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: