Weak Response to Black Lives Matter in Sweden

In an open letter to Swedish art institutions, a group of anonymous artists and culture workers demand that issues of racism, discrimination and whiteness be seriously addressed.

A letter by an anonymous group of Swedish artists and culture workers demands that institutions sit with the problems raised by BLM.

“With this letter, we, artists and cultural workers in Sweden, demand that Swedish cultural institutions sit with the problems raised by BLM, listen to them and work to answer these pressing questions.” So wrote a group of artists and cultural workers in a letter that was sent to some two hundred private and publicly financed art institutions, galleries, artist-run spaces, organisations, art schools and arts publications in Sweden on 1 July.

The letter refers to two articles published in Kunstkritikk by researcher Temi Odumosu and curator Santiago Mostyn, and is presented as a “call to action” to “recognize and understand the actual lived realities of BIPoC [Black, Indigenous, People of Colour] in Sweden today.” The letter lists both more comprehensive issues, such as “How do you decenter whiteness and the Western canon in your organization, collections, and public programming?” and details more specific measures, such as developing anti-racist policies and reviewing the terms of employment for BIPoC people at Swedish art institutions. Kunstkritikk spoke to some institutions that received the letter, but thus far none have taken any particular action in response.

“I fully understand the anger and frustration of the BLM movement and it is shameful that the Swedish art world is as homogenous and exclusive as it is. I really hope that we will see real change in the future, and I will work to do everything we can to contribute,” wrote Stina Edblom, artistic director of Gothenburg Konsthall, in an email to Kunstkritikk. Of the other institutions that Kunstkritikk spoke to, few have publicly addressed the letter’s demands. Several mentioned that this is due to time shortage and staff having been off for the summer.  

Edblom mentioned the network Klister as a possible avenue for small and mid-sized Swedish institutions of contemporary art to collaborate and exchange experiences for implementing changes. She also described a number of measures that were put in place at her institution before 2020 with the aim of developing “the level of knowledge among staff at the konsthall and in the administration regarding issues of racism, representation, and its structures.”

Unlike similar calls to action, for example in Norway, the group behind the letter has chosen to remain anonymous in order to protect those who are already vulnerable. It answered questions via an anonymous email address and wrote to Kunstkritikk that because BIPoC artists and cultural workers have precarious working conditions, they can risk consequences if they speak out in public. That is also why the group chose to publish the English translation of the letter on the French website Documentations, which has anonymity as part of its publishing practice.

The group is critical of the fact that it has “been extremely quiet” thus far on the Swedish art scene when it comes to questions of discrimination, and referred, among other things, to the Piet Zwart Institute in Rotterdam, which shared a statement in solidarity with Black Lives Matter on its website, where more far-reaching commitments for the school were also presented. Nothing similar has happened in Sweden, the group emphasised.

The letter uses the term ‘race’, a word often considered debatable in a Swedish context. The group recognises the risks of using such terminology, as well as the difficulties of translating ideas about ‘whiteness’ from the US and the UK to the Nordic countries, which have a different history of colonisation and racism.

“Nevertheless, we believe that something can be learned from over thirty years of critical race theory and scholarly analysis of whiteness. For example, in a consensus-driven society such as Sweden, where neutrality and sameness are powerful disciplinary norms, appeals to universality and aesthetic judgment feel to us like willful attempts to uphold white privilege. Although we acknowledge the importance of critiquing whiteness norms for the general discourse in the region, we also recognize the urgent need to decenter whiteness in discussions on race. Workshops centering ‘white fragility’ – safe spaces for white folks to discuss race among themselves – are among the more dubious efforts we have seen recently,” the group told Kunstkritikk. 

The group said it wants to continue monitoring the Swedish art scene, and even contribute proposals for policy changes to counteract discrimination and exclusion from art institutions. “Starting from looking at larger institutions’ hiring policies, we can imagine future questions and future dialogues being held where the institutions’ own drive to move forward and change from within begins to bring forth fermentation and results, as they start to be held accountable by the public they serve. It is a long-term, discreet, and delicate work, one that is not expected to happen overnight or as direct gratification”, the group concluded.