Representation Matters

Judging by statements made by the heads of Norwegian art institutions in the wake of this year’s Black Lives Matter protests, lack of will is not the issue when striving for greater diversity.

From the opening of the anniversary exhibition Fadlabi – The Onset of Vertigo. Kunstnernes Hus 90 Years at Kunstnernes Hus, 5 June 2020. Photo: Julie Hrncirova.

“The Ministry of Culture’s goals are a major step forward towards diversity,” claims the preliminary culture budget recently presented by the Norwegian Minister of Culture Abid Raja (Liberal Party). At the same time, in another part of the proposed state budget, the government plans to continue funding the anti-Islamic blog Human Rights Service to the tune of NOK 1.8 million (EUR 165,000), presumably in order to appease the Progress Party, whose support it needs to get its budget through. Even so, the focus on diversity in the cultural budget probably reveals more than Raja’s personal commitments, even though he has been clear, since taking office in January, that he will work for increased diversity in the cultural sector. It also says something about the intensified international focus on issues of representation and structural racism which have informed our present moment.

The American organisation Black Lives Matter (BLM) was founded back in 2013, while Barack Obama was still president, in response to the acquittal of the man who killed Trayvon Martin. The organisation soon attracted attention outside of the United States, including in Norway. Following the brutal police killing of George Floyd on 29 May this year, which prompted mass protests in the United States and the rest of the world, BLM is not only the name of a global and broadly based anti-racist movement, but also an international imperative. BLM has become a watershed phenomenon the same way that the #MeToo movement was in 2017, in the sense that it has become something “everyone” talks about and must relate to. The slogan “black lives matter” is no longer used only to make specific demands for justice for the victims of racially motivated police violence, but for a more general fight against all forms of racism in all parts of society – including the field of art.

At the beginning of June, when the movement took off in earnest, large protest rallies were held in Norway. In Oslo, almost fifteen thousand people gathered in front of the Parliament on 5 June. The protesters included many artists and cultural workers. Moreover, a number of art institutions made various statements of support for the BLM movement on social media, including in connection with the Blackout Tuesday campaign on June 2, when people all over the world posted black squares on social media to mark their support. However, these black squares, posted by private individuals and institutions alike, were instantly greeted with criticism and dismissed as non-committal virtue signalling.

Long-term activism

Among those asking what it really means when art institutions support the BLM movement, we find a group of artists who originally came together in 2018 to work with issues surrounding #MeToo, and who at the time were behind the battle cry: “No to the abuse of power in the art field.” The group, consisting of Amber Ablett, Idun Baltzersen, Hanan Benammar, Lona Hansen, Anna Ihle, Camilla Renate Nicolaisen, and Sara Rönnbäck, made a spreadsheet providing an overview of how central Norwegian art institutions had reacted or not reacted to the BLM movement, and a template for a letter which encouraged the institutions to create specific and binding plans for action. In an email to Kunstkritikk, the group stated:

We hoped that by making the letters to our art institutions public, by sharing and inviting others to work with us through the online documents, we, as the audience and co-workers, will continue to collectively hold these places accountable. Although diversity, representation, and the Western biased canon are not new discussions in the art field, the black square was a clear example of performative allyship, and we hoped that addressing the institutions directly on their anti-racist strategies would help us reflect on real change in our industry and the concrete steps to make it happen.

From the opening of the anniversary exhibition Fadlabi – The Onset of Vertigo. Kunstnernes Hus 90 Years at Kunstnernes Hus, 5 June 2020. Photo: Julie Hrncirova.

The action was inspired by a similar undertaking launched by the British art critic duo The White Pube, and the Norwegian letter is a translation of their letter, slightly adapted to Norwegian conditions. The letter campaign received some publicity around its launch in early June, including an article in the newspaper Aftenposten, but the discussion concerning the relationship of galleries and museums with BLM subsided fairly quickly. Instead, the debate in Norwegian media has focused particularly on the educational programme at the Oslo National Academy of the Arts, statues of Winston Churchill and Ludvig Holberg, and a bench commemorating Carl von Linné.

In contrast to the Swedish BLM appeal titled ‘Silence is Violence’, which was distributed anonymously, the Norwegian group has come forward with names of those involved. However, when Kunstkritikk reached out for an interview, the group chose to respond collectively. It said that the response received from the institutions was somewhat mixed, but mostly positive. “Many institutions outlined practices they already had in place, but admitted knowing they needed to do more. Some responded that the letter’s ‘push’ was welcomed and encouraged, and our conversations continue. There were also some forms of criticism that were expressed in social media and in the newspaper, but we didn’t receive a single form of criticism in our inbox.”

Some of the criticism raised on social media concerned the letter’s overall tone, which was described as totalitarian, hard, or rude. “We would invite the detractors to reflect on what exactly triggers their defensive reactions, and what is so provoking or radical about asking major institutions to work on antiracist strategies and a fair and democratic representation of our society,” the group said.

It told Kunstkritikk that a handful of the institutions asked for a follow-up meeting, a gesture which the group appreciated, but rejected on the grounds that group members did not have the skill set required to be consultants. Instead, it offered the institutions suggestions on whom they might contact for advice. It particularly advocated Critical Friends, a network that Arts Council Norway funded for three years.

Critical Friends: Alexander Montgomery-Andersen (Greenland), Jeannette Ehlers (Denmark), Ninos Josef (Sweden), Nayab Ikram (Åland Islands), Sandra Mujinga (Norway), Nermine El Ansari (Iceland) and Kemê Pellicer (Finland). Photo: Marta Anna Løvberg.

The group stresses that it sees activist work as a long-term practice, and that it does not expect a sudden change in the art institutions.

It is as if we had been fed the idea that the cultural field is de facto progressive, and we don’t think that’s a correct analysis. The artistic community is not a homogenous entity separated from society; it is part of it, and reflects the same power mechanisms and structures. In a country or geographical region where whiteness is ‘normality’ and where colonial history is very little talked about or even acknowledged, we think there is a lot of work to do.

‘Things progress so slowly’

Critical Friends was a network of artists residing in the Nordic countries and hailing from multicultural backgrounds. In 2019, it presented a list of recommendations to help ensure an inclusive Nordic cultural sector. Sandra Mujinga was among the participants.

“We did the work and offered recommendations, and the art field just put it on a shelf and left it there, gathering dust,” Mujinga told Kunstkritikk. “Now there’s newfound interest in the field, and I hope it’s not just a trend.”

Mujinga said she has always noticed how white the field of art is. She believes it is important to ask why the institutions continue to look the way they do.

I can’t tell how many times I have seen an institution make an art exhibition about decolonisation, or address the issue in other ways, without ever actually doing anything about it internally through their employment policies. Representation matters. Until I see that, such initiatives are simply performative and perpetuate a centric whiteness. These conversations continue to be held through a white lens, and things progress so slowly. Right now, the conversations about decolonisation and structural racism depend on white institutions finding it ‘interesting’. We need structural change to ensure that the work continues when decolonisation is no longer a trend.

Blind zone team

Director of Exhibitions and Collections at the National Museum, Stina Högkvist, told Kunstkritikk that the museum strives for diversity when making new appointments, and that it is very keen to be a museum for the entire population. “In the time leading up to and after the opening of the new museum, one of our goals is to reach those groups that do not usually visit the National Museum.”

Together with curator Geir Haraldseth, Högkvist took part in the BLM protest rally in Oslo on 5 June. A photo of the two attending the rally was posted on the National Museum’s Instagram account.

“My participation was simply a sign of support for an important cause. Wider representation and increased diversity, both in the collection, among our employees, and among our audience, are issues that the National Museum has worked with for some time and will continue to address,” Högkvist said. She also related that the National Museum has its own teams working to change the way it operates: “The museum’s blind zone team tries to adjust the employees’ sights so that blind zones are revealed, all in an effort to make the museum more inclusive.”

Director of Exhibitions and Collections at the National Museum, Stina Högkvist, and curator Geir Haraldseth, took part in the BLM protest rally in Oslo on 5 June. From the National Museum’s Instagram account. Photo: Mohamed Abdirashid.

The blind zone team consists of designated museum curators and collection staff, with positions rotating every two years. Högkvist explained that it is called a blind zone team to show that the museum is aware such blind zones exist, and that it needs to work actively and consciously to bring about change. The team works with everything from large and comprehensive research projects to labels.

“We want the museum to appear up to date and critical on all surfaces and all exhibition sites. Working with things like labels may sound simple, but in a label there can be a lot of ideology,” she said.

Högkvist pointed out that the National Museum is also a member of Balansekunst (The Art of Balance), an organisation seeking to promote an equal and diverse cultural life, and that it has recently collaborated with Transcultural Arts Production (Trap) and Nordic Black Xpress.

“The collection should reflect the diversity of the population, so representation and identity are relevant concerns when purchasing new works for the museum’s collection. The National Museum have not done well enough in this respect in the past, but in recent years we have worked actively to improve. This work will continue,” Högkvist said.

Spontaneous kneeling action

Kunstnernes Hus was also among the institutions that signalled their support for the BLM movement on social media. It used the hashtag blacklivesmatter in connection with the opening of Norwegian-Sudanese artist Fadlabi’s anniversary exhibition, which coincided with the protest rally in Oslo on Friday 5 June. A group of artists and cultural workers who met at Kunstnernes Hus before they were to take part in the rally also arranged a spontaneous kneeling action in front of the building.

“Several employees at Kunstnernes Hus took part in the kneeling action, myself included, but it was not arranged by us,” said Director Anne Hilde Neset. “We are happy that artists use the house as a meeting place. Kunstnernes Hus is owned by all artists in Norway and has a long-standing history as a venue for political expression and action.”

Neset said that, over the years, Kunstnernes Hus has taken a proactive approach to diversity through its dissemination programmes, appointment of staff, and film programmes, and added that it is currently working on an action plan for the next five years. These efforts will be incorporated into the board’s work and the ongoing strategy processes there. “We will continue to collaborate with organisations such as Trap, but we will also build on other efforts already being made. In collaboration with OCA, we are organising a large international exhibition on solidarity and representation; originally scheduled to open this year, it was postponed due to the corona pandemic but will be launched in January 2021,” Neset said.

Flexing the arc every day

“We won’t have meaningful change in the arts unless three areas are simultaneously addressed: Personnel, Programme and Publics,” Katya García-Antón, director of Office for Contemporary Art Norway (OCA), told Kunstkritikk. “It is no longer sufficient nor acceptable to simply ‘include’ artists from preciously marginalised or ignored communities in one’s programme, because ‘inclusion’ alone is not sufficiently conducive to transforming the structures within which they are included.”

Under García-Antón’s leadership, OCA has in recent years stood out for its work on decolonisation and specific focus on Sámi art, most recently with the announcement that the Sámi artists Máret Ánne Sara, Anders Sunna, and Pauliina Feodoroff will represent Sápmi in the Nordic Pavilion during the Venice Biennale in 2022.

“I am often asked when will we be ‘done’ with Sámi programming. It’s like asking when will we be ‘done’ with democracy,” García-Antón said. “We in OCA have a huge task ahead in continuing to address the challenges to our system emerging from colonisation, racism, patriarchy, climate urgency, etc. on a daily basis. It is a democratic imperative; we can’t be ‘done’ with any of these after just one or two projects.”

The ARISE team. Back row from the left: Chimaobi, Tshivuma, Babu. Front row from the left: Ruvimbo and Mwavita. Photo: Didier Muya.

In June, OCA arranged a one-week Instagram takeover with the organisation ARISE, which took part in arranging the major BLM demonstration in Oslo. Of the collaboration, García-Antón said:

In the current crisis we felt an urgency to react so we reached out to Deise Faira Nunes, an Afro-Brazilian scholar based in Norway, who we had already worked with in 2019. We proposed an Instagram takeover as a first step, to give a platform to an organisation that could amplify black perspectives from their own point of view. She recommended we connect with ARISE given their dedication to the BLM movement in Norway and their work on pan-African empowerment amongst the young generation.

She added that OCA is preparing a project for 2021 with Afro-Norwegian curator and artist Nicole Rafiki in the role of lead conceptualiser, amplifying the thoughts of artists and thinkers from the Afro-Nordic community.

García-Antón said she appreciates the call for action and the guidance for transformation that the letter from the artist group offers. “There are around one million people in Norway from diasporic backgrounds, and in Oslo alone almost a third of the population belongs to these communities. Despite these figures, their representation in the art world in positions of power remains minimal.”

She said that half of OCA’s small team comprises members of Sámi, diasporic, and LGBTQI+ communities in Norway who are employed in coordination, research, curating, and communications at both mid- and senior levels. The jury allocating grants to artists is constituted on a rotating basis by members from all over Norway, including Sápmi. OCA has also attempted to open up residencies in centres beyond the hegemonic Euro-American axis, including Rio de Janeiro and Mumbai, but budgetary cuts forced their closure. García-Antón also said that OCA would like to have a head of diversity.

We have a long way to go in our diversification. Martin Luther King, Jr. once said: ‘The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice’. If we don’t want the momentum built by Indigenous, climate change, migration, LGBTQI+, BLM and other movements to become empty consumer slogans, then we need to work together as an arts field to centre them permanently at the tables of power, with and across all communities, to keep flexing that arc every day.

An open process

Director of Bergen Kunsthall, Axel Wieder, told Kunstkritikk that he found the notion of accountability that the letter brought in to be really useful.

Even with good intentions, the levels of administration are often too slow, and stakes too high, which is one of the ways that structural racism and exclusion work. Diversity and openness are crucial to reflect the contemporary society we’re living in, our concrete context. It is important to think beyond where we currently are, to formulate ideas and goals for more justice in society, broader access to social resources, including culture, a different commonality, a fairer future, and we want to be seen and discussed with such a responsibility.

According to Wieder, Bergen Kunsthall works actively with its programme to shift the focus of attention from normative historical narratives to aspects of art that have been less recognised or represented. But he stresses that what’s most needed is to learn and rethink our own structures, to make anti-racist institutions, not just programmes. “The demand for public policy papers, such an anti-racist action plan that the working group has asked for in their letter, is a good step in this respect, since they allow us to formulate and discuss the commitment of organisations,” Wieder said, adding that such a plan will be a central part of Bergen Kunsthall’s institutional strategy for the future.

Deise Faira Nunes. From ARISE’s takeover of OCA’s Instagram account. Photo: Deise Faira Nunes.

Wieder finds that the question of diversity within the kunsthall’s staff and board is crucial, not only in terms of representation and experiences, but also in securing dialogue with communities in the city and their participation in the kunsthall’s programme. “It’s an open process, and while I think it’s important to show ambitions, it will be even more important to present concrete actions,” he concluded.

Exclusionary activism?

Kristiansand Kunsthall posted the following statement of support to the BLM movement on Instagram on 5 June: “Kristiansand Kunsthall will stand up against racism. This is not only a problem in America, but also in Norway. No-one should have to stand alone in this fight.”

However, the kunsthall’s director, Cecilie Nissen, is among those who have been critical of the appeals made in the letter campaign. “We receive public support and also represent our members. It would be problematic for us to become political activists in the way they demand,” she said to Aftenposten in June.

When asked by Kunstkritikk whether receiving public support does not in fact oblige one to work against discrimination, to reach a wide audience and have a diverse programme, Nissen responded that the objective of Kristiansand Kunsthall is to make contemporary art visible to all and stimulate increased interest in such art among the widest possible audience, and that it also accommodates artists who work politically. However, she expressed concern that activism can prove exclusionary.

As an organisation, we are very much aware of the need to be inclusive, and we fully adhere to Norwegian laws on equality and discrimination. We strive for broad representation in our programme and organisation alike. You will find this if you investigate us in greater detail. Accordingly, we also take all signs of discrimination within our field seriously. Even so, we must be aware of our role in all this. Public support is often provided to ensure decent living conditions for niche, non-commercial culture. That is the core of our business. We must also consider the inherent paradox that when you set boundaries and include certain things, you simultaneously exclude something else. That can very quickly happen if you actively favour a particular group, scene, or other entity. Based on this, I believe that we as an organisation should not take on a politically activist role. But employees must, of course, be free to express themselves and engage freely in specific causes as private individuals.

Jelsen Lee Innocent. From ARISE’s takeover of OCA’s Instagram account. Photo: Takamasa Ota.

Racism in our context

The Astrup Fearnley Museum was among the institutions that took part in the #blackouttuesday initiative on social media in June.

“When I took up the position as director and chief curator on 20 May this year, I expressed a desire to lead a museum with an increased focus on diversity and inclusion in our work with exhibitions, the collection, staff and audience,” Solveig Øvstebø told Kunstkritikk.

My colleagues and I are now in the process of mapping where we are and where we want to be in relation to these issues. The first step is to actively assume responsibility for acquiring knowledge and facilitating discussions on this issue. During the autumn, we will also invite a range of different stakeholders to engage in conversations and share knowledge which will, among other things, form the basis for the preparation of concrete proposals and objectives on how we wish to work in the future. We want to prepare specific measures which will then be defined in the museum’s strategy plans.

Øvstebø, who arrived at the Astrup Fearnley Museum from a position as director of The Renaissance Society, a museum in Chicago, emphasised that initiatives and specific measures must be rooted in the institutions themselves and take their starting point in the context of which they are part. Although the fundamental issue of racism is global, she believes that we must be careful about simply adopting American terms and focus areas:

In the seven years I worked in the USA, this issue was extremely sensitive, and we considered such questions a natural part of our work. I believe that this is a responsibility we all share, no matter where on the planet we happen to be, but the questions are not necessarily exactly the same. Racism infiltrates different systems in different ways, and in order to fight it effectively, we must acquire knowledge about how it specifically operates in our context: in our everyday lives, in our working life, and in our society. This requires us to take the time to learn, to pick structures apart and rebuild them again.