Nordic routes

In the distant latitudes of Scandinavia, three artists with Caribbean roots are making hard-hitting works that ask difficult questions about history and power. Nicole Smythe-Johnson talks to Jeannette Ehlers, Michelle Eistrup, and Sasha Huber

Still from Rentyhorn: The Intervention (2008; video, 4.30 mins), by Sasha Huber. Courtesy Sasha Huber And The Museum Of Contemporary Art Kiasma, HelsinkiStill from Whip It Good, a video performance work by Trinidadian-Danish artist Jeannette Ehlers. Courtesy Jeannette EhlersStill from Black Bullets (2012; video, 4.33 mins). Courtesy Jeannette EhlersStill from How Do You Talk About Three Hundred Years in Four Minutes (2014; video, 4 mins). Courtesy Jeannette EhlersFrom Ehlers’s Whip It Good performance (2014). Photo by Nikolaj ReckeDetail of This Particular Masquerade 2 (2013, lambda print, 600 x 24.1 cm). Courtesy Michelle EistrupInstallation view of Too Long Are Our Memories + Borders, a collabration between Michelle Eistrup and James Muriuki (2010; video, 9 mins). Courtesy Michelle EistrupStill from Too Long Are Our Memories + Borders. Courtesy Michelle EistrupStill from Remedies Haiti, a collaboration between Huber and Petri Saarikko (2016; video, 28 mins). Courtesy Sasha HuberStill from Karakia: The Resetting Ceremony (2015; video, 5.20 mins). Courtesy Sasha HuberShooting Back: Christopher Columbus (2004; metal staples on abandoned wood, 80 x 115 cm). Courtesy Sasha Huber

Last year, I visited Scandinavia for the first time. I was there for a curatorial residency at the Henie Onstad Kunstsenter, just outside Oslo in Norway. Coming from Kingston, Jamaica, and even having lived in Britain and visited France, Oslo seemed another world: the architecture, language, landscape, but also the homogeneity (relative to the Caribbean, anyway), the seamless order, the ubiquitous design, the oil wealth, the social safety net.

As I walked around the remarkably clean city streets, I wondered how it was possible that a place like Jamaica exists contemporaneously with a place like Norway. I was there for only a month, but even with my life in Jamaica just a few weeks away, my experiences there and here seemed incommensurable. From Norway, Jamaica could only be a dream, and here in Jamaica, Norway is only a dream place.

While I was there, just after the peak of the “European migrant crisis” in the summer of 2015, Slovenian scholar Slavoj Žižek published an essay in the London Review of Books with the title “The Non-Existence of Norway”. The essay had its problems, but the title resonated. Even from my flat overlooking the Oslofjord, I was having trouble making Norway exist. And like Žižek, everyone in Europe seemed to be wondering how much longer it could exist like this.

Otherworldly as Scandinavia may seem, there are many ways in which the region is linked to our very own Caribbean, by history but also by people. The three artists I profile in the following pages explore (and embody) those surprising ties from three different perspectives. In so doing, they gesture towards other ways Scandinavia might exist.

 

Jeannette Ehlers

Denmark/Trinidad • born 1973

When you think of colonialism, Scandinavia is not an immediate association. Britain, France, Spain, Portugal, the Netherlands, maybe Germany — but Denmark and Sweden? In fact, Sweden had several colonies throughout Africa and the Caribbean between the seventeenth and early nineteenth centuries, including Guadeloupe (from 1813 to 1814) and, briefly, Tobago (in 1733). There were also the Danish West Indies, which became the US Virgin Islands in 1917. The Danes even colonised Norway for almost three centuries (1524 to 1814). You’d be surprised.

These scarcely known histories are a major preoccupation of Jeanette Ehlers’s artistic practice. “Modern Denmark was built on money from the transatlantic slave trade, just like so many other nations,” she says. “There’s a huge colonial amnesia in Scandinavia, though, which has a great impact on the mentality here . . . My work is a reaction to that.”

Ehlers was born and raised in Denmark by a Danish mother and Trinidadian father. Though she would not visit Trinidad until she was a teenager, Ehlers always sought ways to unearth and articulate her Caribbean ancestry, and explore the complexities of being black in a white society. After bouts with gymnastics, dance, music, and painting, she finally found her medium at the Royal Danish Academy of Arts: the moving image.

This doesn’t mean those earlier experiments with medium don’t continue: Ehlers just mediates it all via film. In How Do You Talk About Three Hundred Years in Four Minutes (2014), for instance, music becomes a medium for communicating the incommunicable. Whip It Good (2014) is based on a live performance that Ehlers first presented in 2013 at Ballhaus Naunynstrasse in Berlin, commissioned by Art Labour Archives. The piece was later recreated for video at the Vestindisk Pakhus (“West Indian Warehouse”) in Copenhagen, where, in earlier times, rum, sugar, and coffee from the Antilles were stored.

The historic location now houses the Royal Cast Collection, over two thousand plaster casts of neoclassical European sculpture collected by renowned art historian and archeologist Johann Joachim Winckelmann (1717–1768). The collection is an excellent illustration of the European art historical canon, especially because Winckelmann is one of the founders of the modern discipline of art history. He literally wrote the book — History of Ancient Art, 1764 — on the periodisation of art into a linear history. The museum’s website notes the irony of the collection’s location: “It is a strange coincidence to have white man’s white art on display at the warehouse where the goods (rum and sugar) produced by black slaves once were stored.”

Whip It Good takes off from there. Amid the white plaster casts, dressed in white head tie and clothing, her skin literally whitewashed, Ehlers viciously whips a white canvas, leaving black lines behind. The links between Denmark and transatlantic slavery that the West Indian Warehouse indexes surge to the surface as you watch the film. The repetitive crack of the whip and the steady build-up of black slashes on the canvas add poignancy to Ehlers’s unpleasantly familiar vocabulary of movement.

Black Bullets (2012) is another favourite. Here Ehlers addresses the Caribbean more directly, with a hypnotically beautiful ode to the Haitian Revolution. Filmed in Haiti at the Citadelle Laferrière — built by Henri Christophe, one of the leaders of the Haitian Revolution — the film commemorates the spirit of rebellion that the Citadelle has come to represent. As black schoolchildren drift across a black and white cloudscape, they slowly collapse into their own reflections, marching ever forward but disappearing, shrinking into nothingness with every step.

It seems a perfect metaphor for the revolutionary zeal that made Haiti the first independent black nation in the Western hemisphere. Marching forward, but to where? For Haiti, independence would become a noose that had one of the world’s poorest nations paying reparations to former colonial masters for centuries. The Caribbean’s first major narrative of anti-colonial triumph has also been its biggest cautionary tale.

For her next major work, Ehlers is exploring yet another medium, sculpture. She’s returning to the West Indian Warehouse, this time to commemorate the centennial of the sale of the former Danish Virgin Islands to the United States of America. Ehlers plans to create a seven-metre-tall statue of “Queen Mary,” a.k.a. Mary Thomas, one of the leaders of the Fireburn Rebellion on St Croix in 1878. The piece is to accompany a huge bronze version of Michelangelo’s David, which currently sits on the Copenhagen waterfront, in front of the Vestindisk Pakhus.

 

Michelle Eistrup

Denmark/Jamaica • born 1969

Born in Denmark, Michelle Eistrup lived in France as a young child, moved to her mother’s Jamaica when she was seven, then to the east coast of the United States at eighteen, before settling back in Copenhagen. She has visited Barbados and Trinidad on several occasions, spent months at a time in Benin, and travelled to Senegal and Kenya.

Working in photography, collage, video, and installation, Eistrup explores the history, legacies, and denial of colonialism, particularly in Denmark. In her dream-like films, spaces — and cultures and histories along with them — are seamlessly stitched together by “portals of soundscapes” and other filmic technologies. In Pitch Moulded Animability (2013) for example, Senegal morphs into Trinidad, the urban into the rural, and the peripheral (within Danish culture) becomes the central (within the film and Eistrup’s broader practice).

An aesthetic of layering, characteristic of memory and dreams, is a recurring device in Eistrup’s films. In Too Long Are Our Memories, deer in a snowy forest, black hands picking coffee, black bodies dancing atop train cars, giraffes, splashing surf, and voiceover from another time — “lots of land, except that there are Africans there . . .” — fade and slide in and out of each other. The point is not to tell a story, but to hint at how complex, how muddled and interconnected the story is.

It is not enough to speak only about Eistrup’s artwork when discussing her artistic practice, however. Though she is an artist first and foremost, a significant part of her work is “as a curator and enabler in a wider cultural context,” she says, “bridging multiple worlds that include the creative industries, museum practice and policy, education, writing, and academic research.” Not surprisingly, Eistrup layers again: this time, the curatorial elements of her work with her artistic and personal interest in West African and Caribbean syncretic spirituality. “Thinking about it,” she says, “my position [as curator-enabler] is very much similar to that of a Yoruba deity from West Africa called Elegba, whose role as the trickster in Ifa cosmology also includes mediation between the gods. As the centre of communication, Elegba is the only deity who speaks every language.”

This side of her practice is best embodied in her Bridging Art and Text (BAT) project. “After a few years of making art, I naturally felt the need for creative dialogue across many disciplines, in order to expanded my thinking and practice,” Eistrup explains. “And so BAT was actually a solution I created to address the problem of creative and cultural isolation here in Denmark. It not only served to bring international perspectives here, but also addressed my concern with the lack of critical writing on the work of artists living in Europe and Scandinavia whose work deals with African diaspora identity and the politics of its representation.”

BAT, a partnership with Annemari Clausen, is a seminar platform centred on intercultural dialogue. It was initiated to inspire Scandinavian art and cultural institutions to be more culturally inclusive and expansive, via engagement in an international dialogue around identity and representation. The first seminar in 2012 brought international artists, curators, and writers such as Ery Camara (Senegalese artist and curator), Carlos Moore (Cuban ethnologist and political scientist), Christopher Cozier (Trinidadian artist and curator), and Yoyo Gonthier (Nigerien-French artist) together at the Karen Blixen Museum in Denmark. The location of the gathering was significant, since the museum commemorates the life and work of Blixen, a Danish writer who lived in Kenya for sixteen years and wrote about her experiences in Out of Africa.

Eistrup explains the seminar series’ aims: “We wanted to challenge the mechanisms that have erased generations of intercultural artists, writers, and musicians from institutional memory and from art history. By creating an interdisciplinary platform that bridges visual arts with scholarly and creative texts, we are also developing a space where artists can be intellectually and spiritually nourished.”

Though it may be tempting to view the two strains of Eistrup’s practice as discrete, there is considerable overlap. Where in Too Long Are Memories (2010) Eistrup layers the snowy forests of (presumably) Denmark with Kenyan coffee fields, so with BAT she brings perspectives from across the world to engage within and with Danish culture. “Denmark suffers from isolationism and limited exposure to alternative and diverse perspectives and voices,” she says. “Therefore it is very hard to establish a debate where Danish culture is not the main focus of discussion. Slavery, colonialism, institutional racism, social exclusion, cultural intolerance — these are subjects people find it hard to confront here, in part because of lack of knowledge and visibility of the history, but I think also because these subjects can evoke uncomfortable feelings of guilt or shame. It’s very un-Danish to probe sensitive feelings like this in public space, and to then ask people to question their own accountability.”

The next steps for Eistrup include a BAT publication, co-edited with Clausen and the Karen Blixen Museum. The text will serve as a document of the 2012 seminar and subsequent interactions. Most recently, she exhibited This Particular Masquerade, Unmasked, and Amnesia (a sound work) in the group show Nordic Delights. The exhibition opened at Oslo Kunstforening in Norway last April, and will go on to travel to galleries in Sweden, Denmark, and Finland.

 

Sasha Huber

Finland/Haiti • born 1975

Sasha Huber was born in Zurich to a Haitian mother and Swiss father. Her parents met in New York City, where her mother’s family had migrated in the 1960s. Today, she lives in Helsinki, Finland, with her husband and son.

Huber’s family includes members from ten countries, and she visited New York regularly and Haiti less often throughout her childhood. However, she did not visit Haiti as an adult until 2011 for the second Ghetto Biennale in Port-au-Prince — mostly because her mother and other family were so against her returning to their ancestral home, due to safety concerns. “Interestingly, I’m the only one from my generation in my family abroad that wants to return to Haiti,” she says. Huber visited Haiti again in January 2016, for a month-long workshop series at the Centre D’Art in Port-au-Prince. That visit was especially significant, since Huber’s mentor and grandfather Georges Remponeau co-founded the Centre D’Art in 1944.

According to Huber, her frustration with being forbidden to visit Haiti was the starting point of her art practice. “I made the first staple-gun portrait series, called Shooting Back — Reflection of Haitian Roots, which criticises some individuals who contributed to the historical and social conditions in Haiti, from the fifteenth century up to the twentieth century, and who made it what it is today — the poorest country in the Western hemisphere. I depicted the conqueror Christopher Columbus, and the former Haitian dictators François ‘Papa Doc’ Duvalier and Jean-Claude ‘Baby Doc’ Duvalier. The compressed-air staple gun as a tool is capable of producing visually arresting works that also function like a symbolic weapon, offering the potential to renegotiate unequal power dynamics.”

The staple gun is not her only medium, however. Huber’s website describes her practice best: “Sensitive to the subtle threads connecting history and the present, she uses and responds to archival material within a layered creative practice that encompasses video, photography, collaborations with researchers, and performance-based interventions.”

Huber’s contribution to the long-term project Demounting Agassiz, for example, includes staple work, video, perfomance, and more research-based elements. The project is a transatlantic collaboration initiated by Swiss historian and political activist Hans Fässler. It aims to unearth and redress the little-known history and cultural legacy of Swiss-born naturalist and glaciologist Louis Agassiz (1807–1873). Agassiz was an influential proponent of scientific racism who advocated for segregation and “racial hygiene.” Today, there are over sixty places all over the world and elsewhere in our Solar System (on the Moon and Mars) that bear Agassiz’s name. A major focus of the Demounting Agassiz campaign is getting these place names changed.

Among them is the Agassizhorn mountain peak in the Swiss Alps. The campaign proposes to rename the peak Rentyhorn, in tribute to Renty: an enslaved person from the Congo whom Agassiz photographed in 1850, and whom Huber considers “emblematic of other silent and unnamed victims of racism.” An actual renaming has yet to take place, but in 2008 Huber performed the first of several “transformative interventions,” embarking on an expedition to the top of the mountain and placing an engraved plaque of Renty in the snow there. Huber is also involved in similar work with a Maori community in the South Island of New Zealand, where residents hope to rename the Agassiz Glacier and Agassiz Range.

Her Remedies series is another place where Huber’s multimedia and research-based approach to art-making is evident. The project is a collaboration with Huber’s professional and life partner, the Finnish artist Petri Saarikko, which collects folk remedies and presents them in text, video, and performance. Remedies began in Sweden during the pair’s 2010–2011 residency at Botkyrka Konsthall. In this first video work, Huskurer Remedies, the contributions were generally natural healing techniques and folk wisdom applicable to a range of circumstances, from disease to “spiritual misfortune.” Huber and Saarikko perform the contributions in a sort of instructional video, cataloguing solutions both absurd and profound.

Over the next three iterations in New Zealand (Remedies New Zealand, 2015), Australia (Remedies Australia, 2015), and Haiti (Remedies Haiti, 2016), the series evolved significantly to include a text accompanying the Remedies New Zealand video that gives some context to Maori Rongoāmedicine and describes the project’s process. The videos also evolved with the inclusion of “gestural, sung, slam, and spoken collaborative forms” that are rehearsed and performed collectively. Remedies Haiti, for example, took the form of a one-time performance at the Centre D’Art in January 2016. The performance was documented and edited into a twenty-eight-minute video that premiered in June 2016 at Savvy Contemporary in Berlin.