Play of Pronouns

21.08.2016 / News

“Finland is a democratic country”.

This is how the sitting government of Finland sealed off questions around democracy in their governmental programme one year ago. For the first time in years the programme did not include a chapter on problems and aims of democracy, as the government felt the issue had been already dealt with. After a critical walloping and a year’s worth of consideration, the governmental programme was altered and a chapter discussing the aims of equality was added to it. The newly released democracy programme is concentrated on plans aiming to level gender differences at work, including, however, just the two sexes of a man and a woman.

When it comes to political hot potatoes, it is easy to perceive the art world as a disconnected entity. It is particularly easy to think that this field that accentuates freedom and often seizes questions of democracy would be a gender neutral continent. Unfortunately this idea is based on an ostensible democracy that is biting itself in the leg. Just like our government, we imagine the job is done and will not therefore work to change the problematic situation that is still holding up the age-old ascendancy of the white cis male artist. Last year Cupore published a research examining the gender segregation of the Finnish art field, again according to the binaristic logic (Roiha, Rautiainen, Rensujeff: Taiteilijan asema ja sukupuoli, 2015). The research shows that although the field is ruled by women in numbers, it is still otherwise ruled by men: despite the fact that female artists are now a majority, they receive less pay and smaller revenue from sales than male artists in all positions of the field.

Why is this? The research published by Cupore cannot answer this question because of a lack of clear parameters with which to measure the success of an artist and the reasons behind it. We can only speculate. My personal belief is that, often unintentionally and with no notice, we repeat the history and culture surrounding us which has for centuries placed men before women. We fulfil presumptions that exist so deep within our subconscious that we don’t realise we are touching them. As an example, let’s look at some terms: human, countrymen, female artist (or even: fe-male). When do we use the term “male artist”? Only when the sex assigned to the artist at birth has some relevance to the work he is producing. However, “female artist” can be used to refer to any person who is both a “female” and an “artist”, no matter what her work is addressing.

Not long ago choreographer Sonya Lindfors stated in Voima magazine that skin colour, gender and power structures would not be the topics of all her work if equality would not be a utopia. “A white man can make work about hipster beards, discuss the relationship to his father with the next one, move on to otherness and femininity and then again to trendy sneakers. Everything is a subject among others”, ponders Lindfors (Järvenpää, Voima 29/3/2016). For the time being, Lindfors herself is tied to topics related to otherness, but this is not solely a matter of choice. Funders interests play a huge role in determining the directions artists’ work take, and with Lindfors, they are mainly interested in roots and otherness.

By revealing the artist only after the exhibition Unknown Cargo sheds a light on our preconceptions about artists.

In their shows one can contemplate on whether her subconscious assigned the artist a gender or not, and if so, which one and why. How does the assumption of the artist’s gender affect the experience of the art work? I would like to answer this question that in my mind the gender of the artist is irrelevant information. However I cannot. I always want to know what is the female-male ratio of the exposure given to artists by a gallery or a museum (for example, in Kiasma for over a year now all solo exhibitions have been by male artists and there is no end in sight to this streak). I always celebrate when female artists are given awards, positions and grants, because it is the only way to change the norms. It annoys me that as some male artists have started using crafts –traditionally understood as “women’s work” and often ignored by the art world– in their practice, this has not validated the work of crafting women as “gallery worthy” but elevated the curiosity value of the male artists.

“Female artist” is a good term to use when you are searching online or in your mind for someone to hire or recommend to others. This is an efficient tool for reorganising an unintentionally discriminating subconscious. I recommend also to look for transgender and genderqueer artists, as long as gender neutral information search is but a dream.

Maybe one day we will witness Lindfors’s utopia becoming a reality, and it will be a norm to relate to art the way Unknown Cargo exhibits it: with no prejudice created by the artist’s persona, gender, nationality, family history, ethnicity, age, look and other factors. That day will be beautiful, and it is good to keep it on our minds, even if by some force.


Hanna Ohtonen
curator, writer


The democracy programme of the Finnish government, in Finnish:

Research published by Cupore, in Finnish:

Interview of Sonya Lindfors in Voima, in Finnish: