Wednesday, January 12, 2011

National minorities in a traveling exhibition

Kristin Mellem will perform for the opening of the traveling exhibition "Ja takk, begge deler! Music and national minorities" at Tromsø Museum on January 14. I was responsible for creating the exhibition last year, which profiles the music and stories of Norway's five national minorities (Jews, Kvens, Rom, Romani and Forest Finns). Kristin was one of my main informants for the "Kven" section.

The Kven people have been recognized as a national minority in Norway for 15 years now. They have traditionally spoken an archaic Finnish dialect, but since they migrated to North Norway before the founding of modern Finland, most members consider themselves as differing from Finns in many ways. In addition, the Kvens were discriminated against by Norwegian authorities and society in general for long periods, leading to a tendency towards self-censure. Kristin explains this dramatically in one of the exhibition videos:
My background is very mixed, as I perceive myself. I grew up in Tromsø, so I'm a city girl. But at the same time, I have a cultural ballast that is slightly different. As a youth I was very much in the Storfjord area during the weekends. We commuted there to my grandparents. I had my weekends in an environment that was not purely Norwegian. And while it was not stated what the other was, I heard that they spoke with an accent. But I didn’t realize that it was caused by their language being a different language. So it took a very long time before I could put what it really was all about into words and thoughts. I experienced it as a mystery. And when I tried to ask about it, I always got weird answers that avoided telling what it really was. I got the answer "Yes, that’s what we say here" or "Yes, you know how it is." In retrospect, I have made my own thoughts that we were Norwegian on the outside, but something else inside. But at the same time, we had no word for what we were.

Kristin Mellem considers herself as carrying a number of identities. Her background is made up of many aspects, so that besides belonging ethnically to both the Sami and Kven minorities, she is also Norwegian, a professional musician and composer, a woman, etc. Some of these identities are primordial, but they are also tied to self interest. She says:
If you take the Sami registry as a starting point, they have a good way of describing ethnicity. You should have a sense of belonging through family and be interested in this part of yourself - that you perceive yourself as either Sami or Kven. Some are not interested in ethnicity. Then this is not an interesting question. I think one needs a combination of that one feels a sense of belonging, and that one actually has an origin, through language or culture.

"Ja takk, begge deler! Music and national minorities" will be exhibited at Tromsø Museum until April 25th. From there, it travels to Halden Museum, in the south of Norway.

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