I don’t feel free there either.
Written by: Elham Rahmati
I left Iran to move to Italy in 2013 to pursue an MA in Visual arts. Like many other Iranian diaspora artists, I thought my mission was to take advantage of this newly found freedom to let the world know how bad we have it back home—because back then I was still naive enough to think the world cares about us. So the first time I had a meeting with my professor I took the chance to talk about the lack of freedom I had felt as a woman living in Iran and how I would have liked to reflect that in my artworks. After glancing through my portfolio and offering some critique, she looked at me and said: “but you know if you’ve come to Italy looking for freedom I have to say you’re in the wrong place, we’re not free here either.” I remember being so offended by this comment, how dare she put herself next to me, I felt she had belittled my grave struggle. What made me fail in understanding that statement came from the colonized mindset that had me internalize a mentality that believes the West to be oh so shiny and free and where I come from, well, where you are born to pay for your past lives’ sins.
It took me some time and a lot of rethinking and unlearning but eventually, I came to the understanding that Iranian women don’t need me to be their voice. Who am I to speak for them? I can speak for myself and about my personal experiences but the other 41 million have a voice of their own; they are more than capable of advocating for themselves and fighting on their own terms and on their own pace to change whatever conditions they need to change. It is not my place to use their struggle to promote myself in the European art world. At the time, that realization was truly liberating as it opened the door for me to explore other interests I had not yet given room to pursue in my work. The feeling of liberation, however, didn’t last long. I was being crushed at the critique sessions by the professors who were not interested in anything else I had to offer other than what I had initially promised which was to be the voice for Iranian women and to make works about how oppressed they are under the rule of the Islamic Republic. They always referred to Shirin Neshat as someone I should learn from, and that I did. I learned that I rather quit being an artist altogether than follow in the footsteps of someone who hasn’t so much as visited Iran for a day in the past 30 years but still feels she is entitled to represent its women and to profit from exotifying them. I learned that there is not so much space for me in Italy, as I was not going to be pursuing the kind of works they want me to make. I had no interest in being pushed in the box of the Iranian dissident diaspora artist. There are already way too many of those. I also didn’t have access to spaces that would be interested in anything else I had to offer. So I left to continue my studies in Finland.
ViCCA, My program at Aalto University, at the time, worked like a small sanctuary where I felt I could do anything I wanted and be any kind of artist I wanted. And to create that atmosphere in an institution such as Aalto University is something I found so admirable. That period, as sweet as it was, also had to end. I was determined to enter the Helsinki art scene and to try my chances at finding a career in the field I had been educated in for years. Soon I realized that is not exactly easy. The chances of me getting hired in the art institutions are close to zero as for starters, I don’t speak Finnish and Swedish and being fluent in both languages is something I see listed as a requirement in every job posting. To get to that level of proficiency one would need years of studying and practice. How can I dedicate that time and resources to learning languages when I have to constantly worry about extending my residence permit. An extension that is not granted without having a job. It’s a catch 22 situation. So what happens to all the talented and capable non-Finnish people who get educated in Finnish institutions of higher education? Many leave Finland, either out of choice or obligation; many others find temporary, often low paying and physically demanding jobs in the hospitality sector, and then try at the same time to pursue their art and keep trying their chances for a grant, the combination too often results in massive anxieties and burning out. That is to my observation at least.
But is the language the only thing keeping us out of the Finnish art institutions or does white supremacy also play a crucial part?
In a strategy written by Kiasma for the Arts for Equ(al)ity initiative, they mention the lack of diversity in their staff as one of their challenges and this what they have listed as a reason:
“The number of educated people with an immigrant background who seek entry into this field remains quite small. We create preconditions and work to lower the threshold for people to seek entry into the field through internships and various projects (e.g., internship opportunities at different stages of study, working as guides, working in workshops, Art Testers initiative [Taidetestaajat]).”
I loathe the condescension that wreaks from these sentences. There are many educated people with an immigrant background who seek entry into this field and I’m sure they are aware of this. But it is just easier to ignore all these people, take a top-down approach and cheer your own benevolence for letting us work as your guides and interns. I’m actually pretty certain even that doesn’t happen often. In a perfect world, Kiasma would be shamed every day for having the sheer audacity of putting this kind of language out but well, let’s not say anything because they have made an effort to, at the very least, acknowledge their shortcoming in diverse recruiting and if we say anything they might crawl back into their shell. I’m mentioning Kiasma here, but this is the problem of every single major art institution here in Helsinki. They don’t hold back from jumping on the bandwagons of anti-racist movements like Black Lives Matter, they will post their “Finland in solidarity with Black Lives Matter” posters on their social media and they might even post something saying how they are taking time to reflect on their lack of diversity but they never do that. They wouldn’t know where to begin. You have heard these complaints for years. If it takes a revolution in the US to hold your attention and get you to change then we have a major problem.
Anyway, where was I? Yes, finding ways to survive as a BIPOC art worker in Finland. How can you get people interested to listen to you, to take you seriously and give you the work opportunities you need in order to make a living? Let’s take a look at the Helsinki art scene. How many BIPOC are working in it? Quite a few. How many of them are working or have worked at some point in advocacy related fields? Almost all. How many of them went to study art with the hope to later use it specifically to fight racism and inequality? Maybe some but definitely not all. Why do they have to make careers out of advocating for equality? Because they are trapped in a deeply broken and inherently racist system that is far from truly caring for poc and what they have to say. Unless what they have to say has something to do with fighting racism and inequality. Because well someone needs to fight these exhausting battles for Finland to keep up that progressive image of solidarity.
What I’m writing here is not another outcry for diversity. Angela Davis says it so beautifully: “I have a hard time accepting diversity as a synonym for justice. Diversity is a corporate strategy. It’s a strategy designed to ensure that the institution functions in the same way that it functioned before, except now that you now have some black faces and brown faces. It’s a difference that doesn’t make a difference,” If an institution is rooted in white supremacy, it doesn’t matter how many black and brown people it hires. Those faces become the poster children who perpetuate the subjugation of their fellow people. So it doesn’t matter how many black and brown people you hire. We want to know what actual work you are ready to do to get rid of the white supremacy that is deeply embedded in your institutions. In Danielle Slaughter’s words: “White supremacy cannot survive without gatekeepers. So are you looking to hire gatekeepers? Or are you ready to hire dismantlers?”
I want to stress that I find the work that the BIPOC do in Finland to promote equality admirable. However, I want to add that this burden should not fall solely on their shoulders. They should not be kept from the pursuit of other things important and interesting to them in order to constantly fight a battle. A battle which eventually cannot be overcome without the active participation of white people themselves as they need to see it as a problem of their own, instead of a problem they are in solidarity with.
A few weeks ago, I had a conversation with a few artist friends back in Tehran. They were complaining about their lack of freedom. I told them: “ Well, I live in Finland and I don’t feel free there either.” They got a bit mad at me. They thought I’m belittling their grave struggle. I can assure you, I was not.
 KIASMA Museum of Contemporary Art. (2018, May 04), from http://www.artforequality.fi/institutions/kiasma-museum-of-contemporary-art/
 Eckert, M. (2015, February 24). Civil rights leader Angela Davis speaks at Bovard, from https://dailytrojan.com/2015/02/23/civil-rights-leader-angela-davis-speaks-at-bovard/
 Slaughter, D. (2020, June 04). White supremacy cannot survive without gatekeepers…from https://twitter.com/Mamademics/status/1268668945097261058