You are one of the leading artists in Finland who works actively with themes of decolonization. How do you work as an artist and what are you working with right now?
My background was originally in graphic design, which I studied and worked on in Zurich, Vienna, Italy, and later in Helsinki, and with an independent design practice. Interestingly I graduated from my MA course in Helsinki with an art project that dealt with decolonial action (Shooting Back – Reflection on Haitian Roots, 2004). This was like a seed that I planted, from which everything that followed springs.
I work in ways that combine my interest in life and history – how they manifest in the present that is constantly shaping our future and in making sense of the world we live in. I often work in a multidisciplinary way (e.g. with reparative interventions, video, photography, stapling, publishing) in various environments, and in collaboration with local people and communities on artist residencies, for instance in Sweden, Norway, Brazil, New Zealand, Australia, Haiti, Canada and the USA. This allows for site-specific working that is instrumental for the making of my work and the works that I make in collaboration with Petri [Saarikko].
I am usually working on multiple projects at any one time, and planning and organizing future projects. As to right now, Petri and I have just finished a new Remedies project for the first Riga Biennial, dealing with oral family knowledge and Latvia’s sauna tradition. This is the seventh country where we have worked on Remedies, and we try not to follow formulas or repeat ourselves with this particular project, which is constantly evolving.
You grew up in Switzerland, but you also have Haitian roots on your mother’s side and now you live in Finland. The question of roots is important in your works. Could you elaborate on that a bit?
From the start, my work has been concerned with issues informed and inspired by both my heritages, in relation to the politics of memory and belonging, especially with regard to colonial history. My mother’s roots have particularly interested me because I knew less about them at first, which also applied to the US, where she and the family emigrated in the mid-1960s to escape the dictatorship in Haiti. In 1804 Haiti became the first black-run republic in the Western Hemisphere, and hence the first country to abolish slavery completely in the heart of the Caribbean archipelago.
As to the differences between my two heritages, which I have found so interesting to investigate artistically, one might think they are places that couldn’t have less to do with each other, but while learning about the history of both places, I soon understood that there are links and a sense of interconnectedness that we never learned about in school. For instance, about the Swiss involvement in Slavery and the Slave Trade contributing to making it one of the richest countries in the world. This complex construct will continue to grow and inspire me to discuss difficult and uncomfortable themes, including in relation to our present time, that many people don’t want to see or confront. People are often blind to the racism all around us, for instance. I invite them to ’touch’ these difficult topics and try to make the blind(ed) feel and see again.
The postcolonial discussion reached Finland quite late, and it is only in recent years that we have started to re-examine our own colonial relationship with the Sápmi region and to think about decolonization on a more global scale. Making this shift in thinking and discourse isn’t trouble-free. How do you see the role of the arts in these changing times?
Basically every European country profited, and most of them still profit today, from colonized people, and this obviously also applies to the countries that weren’t colonies. They have long gone under the radar in this discussion. The aphorism: “We are here because you were there,” coined by A. Sivanandan (1923-2018), who is a Sri Lankan novelist and former Emeritus Director of the Institute of Race Relations, a London-based independent educational charity, also relates to the interconnectedness mentioned earlier. But yes, a shift is under way and a rethink has begun, bringing it to the surface and making it visible. Society can’t keep this quiet any longer, and this is surely also due to the tireless efforts of activists, grass-roots initiatives, artists and the public, who have found ways to stand up for themselves.
Doing art can help to open up new perspectives and languages for imagining alternative and more just futures for all, and sometimes even to make change happen. It is a way of trying to turn something negative into something positive. But these efforts are actually not recent, since a lot of people have been working actively on the topic of decolonization for many years. It’s just that the various platforms haven’t previously been open in the way that has happened in recent years. Besides, more initiatives are creating platforms independently. There is more listening to those who were previously invisible and unheard. I see this as a form of ongoing healing process, which is much needed. In the end, we are all in this together.