‘It’s fact. It’s rooted. It’s standing.’

The Norwegian artist Hanni Kamaly talks about mourning and remembrance, the physicality and presence of sculpture, and the Nordic art world’s reluctance to acknowledge the legacy of colonialism.

Hanni Kamaly. Photo: Santiago Mostyn.

Hanni Kamaly is busy. The Malmö-based Norwegian artist has presentations forthcoming at MINT and Index in Stockholm, Gothenburg’s Konsthall, and the Sao Paulo Biennial. That her work is currently in demand is hardly surprising, since it touches on many of today’s hot-button issues: (de)colonisation, structural racism, and the European migrant crisis. Kamaly’s sculptures, whose titles often bear the names of victims of racist violence, explore collective practices of mourning and remembrance. On a somewhat different register, her films and performance-lectures tend to confront the darker sides of (museological) history making from the perspective of minority populations and individuals whose stories have been forgotten, marginalised, or obscured. 

I caught up with Kamaly in Malmö following a hectic weekend during which she partook in a public conversation with Zimbabwean curator Tawanda Appiah, and concluded the final sessions of her project Markings, a series of discursive walks for Moderna Museet Malmö which looked at how white supremacy and colonisation are inscribed within the city’s built environment. We met at Inter Arts Center, in an all-black room furnished with white chairs, to discuss, among other things, public monuments and memorials, the diversification of museum collections, and her impending move to the Netherlands for a research position at the prestigious Jan van Eyck Academy.

Hanni Kamaly, AMAD AHMAD, 76 x 86 x 66 cm, steel, rubber pipe clamp, 2019. Photo: Mareike Tocha.

You just finished your project Markings. What kind of response have you received? 

There have been different types of remarks, but a lot of people are surprised. For example, at Stig Blomberg’s sculpture Torgbrunn [Fountain in the Square, 1964] at Stortorget, which features a racist caricature of a Black person. The questions they ask are often: What do you think should happen? What should we do? People are looking for some kind of solution, I would say. It’s part of the time that we live in that there’s an urgency to have solutions – as if there are quick solutions. And it’s strange, because I don’t have any solutions – I have suggestions, maybe. But I also think there’s something strange about this urgency, as though tomorrow you could fix it all, like it’s some potion that you need to drink. I think you have to sit in the problems and the awkwardness and the wrongness, in the space of not-knowing what to do, before we can build or rebuild something. 

I noticed, when I participated in Markings in September, that it was very fact-driven, that you didnt offer much commentary. Is that because you wanted us to sit with these problems? 

I guess there are two parts to that. One, is that these are matters of fact. These things aren’t something that you can refute or discuss; it’s not my subjective opinion. Two, is that I want to leave room for people to feel that. It’s not up for debate, basically. In the beginning, I hadn’t really noticed that it was so driven by fact. But I think a lot of my works also do the same thing. There aren’t that many comments or opinions – of mine – in them.

What was it like for you growing up in Norway?

[Laughs] It’s quite a difficult question. It was strange because there’s a duality in all of it, being a – it’s quite a problematic term – ‘second generation immigrant’. Being born in Norway of immigrant parents and growing up in a society that you’re supposed belong to, but you don’t really, you live in this kind of in-between space and experience the world quite differently. When my parents came to Norway from Iran, they came to Brumunddal [a town north of Oslo], which was known for extremely violent attacks against immigrants, as well as a battle – the Battle of Brumunddal [1991], they call it – between anti-racists, neo-Nazis, and the leader of the anti-immigration the People’s Movement [FMI]. So it was marked by that. When I went to junior high school (I think that’s what you call it in the US), we experienced racism outright. Like, people calling you a monkey, et cetera, et cetera. This was in the early 2000s. There was also a lot of shock among my white classmates that you could be at the same level intellectually if you were not white. So, there would be anger and aggression if I got, say, better grades or marks. There’s been a doubleness constantly, I would say. 

Hanni Kamaly, HeadHandEye (video still), 2017.

In what ways did this doubleness affect your relationship to art? 

Well, part of it is a refusal. Part of it has affected the way that I am quite direct with things and want to confront them head-on. Growing up with this experience, I learned to take a step outside and to look at the broader implications of art and visual culture. Because people were creating figurations of the immigrant child, or having presumptions about what it means. I mean, I didn’t completely understand that you could be an artist. I was just ingesting a lot of visual culture. I studied film before I studied art, so when I studied art, I didn’t think it was an independent entity, separate from the rest.

You still make films, but a large part of your practice involves sculpture. What was behind that transition?

Film was inadequate to addressing the physicality of things and their actual presence. And the bodies. Film is always a portrayal, a representation of something. But to have the sculptural body in the centre, and to work with your own body, in terms of its materiality, those things were what I needed to work with to negotiate the terms of existence, which film doesn’t quite encompass. 

There’s more of a 1 to 1 relationship between the work and the world, would you say? 

Yeah. And to the viewer. When I’m making it, I’m dealing with it. If you’re looking at it, you’re dealing with it. It has a placement, it has a presence, a different weight and format. It has a different type of life. 

Your sculptures often bear the names of victims of colonial and racist violence, which brings them into direct dialogue with monuments and memorials. Unlike monuments or memorials, however, which tend to heroise or idealise, your works also have abject and inorganic – one might even say inhuman – formal qualities. They’ve drawn comparisons to works by Louise Bourgeois –

Please don’t mention that! [Laughs]

…and one reviewer even commented that they illustrate degradation.” So, what I want to know is: who are you addressing with these works, and what do you want them to remember?

The spectator, people. I’m addressing the person who sees it. It’s quite a direct confrontation with both the sculptural body, the materiality of it, and also the title. Often, the name isn’t visible; it’s only the sculptural body that is visible. So, when you meet it, you have to place yourself in terms of the presence. The non-humanness is, in a sense, to think about exactly that: What is humanness? What is life? To think about people, or to think about subjects as non-human, you’re denying them vulnerability, history, and their own personal trauma. I want to show that something seemingly powerful like metal, can have that duality of strength and fragility – to give it some sort of gracefulness. The names are of people who have been victimised by state violence. So, I want people to think about: Who is memorialised? Who do we remember? Who are the heroes of our history? I want to make an unheroic history, to turn it around. It’s my way of repeating something. In Islam, you have tasbeeh – prayer beads, almost like a necklace – where you repeat the names of God with every bead. I think it’s some sort of incantation in that sense: if you say their names, they will echo and exist in a different way.

Hanni Kamaly, CRUTCHER, 270 x 184 x 136 cm, steel, 2017–2019. Photo: Santiago Mostyn.

Is it fair to say that it’s primarily a white audience that you’re addressing? 

Not primarily, but predominately. I think it’s important to notice that art spaces are white spaces, basically – that it’s white cubes. [Laughs] So, it’s definitely a confrontation. But the visual language that I use and its directness can be understood and felt by many people. I work with affect. 

If you were to make a sculpture for Breonna Taylor or George Floyd, would you use the same strategies, the same visual language? 

No, I don’t think so. At this moment, I wouldn’t make sculptures named after them. We live in a sensitive time. I don’t think I’d be able to do it. 

Are there any specific monuments or memorials that you find particularly successful or compelling?  

One of my favourite works that is public is not really a memorial, but it feels like it. Right outside Hamburger Bahnhof, there’s a sculpture by Bruce Nauman. It’s one of his Double Cage Pieces [1974] and you can walk through it. When you walk through, you have this incredible feeling of Germany and German history – in terms of the Holocaust, especially. And I don’t think it was his intention, but that’s what you feel. I think that’s quite a successful piece. Now I think it’s next to the parking lot. It’s kind of hidden, but it’s a powerful experience. Today, I was thinking about how, too often, in public memorials for tragedies, victims lose their individuality and personhood; they don’t get the same space and power. Instead, they become abstract and nameless, or just one name among many.

This relates in some way to my next question, which is about the word ‘monster’. I know that term has been an important for your work in the past. Does that still hold true? 

It’s not the noun monster so much as the adjective monstrous. For a while I was thinking about dehumanisation and I was reading a lot of social psychology and this word popped up: superhumanisation. When you think of a person, not even as a subhuman or an animal, but something beyond, that type of figuration doesn’t leave the subject with any fragility or vulnerability; it means that you can do whatever you want with that person. So that’s when this word came up, among other words. I still see it today in the news or political advertisements where they try to frame immigrants or muslims, for example, in these terms. To think of somebody as beyond human, with capacities that are beyond human, strength, for example, denies that person not just their humanness, but their capacity for thought as well. 

Hanni Kamaly, HeadHandEye (video still), 2017.

Are you also trying to linger in this space of monstrousness or superhumanisation – to understand what the possibilities might be of inhabiting, say, a non-subject position – or are you trying to overcome that in some way? 

It’s not seeking the approval of being a subject. It’s kind of refusing the containment of the classification. Like, you’re supposed to say I’m a subject in order for me to be a subject? And to question that, basically. What do you consider is a subjective presence? Who is that? We’re not negotiating. You don’t have to accept it, or accept me; the existence is still there. 

It’s fact. 

It’s fact. It’s rooted. It’s standing. 

There’s been a lot of discussion lately about how museums can diversify their collections, to increase recognition, visibility, and representation of women, minority, and non-Western artists within institutions. What are your thoughts surrounding these processes? 

They say that solidarity is a shield, which is a good term. I think it’s, again, this kind of quick solution that doesn’t give the BIPoC person any agency. It’s extracting an alibi. Because what are the structural changes, actually?  If a museum buys an artwork, is it really changing the structures of who is buying and who is being bought? As an artist, are you selling yourself out being part of institutions which wouldn’t otherwise have you? There’s a problem with trying to solve things in this way because institutions are only taking something from non-white people and are not allowing them to have control, to have positions. Because it’s still the majority, it’s still white people who are making the decisions. It’s basically a public relations thing. It’s called ‘outreach’ because it doesn’t reach in. There is still a problem of inside and outside; the structures are still the same. The National Museum in Stockholm changed the titles of works in its collection to make them more neutral. I feel like that’s an erasure. When you read the labels, they don’t even mention that the works have been renamed. As though it’s based on racial blindness, refusing to recognize what you have done in the past and the consequences of that.

Hanni Kamaly, SABA, steel, copper, 194 x 164 x 96 cm, 2019. Photo: Fredrik Andersson.

In your video HeadHandEye (2017), you present a transcultural history of decapitation, dismemberment, and the collection of human body parts. The footage ranges from Disneys 1992 film Aladdin to a virtual tour of the Royal Museum of Central Africa in Brussels and dashcam footage of Terence Crutchers murder by Tulsa police in 2016. You take a global perspective, in other words. Theres resistance within certain segments of the Nordic art world to importing discourses on racism and colonisation, as well as academic frameworks such as Critical Race Theory, from abroad. How do you view this issue? How do you negotiate this resistance in your work? 

There’s definitely a resistance. These type of theories have existed for a long time and they’re not national, they’re global. In Sweden, there’s a sense of neutrality, so the refusal is a refusal to deal, to actually see how the country operates. In the Scandinavian countries in general there’s an insistence that we’re righteous and fair and everyone is treated equally by right, by law. So why talk about racism? It’s this insistence that is refusing to allow critical theory to enter the field. You can’t reinvent the wheel just because there are different mechanisms of oppression. American ones might be different, but there are commonalities.

I was thinking about the philosopher Michael McEachrane, who speaks about how the term race, in the Nordic countries, has been replaced. Now we talk about ethnicity instead, which raises a lot of other questions. I can’t sum up his theories, but when I grew up in Norway, if you talked about racialised bodies, you would immediately be considered a racist – as if you believed in racist ideas. Again, it’s like: don’t talk about it, don’t mention it, stay silent, our hands are clean. It’s a refusal of history. There’s a romanticism in the Nordic countries about art being separate from society. Within art, we should – artists and art practitioners – take responsibility for the history of visual culture. There is no neutrality within art.

You’re going to have a solo presentation at the Index Foundation in Stockholm next year, which is also in some way related to HeadHandEye. I know it’s early on, but can you say a bit more about what you’re working on for this show? 

Well, these are preliminary ideas, but there are going to be two – maybe even three – different projects, video and sculpture, that will be included. One part is about the role of art in terms of race theory and ethnography. We have to remember that ethnographic and colonial sculptures were made by artists. So I’m tying that in with how institutions and museums have represented nations and nationhood in terms of creating a homogenous and fixed national identity. So, how that came about and also what are the effects today, where can you see traces of that today – especially in Stockholm. I think it’s important to position yourself because these violent practices – oppression – didn’t happen far away. Everything is right outside your doorstep, basically. 

Hanni Kamaly, BALLOK (detail), 87 x 72 x 90, steel, aluminium mesh, zari thread, mirror, 2017–2019.

And that is also related to a piece you did for the magazine Paletten, where you are also part of the editorial board, correct? 

‘Colonial Entanglements in Swedish Art History’, yeah. It’s a twofold story. It deals with how art has actively participated in colonialism in Sweden and its involvement with racism and pseudoscientific theories like phrenology. It starts with a sculpture at the Thiel Gallery by Christian Eriksson [1858–1935] of a Sámi person. He [Eriksson] was also part of a touring exhibition that the race-biologist Herman Lundborg arranged in 1919 called Types of Swedes [Svenska folktypsutställningen]. It was quite a popular exhibition. So, among all these pseudoscientific presentations of different races, they had one section with fine art – mostly busts. After the exhibition was over, those ethnographic sculptures were then recontextualised in art museums as part of Swedish National Romanticism. In fact, the painter Anders Zorn was one of the main financiers of Lundborg’s exhibition. Now, he’s going to have a show at the National Museum in Stockholm, Zorn – A Swedish Superstar, which portrays him as a kind of national hero! So, this project is also fuelled with a reaction towards the romanticisation of art. 

What are you working on right now?

I’m working on a project that’s about immigration and state power in Sweden during the early 1900s. It will be a video that will be shown at Gothenburg Konsthall in June of next year, but already at the end of this year part of the work will be presented as a performative lecture at MINT in Stockholm.  I’m also starting up as a researcher at the Jan van Eyck Academy, where I will, among other things, finish a video work for the Sao Paulo biennial, which is related to the exhibition at Index in that it’s a more extensive look at art and ethnographic museums and the drawing of borders during colonisation.

How do you situate yourself within artistic research? How do you relate to that term? 

Artistic research has become a specific field, but I’m a researcher in the sense that I use it as a tool to be able to do what I do. For me, it’s part of having a practice where I try to reflect, or have the possibility to reflect, and allow myself to follow an idea – to trace certain aspects that just open up more connections. In the new issue of Paletten [no. 320], we have an image essay which is the result of an obsessive search that I undertook last summer. You know Indiska, the clothing shop? I was talking with a friend about how it kind of escaped the discussions on cultural appropriation. Indiska still exists. I haven’t seen any debate about it. How did that come about? How did that store come about? So, I went on the company’s website and looked at its history and it was mentioned that it started in 1901 by a missionary, Mathilda Hamilton. And in the first Indiska – which was actually titled the Indian Exhibition in Stockholm [Indiska utställningen] – there was an Indian man sitting in the corner smoking a water pipe. I found a photograph of him captioned with his name: Gadju Daniel Sewak. And I started obsessively searching: Who was he? Where did he go? How long was he here? When did he arrive? What happened to him? So, just looking into all these things, subscribing to ancestry websites, looking into newspaper articles, trying to find records. I found several pictures of him in a photo album that Hamilton had, which was donated to the ethnographic museum. I wouldn’t think of that as research, although it’s easy to categorise it as such. It is just an insistent need to find and to search. I’m trying to find stories that aren’t often told; that’s what I’m searching for.

Hanni Kamaly. Photo: Santiago Mostyn.