To address the notion of identity, Terje Abusdal recounts the story of the Forest Finns - Norwegian descendants from Finno-Ugric people who came from the East in the early 17th century.
Settled in a dense forest about 2.5 hours away from Oslo, the Forest Finns have seen their culture vanish with the assimilation policy that followed Norway’s declaration of independence, and its wave of nationalism. The last person to speak the Finns' original dialect died in the 1950’s, and their traditional slash and burn culture disappeared even longer ago.
“The Forest Finns’ understanding of nature was rooted in an eastern shamanistic tradition, and they are often associated with magic and mystery”, Terje Abusdal explains. For the past 4 years, he wandered around their territory, looking to capture an invisible past. “It’s a tricky thing to photograph because they are like everybody else. How do you photograph the past? Something that is gone? How do you reinvent the culture?”, he remarks.
Building on the Finns' relationship with nature, Abusdal reintroduced elements of their tradition in his photographs. Besides looking for smoke, trees and mystical sceneries, he burned some of the images, scanned local tree leaves and incrusted rye on archival photographs found in an abandoned house. He even flashed a deer at night so it incarnates the Silver Deer.
As a result, some photographs flirt with abstraction, suggesting an impalpable presence. Talking about a photograph of a straw tower, he explains: “I passed this field and there were maybe 100 of them all around. To me it’s a mystical portrait - it looks alive and has an animist feeling to it.”
By turning natural elements into characters, not only does he introduce a sense of mysticism peculiar to the Finns' shamanic culture, but he also questions the notion of identity. “At what point do you stop being something and begin to be something else? Is it history, philosophy or biology that defines what we are and belong to? In a larger context, these photographs talk about migration and belonging”, Abusdal says.
While most identities are passed on through blood from one generation to another, the Finns are self-proclaimed. Rather than a genetic heritage, being a Forest Finn is a state of mind. In the current reality of wide-spread nationalism, such a concept puts into perspective the notion of identity. “A historian I talked to mentioned something interesting. He explained that a lot of people say that the Finns' culture has died out on a general claim that for an identity to be recognised and ‘valid’, it has to be static, while at the same time nobody questions the nature of majority culture, which is constantly changing”, Abusdal concludes.
Terje Abusdal is a lens-based artist working mainly on independent projects that fuse fact and fiction.
Laurence Cornet is a writer and curator based in Brooklyn focusing on cultural and environmental issues.