Sissel Mutale Bergh, Outi Pieski, Birit Haarla, Katja Haarla, Lena Stenberg, Máret Ánne Sara, Anders Sunna, Michiel Brouwer, Katarina Pirak Sikku, Liselotte Wajstedt, Lisa Vipola, Hanne Grete Einarsen and Tomas Colbengtson. Thirteen artists have been chosen to create a string of ten exhibitions over twenty weeks at the Nordic House this winter. They were selected for their bold form language, how they approach spatiality, the encounters they generate between rigid and organic, between hard and soft, their pithy commentaries, dynamics, transgressions, force, ideas, contrasts, structures, minute shifts in time and place, references, beauty, disquiet, insights into our reality and nature, sensuousness, sharp compositions, materiality, humour, refinement, surprises, colour use and reflections. They were chosen based on all these and countless other artistic qualities. Oh and then they were chosen for their Saami heritage.
Nothing is innocent not even artistic quality. Choices in art are inexorably bound up with politics and money, imaginaries and subconscious prejudices. The most glaring being the notion that the artist – the genius – is a white, heterosexual man, probably also European and cis-gendered. With him, the artist, the genius, we association authority, quality, strength, meaning and relevance. Everyone else is associated with otherness, marginality, niche status, curiosa, primitiveness and irrelevance.
The history of art is excluding and patronising, not merely because it is fundamentally Eurocentric and masculine. It is also entangled in a complicated, dense and opaque web of other political, nationalist, economic, social, ideological and religious contexts, which are all constructed from hegemonic society’s conception of itself and of others.
The history of art is hierarchical and one-sided, it is rooted in a monocultural worldview and multiculturalism plays almost no part in national romantic history, which organises art hierarchically, draws up hard borders between the mainstream and the margins and imaginatively exploits, techniques of domination and marginalisation such as exoticism and the cultivation of otherness.
Art history is powerful. Powerful because might and knowledge are linked, and art history classifies and categorises art thereby generating and organising knowledge, which dominates our way of thinking. Powerful because it has defined cultural dominance. Powerful because it naturalises itself, because it is based on constructs perceived as natural and therefore very hard to extricate ourselves from.
Though today we have myriad postcolonial readings, theories of representation, as well as queer and gender studies our perception of art is not independent, our eyes are not free. Expressions such as ‘bold form language’, ‘sharp compositions’ and even ‘beauty’ are drawn from a history of art that excludes minoritised groups. A history that categories artists by nationality, gender and ethnicity and is incapable of reflecting the heterogeneity of society. An art history that in every conceivable way marginalises art created by Saami artists, categorising it in opposition to the art of the majority, canonised art, as indigenous art or perhaps even folklore thereby entangling it in countless visible and invisible meanings with its language. The language closes art, claims the right to define it. Yet we also need language to discuss art, to unlock it for ourselves.
Each in their way these thirteen artists afford us an opportunity to develop our perception of art and the language we use to process it. A chance to become aware of how ideologies, constructs in art history and imaginaries of nationality permeate our perceptions of art, and, ultimately, an opening to challenge these. These exhibitions are an opportunity to rebel against our own knowledge, our own ways of seeing and taking in art by seeing and reseeing, using words, erasing words, finding new words.
We can reclaim words like beauty and emancipate them from the history of art, which has patented and ensnared them in an exclusionary system that defines everything chronologically, by style and in relation to international currents, art forms, genres, motifs, periods and isms. We can integrate words like extermination, injustice, racism, mistreatment of nature, abuse, exploitation and assimilation into the language we use to talk about art. We can discuss concepts like nations and peoples and explore the relationship between art and culture, between artwork and observer.
There are countless tools of subjugation and neo-colonial power variants have many means at their disposal. One of these is romanticisation. We romanticise in order to possess, to objectify, to create distance, to marginalise. But we also romanticise out of sorrow. Mourning for the environment we have lost and especially our lost bond with nature. Grief-stricken fascination with those who seemingly preserve a genuine relationship with nature and treat it with dignity. Know it, understand it. Perhaps. There is certainly a pain somewhere in the encounter with this art. A pain just as complex and inflamed as so much else, but which can also help us see with other eyes and find a new language. Perhaps art will gain new meaning if we manage to be present in that pain. Just a little.
A heartfelt thank you to Sissel Mutale Bergh, Outi Pieski, Birit Haarla, Katja Haarla, Lena Stenberg, Máret Ánne Sara, Anders Sunna, Michiel Brouwer, Katarina Pirak Sikku, Liselotte Wajstedt, Lisa Vipola, Hanne Grete Einarsen and Tomas Colbengtson.