is worth telling as it shows how Saami men, women and children have been exploited by artists and writers throughout history, without getting paid for it.

The South Saami man in the painting was called Jåvva Johansson, or Jon Johansson, and he was born in Såahka (Undersåker) 1871, which is part of the land belonging to Jovnevaerie Saami Reindeer Herding Community. Due to years of bad weather and famine, however, he was brought up in a family without any reindeer and instead he had to become a beggar in order to survive.

Back in the early 19th century he used to be known as Sweden’s tallest Saami, as he was 185 centimetres tall, but few if any paid him the respect of using his actual name, and instead referred to him as Lapp-Jo.

Jåvva travelled all over Sweden, and over time he became known as a famous fiddler, oral story-teller and healer. He was seen as an exotic feature and people used to pay him in alcohol and scrap money in order to see him play the fiddle whilst wearing his gapta, i.e. traditional clothes. This in turn turned Jåvva into an alcoholic and soon after his relative fame had begun, Swedish members of the upper class who had used to employ him as a fiddler at concerts and parties for laughs and giggles started to turn him away.

Once again Jåvva was left to begging his way across the country, but seeing as he was a good oral storyteller, some people suggested that he should write his stories down in a book. After many ifs and buts he was convinced to write a book called “Exorcism and Spells – Dark Arts from Lapland”, published in 1917 and which contained what was supposedly a collection of traditional beliefs from the Saami, but which in reality was made up of Swedish superstitions from the area around modern-day Sjädtavaellie (Sundsvall). The book, though it was bought by famous Swedes, and the first of the copies was given to the king, almost ruined Jåvva, and what little money he had earnt from it soon went to the publisher who demanded payment for the book.

Anyway, back to the painting. Back in 1910, Carl Larsson was working on a massive painting measuring 4 times 2 metres, but he seemed to think that it lacked something extra. Luckily for him Jåvva was in the neighbourhood and consequently Carl Larsson invited him to his garden where he was included in the painting as an exotic feature.

It took Carl Larsson three years to finish his painting, which was then promptly sold for a whooping 210,000 SEK, which today would be the equivalent of £910, 595. Jåvva, however, received nothing of that money, despite being the main reason why Carl Larsson was paid so much for it.

Jåvva died in 1958, without so much as a single penny to his name, and few if any would remember him today if it wasn’t for this painting or his fiddle tunes.




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