The Blind Spot of Swedish Art World Exceptionalism

A small and comfortable cultural elite, convinced of their own progressive values, retains authorship over Sweden’s consensus-driven identity.

The Moderna Exhibition 2018. Installation view with works by Ingela Ihrman (center) and Eric Magassa (on the wall). Photo: Åsa Lundén/Moderna Museet.
This text is the basis for a lecture titled Notes on Influence held by Santiago Mostyn at Iaspis and Moderna Museet’s collaborative event at Studio Giardini in Venice on 9 May.  

As an active participant in the Swedish art scene, I work from a place of privilege, but also within a void. ‘Culture’ is still accorded an intrinsic value in civic life here, a positive legacy of the welfare state ideal, and it means that I occasionally get my bills paid just for doing what I do. The concession is having to operate within what sometimes feels like an echo chamber of a bygone age, constantly needing to explain my background or clarify my role, and being forced to push forward through a society with a relatively comfortable self-regard.

In 2018, I was invited to co-curate the Moderna Exhibition, Moderna Museet’s quadrennial survey of contemporary art in Sweden, and it felt like a rare platform for someone like myself: an émigré, a first-time curator, and an artist with just a few years of local visibility. It was a platform that came, as I saw it, with a great deal of responsibility to present an exhibition context that spoke to the realities of a society in flux, and to art’s ability to engage with these realities on its own terms.

And while the exhibition was widely celebrated as having “a combative spirit”[i] or being “existentially affecting, even sensual and poetic,”[ii] it was also criticised for apparently hewing too closely to the new norms of contemporary art – meaning, in this case, that decolonial or norm-critical perspectives informed the exhibition outcome. It’s an odd critique, but it highlighted the need to clarify certain positions both within and in response to the project, and to situate these responses in a broader cultural and historical context, one that acknowledges the blind spot of Swedish exceptionalism.

One reaction in particular was instructive. A critic writing in the evening newspaper Expressenresponded badly to a group of large-scale paintings by Anders Sunna, a Sámi artist and activist whose aggressive canvases detail his family’s decades-long struggle with bias in the local courts and racist attacks on their persons and property. In many of Sunna’s paintings, members of the local County Administration (Länsstyrelsen) are pictured lording over miniature reindeer enclosures, their brown coats and red armbands a clear reference to Nazi officers’ uniforms.

“Reindeer husbandry law and indigenous peoples’ rights are complicated,” wrote the critic, Nils Forsberg, “and the Sámi have not always been treated well, but to compare the actions of the Swedish state with the architects of the Holocaust is beyond the pale.”[iii]

For Forsberg, and others, here is a quick history lesson:

The world’s first state institute for race biology was founded in Uppsala in 1922, by the Swedish physician Herman Lundborg. Race biology was a relatively new, mostly privately funded field in which the ideology of racial superiority was upheld by pseudo-scientific research, giving legitimacy to policies enacted to eradicate less desirable genetic traits, or to exploit the land and resources of supposedly inferior ethnic groups.

Early in his career, Lundborg kept up a dialogue with members of the German racial hygiene movement, and the Swedish professor’s experiments amongst the ‘Lapplanders’ of the North lent respectability to Nazi race politics at a time when it was still a fringe movement. No less than Hans F.K. Günther, the so-called ‘Race Pope’ of the Nazi regime, spent his formative years in Uppsala, fine-tuning his influential and widely published Racial Science of the German People. Günther’s research would eventually become the blueprint for the eugenics policies of the Third Reich, with these fringe ideas (literally the architecture of the Holocaust) taking centre stage to horrifying effect.[iv]

It takes no great effort, then, to trace a line of influence between the Swedish Race Biology Institute and the German racial hygiene movement. But while the German implementation ended abruptly in 1945, the Swedish Institute was active until 1958, with forced sterilisation of people with mental illness, or those simply judged to be ‘antisocial’, continuing through the mid-1970s.[v]

The less obvious outcome of this union is how the ideology of exceptionalism, distilled by the work of the Race Biology Institute, was allowed to soak into the fabric of neutral, postwar Swedish society. While Germany was forced into a collective self-examination in the generations following the war, Sweden began building its international reputation as a leading Western supporter of anti-colonial and anti-apartheid movements.

“In the process,” writes cultural theorist Tobias Hübinette, “the world’s most radical proponent of social justice and gender equality transformed racism into a non-Swedish issue… Sweden imagined itself as a non-racist and post-racial utopia with no colonial past.”[vi]

So, the existence of administrative racial bias – typified by the policies enacted against the Sunna family, but also evident in the more recent ‘ethnic register’ of Roma people by the Malmö Police – is not an anomaly, it represents a continuity of form. And this bias is as emblematic a Swedish trait as its denial.

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The negative feedback to the Moderna Exhibition – and other recent exhibitions that have gone against the actual norms of contemporary Western exhibition practice – has come almost exclusively, in Sweden at least, from critics who are white, male, and middle-aged. It’s a fact I would prefer not to point out, because I believe in softer outlines than those terms allow, but a pattern keeps appearing in the opinions of these men that makes it difficult to avoid.

“We understand quickly that colonialism and consumerism are bad,” complains one reviewer on Swedish Radio, “that we should feel bad for refugees, and that our hopes lie with children, women and nature.”[vii]

He suggests that “there has been a yearning [on the part of the curators] to bring in as many artists as possible with a multicultural background”[viii] – truly a lazy assessment, given that one of our goals as curators was to discover the widest possible range of practices without judging artists on their locality or visibility in the established art scene. When pressed on whether he liked anything in the exhibition, the reviewer begins by highlighting the work of a white, male painter. 

One could claim that this is simply a question of taste, but what does a subjective opinion actually consist of in this context? I would argue that it is part of a cycle, both within the art world and in Western society at large, that in subtle ways keeps giving preferential treatment to white men. When an art critic can only see a ‘multicultural agenda’ in the fact that artists of colour, or simply artists with non-Swedish sounding names, are active in Sweden, it says more about his own blindness to a cultural reality than anything else.

The paradox of Swedish society is that it maintains a “strongly enforced sense of homogeneity” (a legacy of its twentieth-century social welfare system) while at the same time being home to a diverse range of people and cultures.[ix] But there has been no real incorporation of this diversity into the collective self-image. Sweden has had no civil rights movement, and no public reckoning with the social genocide committed against its Indigenous Peoples. Meanwhile, a small and comfortable fraternity of the cultural elite, convinced of their own progressive values, retains authorship over the country’s consensus-driven identity.

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Another recent source of indignation for this group has been the 10th Berlin Biennial, helmed by the South African curator Gabi Ngcobo, and featuring a broad representation of artists of African heritage – presented, importantly, without the words ‘black’ or ‘African’ featuring in any introductory texts.

“Where are the sharp edges, the experimental projects, the provocative outcomes?” asks one critic in Dagens Nyheter, apparently lost without the self-reflexive tropes and ironies of more familiar Western methodology.[x]

“For those of us who, not even for a second, feel any connection to Cecil Rhodes or the Belgian Congo, it’s a wonderful feeling to take the step and refuse,” says Nils Forsberg in Expressen again, rejecting any need to associate with the colonial legacies being examined in the Berlin Biennial.[xi]

The question here is how a cultural critic can summon no empathy towards the violent legacies of colonialism, when his very identity as a modern Swede is built on the ashes of that history? Not only did Swedish racial experiments on the Sámi directly inform the eugenics policies of the Third Reich, the Swedish iron industry was Baroque Europe’s leading exporter of ‘voyage iron’, the raw material most commonly traded for slaves on the West African coast, even providing the shackles that bound African slaves destined for the new world.[xii]

With perfect historical symmetry – and a similar remove from direct accountability – Sweden’s present-day arms industry relies on the same high quality iron ore mined in the Arctic regions, and is one of the highest per capita exporters of weapons in the world, including to regimes accused of human rights abuses.[xiii]

But this same critic swells with pride at the opening of the newly renovated National Museum in Stockholm, claiming it can now match top museums in Munich and Berlin, and glowing in the “organization and hard work” that, to him, really “says something about Sweden.”[xiv]

My critique here doesn’t hinge on the judgements these men make about quality of artworks or curatorial frameworks, but on whose voice has the right to mediate the reception of artistic expression in the public sphere. Because these voices are not neutral. The symmetry of these opinions is not accidental, but rather the expression of a deeply engrained sense of Swedish exceptionalism. And this pride in a fixed sense of national identity contains an inherent, and inherently violent, bias.

During the research phase for the Moderna Exhibition, I was asked to speak on a panel about artistic practice and national identity with Dennis Dahlqvist, an art critic for Swedish Television, and Corina Oprea, a curator and former director of Konsthall C in Stockholm. I had worked previously with Oprea, but Dahlqvist I knew only by name, and sensed that his presence on the panel might have been designed to stimulate a more animated discussion between us.

When I sat down with Dahlqvist and Oprea backstage, I found them in a tense conversation about nationalism in Hungary (Dahlqvist rationalising it, Oprea finding his defence of it inappropriate), with both becoming increasingly agitated as the conversation went on. With my help, the subject eventually shifted to art practice and the work of Britta Marakatt-Labba, a Swedish Sámi artist whose work was a personal highlight of documenta 14. Dahlqvist suddenly exploded:

“She’s just a fucking handicraft artist, working with embroidery!” he shouted. Dahlqvist, indignant, began explaining that embroidery was not part of Marakatt-Labba’s Sámi culture, that she had, in fact, stolen her handicraft techniques from the Swedes. He started looking on his phone for images. “This is real art!” he said, once he found what he was looking for, and waved his phone in my face. I recognised sculptures by the Sámi artist and educator Iver Jåks, but quickly understood that this comparison had nothing to do with the artwork, and everything to do with Dahlqvist’s apparent disdain for the prominence of someone he judged to be a simple craftswoman.

It is interesting, though, to contextualise the reception of Marakatt-Labba’s practice in the Stockholm scene with that of, say, Linnea Sjöberg, a younger Swedish artist who produces woven tapestries. Both make strong work that comes out of lived experience. But while Marakatt-Labba is arguably one of the most internationally successful artists from Sweden of the current moment, her presence in Stockholm continues to be limited. (The Moderna Exhibition was, in fact, the first time her work has been shown in that museum.) Sjöberg, on the other hand, has been fêted in Stockholm with stipends from wealthy patrons, commercial gallery representation, and intimate television profiles.

Could this rage expressed by Dahlqvist towards the ‘thieving’ Sámi textile artist indicate a broader historical disdain, and therefore explain Marakatt-Labba’s lack of presence in the capital? However absurd, it somehow doesn’t feel unlikely. I happened, some weeks ago, to be browsing a Stockholm auction site for home furnishings and clicked, out of curiosity, on the Ethnography section. And there at the top of the page, next to the fertility dolls from Cameroon and a Dogon stool from Mali, was an embroidery by Britta Marakatt-Labba, consigned the cultural value of a trinket.

Dahlqvist never joined us on stage that day. He said his piece, and then disappeared without a word to the organisers of the event. Oprea and I managed the panel discussion without him, but I was aggrieved that this recognised cultural critic could walk away from his comments without consequence, and without knowing what he represents. These men will keep going to work every week, keep reviewing exhibitions and cultural events, and keep assuming that their opinions are those of a culturally-sensitive intellectual, when in fact their opinions constitute one of the most insidious forms of resistance to social progress that we face.

Nationalism comes out of the idea that culture has a “geographic imperative” – that all the habits, beliefs, and rituals of a particular place are so familiar to the people who live there that they should not need explaining. In other words, territory and identity are assumed as one. But, when a plurality of cultures and gender identities exists within a single territory, as is increasingly the case in Sweden and around the world, those original rituals and habits become an expression of power, even if that power is often invisible to those who enact it.[xv]

I would argue that, in Sweden at least, what is actually being expressed by this fraternity of the cultural elite is a fear of their eroding authority in the face of a social landscape in flux. It is a fear that gets dressed up as derision, with ‘norm critique’ and ‘decolonial thinking’ the main targets of their ire. Their pride in a certain image of themselves and their country is a less obvious form of nationalism, but a form that is perhaps more dangerous for being so unseen – a colourless nerve agent for the status quo. 

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[i] Lars Bang Larsen, in a personal email.
[ii] www.svd.se/ny-konst-far-blomma-ut-pa-modernautstallningen
[iii] www.expressen.se/kultur/samtidskonstens-normer-star-i-vagen-/
[iv] Maja Hagerman’s recent biography of Herman Lundborgdraws the connection between Uppsala and the Nazi race hygienists in detail: “Methods and aids, developed by Lundborg in connection with his major race investigations of the 1920s, were to be re-used in the Nazis’ genocide politics of the 1940s. When peoples were being driven from their lands on the Eastern Front… the race experts of the SS Race and Settlement Office used investigation form cards modelled on Lundborg’s. Even the race theory implemented by the SS as they drove people from their land was in some decisive detail based on Swedish racial biology.”Maja Hagerman, Käraste Herman (Stockholm: Norstedts, 2016)
[v] www.washingtonpost.com/archive/politics/1997/08/29/sweden-sterilized-thousands-of-useless-citizens-for-decades/3b9abaac-c2a6-4be9-9b77-a147f5dc841b/?utm_term=.e3b378f8d356
[vi] www.eurozine.com/white-melancholia/
[vii]  sverigesradio.se/sida/artikel.aspx?programid=478&artikel=7071207
[viii]  sverigesradio.se/sida/artikel.aspx?programid=478&artikel=7073941
[ix] Nathan Hamelberg, “#Tintingate (in Sweden)” interview by Johan Palme, Africa is a Country, October 15, 2012, https://africasacountry.com/2012/10/tintingate-in-sweden
[x] www.dn.se/kultur-noje/konstrecensioner/konstrecension-berlinbiennal-utan-det-vanliga-vita-bruset/
[xi] www.expressen.se/kultur/samvetskommissarierna-har-kidnappat-konsten/
[xii] “A reliance on Swedish iron was to be a feature of the British slave trade until its legal extinction in 1807.” Chris Evans and Göran Rydén, “’Voyage Iron’: An Atlantic Slave Trade Currency, Its European Origins, and West African Impact,” Past & Present  239, no.1 (May, 2018): 52
[xiii] www.pri.org/stories/2014-05-23/peace-loving-sweden-and-switzerland-are-among-top-arms-exporters-capita-world
[xiv] www.expressen.se/kultur/nya-nationalmuseum-ar-battre-an-nagonsin/
[xv]  This concept is paraphrased from Richard Sennett’s The Foreigner: Two Essays on Exile, (London: Notting Hill, 2011)

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