Miracle of Land and Water: an interview with the Miracle Workers Collective

The Miracle Workers Collective’s exhibition A Greater Miracle of Perception is presented in the Finnish Pavilion at the 58th Venice Biennale, opening in May. Carmen Baltzar met the collective to talk about how the collective was formed, and the concept of representing Finland.

The eclectic group of artists and curators that make up the Miracle Workers Collective (MWC) will represent Finland in the 2019 Venice Biennale. It is only that many of them seem uneasy with the concept of representing Finland. Or any nation-state, for that matter. And it is for this reason that the Alvar Aalto Pavilion, which has gone by its Italian name ”Finlandia” since its conception in 1956, has been stripped of excess letters and will simply go by the name ”Land” in the 58th year of the exhibition.

It all started with a phone call between curator Bonaventure Soh Bejeng Ndikung, founder and artistic director of the SAVVY contemporary art space and platform in Berlin, and his colleague Christopher Wessels, co-founder and artistic director of the Museum of Impossible Forms cultural centre in Helsinki. During this phone call, the pair decided to put together a proposal for the Pavilion. Once, after getting on to the second round, they invited curator Giovanna Esposito Yussif, co-founder of NÆS – Nomad Agency/Archive of Emergent Studies, to join in, the curatorial team was fully formed.

“We were interested in miracles form the start, in thinking about the concept of miracle from a plural position.” says Esposito Yussif, as we sit across each other in a not-so-quiet tea room in central Helsinki. When I ask her what she means by a miracle, she hesitates. For the third time within our short encounter, she tells me she is conscious of the subjectivity of her own views and unwilling to represent the whole collective. “But to me, it’s something that challenges us into thinking beyond our constructs.”

 

In this sense, the group of ten artists invited along are all miracle workers. “Most of them have an actively political practice, they have been turning things we are used to seeing as impossible into possible.” The statement is hard to dispute. Choreographer and artistic director Sonya Lindfors’ trilogy of performances around blackness has recently culminated in the afrofuturistic Cosmic Latte (2018), that rattles conventions of the white stage.

In Sparrooabbán (Me and My Little Sister, 2016), the Sámi documentary filmmaker Suvi West challenges the religion-based homophobia imported into her indigenous community by telling the story of her sister, who is in a relationship with another woman. Visual artist Leena Pukki’s murals flip the script on societal power dynamics and human-animal interrelations with names such as Dogs have eaten their owners and will gather in central park (2018). Berlin-based Lorenzo Sandoval’s artistic and curatorial research focuses on the endotic, or the mundane, the opposite of exotic, which has historically been the obsession of Western art. Cinematographer Christopher L. Thomas makes short films around the migrant experience to challenge the ways we are used to seeing and being seen.

Once the collective was fully formed, they made a field trip to see the Pavilion. “Our first thought was literally that we cannot fit inside that space.” says Esposito Yussif. She is not referring to physical size. Rather, the boundary-pushing, across-borders approach of the collective is not well aligned with “a space that is constructed under a national image” as Esposito Yussif calls it.

“My starting point was to try to think of something that breaks itself free from the restricts of the Pavilion’s borders” says Sámi artist Outi Pieski on the phone the day after has pulled an all-nighter to package and ship the pieces of her installation to Venice. Pieski is a prominent indigenous visual artist and recipient of the Fine Arts Academy of Finland Prize, known for the way she incorporates traditional Sámi handcraft, duodji, into her installations and paintings. While the rest of the group is producing a series of short films, Pieski is making a site-specific installation that is continuation for her previous collaborative projects.

In Rájácummá (Kiss from the Border, 2017-2018, Pieski and artists-activists Jenni Laiti and Niillas Holmberg surrounded the Deatnu River valley with poetry to highlight the importance of sustainable co-existence over national borders. “Sápmi is a borderless area that extends into four different national territories, and nomadic Sámi have been roaming this area freely before the frontiers emerged.” According to Pieski, existence in Sápmi should be based on soabalaš eallin instead of borders. The concept refers to a type of harmonious coexistence, where the diversity of people and nature is protected.

 

Pieski’s piece in the Biennale will feature traditional Sámi objects that have fallen out of use. “Forgetting these items is linked to lifestyle changes brought about by colonialism and the current inequality between humans and the environment”. Pieski has previously revitalised the use of Sámi women’s horn hats together with archaeologist Eeva-Kristiina Harlin in the Máttaráhku ládjogahpir (Foremother´s Horn Hat, 2018), and will be bringing some to the exhibition, too. Traditional Sámi walking sticks will form a path crossing not only the Pavilion called Land, but the whole exhibition space all the way out of the doors. “I want to draw attention to the right of Sápmi to self-determine its own borders. The walking sticks are also an homage to our ancestors, all those who walked before us and paved the way.” Inside the Pavilion, the path turns upside down. “For self-determination to happen, we need to be able shift our perception and imagine that miracle of change”.

While Pieski’s concept revolves mostly around land, most of the short films, which Esposito Yussif calls “visual poems, short stories, annotations and essay films”, feature the element of water in some shape or form. In a collaborative piece between renowned writer, political commentator and feminist Maryan Abdulkarim and the stereotype-busting film director Khadar Ahmed, that form would be ice. Esposito Yussif shows me pictures of their shoot on her phone. In front of the cameras, there is an elder woman in a yellow veil, one hand inside a box of sand, looking out the window into an icy exterior. It looks beautiful and also quite sad.

I reach Abdulkarim by phone as she waits for takeaway food to take home to her family. ”Me and Khadar had been speaking about stories, the way you don’t have that many of them when you are young, and as you get older and have a family to take care of don’t really have the time to tell them”. Therefore, in the Somali tradition, it is the elder women who are often the storytellers, women such as the one we see in her and Ahmed’s film. ”With stories, elder women link generations and even continents.”

 

It is the storytelling of foremothers that has enabled Abdulkarim, a Somalia-born Finnish woman, to stay in touch with her ancestral wisdom across continents. She goes on to tell me about the feminist ruler Arawelo, who will feature in a publication the collective is working on.The favourite Queen of Somali folklore is known for defying gender norms. ”Even though Arawelo lived such a long time ago, I am connected to her through these stories I have heard ever since I was little.” To Abdulkarim, this continuity has an element of wonder. ”The fact that stories survive despite of colonisers, migration and eco-disasters is in itself a miracle.” 

Another working pair of the group, multidisciplinary artist Martta Tuomaala, and author-filmmaker Hassan Blasim, have also been exchanging stories. “There was this one night when me and Hassan were talking about different jobs we have had. I have worked as a cleaner and factory worker, and a lot of other low-wage jobs and Hassan also had some pretty crazy experiences” says Tuomaala.

Capitalism and the culture of work are overarching themes in Tuomaala’s work. In her video FinnCycling-Soumi-Perkele! she takes the viewer on a ride through Finnish austerity politics as the relentlessly panting instructor of an indoor cycling class. Like Tuomaala, Blasim is no stranger to the darker side of humour, with story collections such as the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize winning Iraqi Christ that revolves around war and migration.

”There is this prevalent sentiment that hard work equals success” Tuomaala continues. She maintains that it’s actually a question of luck, a sum of opportunities you have been given in life. ”In that sense, success is a kind miracle of chance.” How will this miracle of chance translate into moving image, then? Tuomaala lets out a deep sigh. She tells me I have managed to call her at the darkest hour of the creative process, when all the pieces are still scattered around the editing board. However, there may well be a relentlessly panting water aerobics instructor involved.

 

When schedules allow, the collective gets together in person. When not, the WhatsApp group is busy and Skype sessions are frequent. They try to allow different levels of engagement and different ways of thinking, and it follows that conflicts are unavoidable. But to Pieski, diversity is the most fruitful aspect of working collectively. “There are so many parallel realities, and I find the process of trying to find common ground extremely interesting. Our struggles are not separate, they are shared.”

The artists I have spoken to seem to share the sentiment, but I have only spoken to a fraction of the whole. Esposito Yussif reminds me of this as we take our last sips of lukewarm tea before she heads back to work. ”The only way for you to find out what this collective is about is to talk to everyone who in it.” I suggest it might be even more interesting to get to know their work. For the full story, visit Land.

 

Text by Carmen Balzar

Images by Ugo Carmeni. Walking stick on the last image by Sámi artisan Nils-Johan Labba.