Through Rupture and Belonging: Interview with Nermine El Ansari

Through Rupture and Belonging: Interview with Nermine El Ansari

Through Rupture and Belonging: Interview with Nermine El Ansari

The body carries memories; we remember things that seem unconnected but are associated through the reminiscence of something distantly familiar. Social geography, collective, and personal memory are the keywords to approaching Nermine El Ansari’s art practice. She explores how we connect to places through the memories we carry within our bodies (or mental spaces) through drawing, print, video art, installations, and performances.

El Ansari (b. 1975) is a French-born Egyptian visual artist who has lived and worked in Reykjavík, Iceland, for eight years. During that time, she has become an integral part of the community of artists working and living in Iceland by being a board member of the Living Art Museum, participating in Komd’inn, a public programming initiative at Gerðarsafn, Kópavogur and teaching at the LungA Art School, Myndlistarskólinn. Currently, she is doing a residency at Skaftfell Art Center, Seyðisfjörður, where she will focus on the idea of displacement.

I spoke to Nermine El Ansari about her current residency, practice, recent works, engagement with cultural institutions, and public programming.

I want to start by discussing your intentions, hopes, and dreams during the Skaftfell residency. What are you planning on working on?

My project explores ways to give new forms of visual expression to ideas of displacement and exile, to seek a deeper understanding of isolation and the eternal search for a place to truly belong. The project is inspired by my personal experiences going through multiple relocations since childhood. Inspiration is also drawn from those asylum seekers who sought refuge in Iceland, whose stories I have been able to bear witness to since 2015 as an interpreter (from Arabic, Spanish to English) at the LGBTQ organisation in Reykjavik and the government immigration office. The asylum seekers’ stories echo through my work: the intense rupture brought about by separating from one’s homeland and the memories—set against a new, unfamiliar land. In creating an imaginary scenery crossing geographical and emotional borders, I aim to cultivate understanding and empathy, reminding us that belonging is a shared human quest. The project will be undertaken in a six-week residency at Skaftfell Art Center in Seyðisfjörður from October 15-November 30 and culminate in an exhibition in the Skaftfell Gallery.

In your work, you often deal with topics of memory. Why did you start being interested in memory? Has it always been the concept you work on within your visual art?

To answer this question, I have to be personal, go back to memory, and analyse my situation. At one point in my career, I shifted my focus from working with the body and its distorted human and animal forms to social geography and memory. I grew up in a multicultural environment between Paris, where I was born, and Cairo, where my parents are from. I constantly travelled between these two cities from a very young age. At 19, after completing my first year at the Fine Arts School of Cairo, I left to study art in Paris, where I stayed for eight years.

During this period, I started using the body as the main subject in my work. My interest in body arose during the live model and morphology classes we had in the fine arts in France. Coming from Fine Arts of Cairo, a very conservative school in which the models we drew were fully covered, I found myself in a classroom with many different nude models changing position every few minutes for three hours. The change in methods was already fascinating, a radical change.

Arab culture is very bashful about the female and male body, to the point where the body becomes this invisible presence that wanders from place to place. I grew up in two very different cultures (Egyptian and French) in their tradition, religion, and beliefs, where the thoughts and forms of education are sometimes almost in total opposition. As a child, I had to combine them and adapt to my environment. I call this phenomenon the journey of the distorted body. In this case, examining the human form was an integral part of the concept of identity that I circumvented by studies of the body in its most human state up to the bestiary.

On my return to Cairo in 2002, much geopolitical upheaval took place in the Middle East following the attacks of September 11 (the collapse of the World Trade Center). When the 2003 invasion of Iraq turned into the Iraq war for almost a decade and ‘the Arab spring’, a series of revolutions spread across much of the Arab countries, including Egypt, back in Cairo felt like being in an explosive city (region) with the very bad and very good all together maybe like the weather in Iceland when it gets extreme with the storm hail snow rain. You can hardly walk in the street, and your face hurts because of the hail mixed with the storm that whips the skin of your face. It’s the intense moment where all kinds of emotions come between love and hate. The environment or social geography slowly replaced the human and bestial physicality as an object of study for identity.

Memory is an imprint of something that no longer exists in its physical form but remains in people’s minds and is inherited from person to person, making it last over time, from past to present to future. I’m intrigued by its time duration and ability to shape the future of spaces, locations, regions, and individuals.

In your most recent work, Fleeting Remembrance, Erroneous Image (2020), memory plays an integral role. Can you tell me more about how that work came to be?

Fleeting Remembrance, Erroneous Image, is a performance that results from a long work process. The starting point was while I lived in Cairo during a curfew period set up by the army following the Rabaa massacre in August 2013. I started making a series of drawings in which I had to remember a specific childhood memory before age ten and try to redraw it as I saw it in my mind.

In 2014, I applied to an art residency in Iceland (SIM) to meet other artists in different contexts and to ask them to do the same exercise. It was an excellent introduction to Icelandic culture because you go directly deep into culture when you speak with people about their childhood memories.

Later, I asked many artists from Egypt and other countries to do the same and to meet to discuss the images we made, not to mention the memories. As we discussed the images, I was taking notes on what we were saying about each. Afterwards, I wrote a short text for each image inspired by our discussions. Then, I concentrated again on the series I made on A4 paper and decided to redraw them on much larger formats. During this process, I no longer thought of the memory but only of reproducing the small drawing on a larger scale. As a result, some of these drawings have been reproduced three or four times and have yet to be identical. Lastly, I created a narration between these drawings and images found on Google by associating them. This work was first presented as a solo exhibition at SIM Gallery in 2018 under the title Memory Spring, co-curated by Erin Honeycutt.

In 2020, I was commissioned to present a performance at the Mucem, Museum of European and Mediterranean Civilisations auditorium in Marseille (France). I transformed this work into a visual and auditory performance. I collaborated with Adam Switala, musician, composer, and researcher, and Piotr Pawlus, filmmaker and photographer. I first collected the drawings depicting memories, then the photos and documents from Google. I created new associations of images for storytelling that were aimed to be projected on two screens of different formats. Then, I reworked the texts for the auditory, sound, and performance parts. Unfortunately, this work was only broadcast via video streaming due to the lockdown restrictions (COVID period), which resumed during the last week of rehearsal at the museum auditorium. The audience consisted only of people working in the museum.

I would love to show it here in Iceland and have the artists who collaborated be a part of the performance; that would be a big dream. It would be performed in English, but it may also be nice to have Arabic and Icelandic since I worked with Icelandic and Egyptian artists and played with the languages.

The concept of identity is powerful within this work and is a theme that runs through most of my work. I like to question the idea of individual and national identities, for example, why there are so many physical and cultural borders between people and countries. When you return to the origin of childhood memories, you realise how many similarities we have.

Identity also played a significant role in your event with Komd’inn where you interviewed and interpreted Sara Mia about her experience of moving to Iceland.

When Helena, one of the programmers of Komd’inn, told me about Habibi Collective, a collection of movies from the Middle East collected by Róisín Tapponi, which were mainly made by women, I got very interested. Tapponi is a young Iraqi-Irish researcher living in London, we thought it would be exciting to show a movie from Habibi Collective in Gerðarsafn and organise an event.

Spontaneously, I thought of selecting a movie about transgender in the Middle East, and I thought about a very good friend of mine, Sara Mia, who is the first transgender person from the Middle East who has been received by Iceland. She didn’t come as a refugee. We met in Iceland when I arrived in 2015. She is the first foreigner transgender person in Iceland to go through the process of changing her gender and national identity, and she gained Icelandic citizenship after three years. Changing gender identity was also new in Iceland for Icelanders in 2014; the laws were finalised in 2019.

I work as an interpreter for Samtökin 78, one of my first jobs in Iceland, incidentally. I have worked there since 2015, mainly interpreting for Arab queer people seeking asylum in Iceland. I first worked with Sara, who arrived in Iceland in 2014. When Samtökin 78 reached out to me, I had only been in Iceland for a few months when they asked me whether I was willing to be an interpreter for her with a social worker.

Before the meeting with the social worker and Sara, I was taking Icelandic courses at the Tincan Factory school, and in the class, I found myself with Sara, but we didn’t know each other. Slowly, during the break, we started to find out that I would be her interpreter. The first time we met was a very special and serendipitous moment. In the coming months, we met a lot in Samtökin, doing many sessions, which was a deep and serious period, working with her and the social worker while she was in the process of changing her gender and identity, applying for Icelandic citizenship. We became close friends throughout the process, which was an intense experience. It wasn’t the first time I got to know someone who was transgender, but it was the first time that I got to hear and learn about the experience in such a profound way.

When Habibi Collective suggested that we would show a 90s documentary Cinema Fouad from Mohamed Soueid, about a transgender person living in Lebanon, it matched so well to have a conversation with Sara. She is very involved in the queer community, and she directly made the connection with Lebanon because she goes back there a lot and speaks openly about it. However, Sara is very far from the art scene and didn’t immediately feel comfortable speaking in a museum, but after watching the movie together, she found many similarities to her experience and became more convinced and enthusiastic about the event. Not only because transgender is an issue in the Middle East, but the whole discussion is still taboo in Iceland as well. We decided not to talk only about her experience but about the film and the conflations with her experience.

Our talk was in Arabic, but I was simultaneously interpreting it into English for the audience since telling one’s story is always more comfortable and better in one’s native language. Moreover, there aren’t enough events around the arts in Iceland that present or discuss other cultures or are programmed in languages other than English or Icelandic. It’s not because there aren’t people from Asia or the Middle East here; there are other reasons. Sara and I were both pleased with the event, which went very well. I hope more experimental events like this will take place in the future because they give platforms to people like Sara who have meaningful experiences to share.

From Komd’inn event with Sara Mia, 2022

From Komd’inn event with Sara Mia, 2022

From Nermine El Ansari’s performance Fleeting Remembrance, Erroneous Image, 2020

From Nermine El Ansari’s performance Fleeting Remembrance, Erroneous Image, 2020

From Nermine El Ansari’s performance Fleeting Remembrance, Erroneous Image, 2020

From Nermine El Ansari’s performance Fleeting Remembrance, Erroneous Image, 2020

From Nermine El Ansari’s performance Fleeting Remembrance, Erroneous Image, 2020

From Nermine El Ansari’s performance Fleeting Remembrance, Erroneous Image, 2020

Eva Lín Vilhjálmsdóttir

Photos from Komd’inn by Vikram Pradhan.
Photos from Nermine El Ansari’s performance, courtesy of the artist.

Iceland’s New Neighbors At The Venice Biennale

Iceland’s New Neighbors At The Venice Biennale

Iceland’s New Neighbors At The Venice Biennale

For the first time since Iceland’s involvement in La Biennale di Venezia (or the Venice Biennale), the Icelandic Pavillion is located in the Arsenale: one of the fair’s main exhibition spaces. This move is significant for the pavilion, which was first located in the Finnish pavilion from 1984-2005, and has since been independently placed around the city of Venice. Not only will this new location increase viewership by an estimated 20 times more than recent years, but it quite literally places the pavilion in dialogue with the main curated exhibition and its neighboring pavilions.

Now that Iceland finds its new home in the Arsenale, I (Amanda Poorvu) had a conversation with fellow Icelandic intern Hrafnkell Tumi Georgsson and the next-door Latvian and Maltese Pavillions to get to know our new surroundings and gain some insight into their exhibitions. I spoke to interns Agnese Trušele and Eva Hamudajeva from the Latvian Pavillion, and Lisa Hirth and Nicole Borg from the Maltese Pavillion.


Photographer: Aleksejs Beļeckis © Courtesy: Skuja Braden (Ingūna Skuja and Melissa D. Braden) ©

How long has your country held a pavilion in the Arsenale?
Agnese: Latvia has had its own national pavilion since 1999, but in 2013 it started exhibiting permanently in the Arsenale. It started in a smaller space and in 2015 moved to this space.

Who is exhibiting this year? And who curated it?
Eva: The artists of Selling Water By The River are a female couple/duo SkujaBraden, commissioned by Solvita Krese and curated by Solvita Krese and Andra Silapētere.

How did this exhibition come about?
Agnese: There is a competition where the ministry of culture chooses the winners, and then someone else organizes it. In this case, it is organized by the Latvian Centre for Contemporary Art, which also organized it in the 56th edition of the Biennale.
Eva: The exhibition is a multilayered installation that maps the mental, physical, and spiritual areas within the artists’ home. In the exhibition, home is echoed by images in porcelain, a material that Skuja Braden has mastered superbly. Their porcelain comes to life in everyday objects, fountains, bendy hoses, male and female physiques, and nature.

The Biennale is one of the largest art exhibitions in the world, and there is so much to see. In three words, how would you describe the exhibition to entice a visitor to stop by?
Eva: Perspective, Humanity, Dream.
Agnese: Humorous, Human, Mainīgs (a Latvian word that means “everything changes,” you can use this word to talk about the weather, for example)

What are some of the themes in the exhibition that you feel are relevant to the world today?
Agnese: Feminism, Sexism, Patriarchy, and political issues in the world…in some ways, the spiritual and physical symbiosis of bodies, because of the altar and the vanity room. I feel like the main focus of the pavilion is the bed: people tend to want to know what goes on in the bedroom. The bedroom is also an important space because you are born in it, you rest in it, you are sick in it, you create life in it, and you even die in it. The title Selling Water By The River is a book by a Zen Buddhist about how we don’t need to sell or buy something that is already there.
Eva: “White man” power.

If you had to pick a (second) favorite pavilion in the Arsenale besides your own, which pavilion would you pick?
Eva: The main exhibition, specifically the Ruth Asawa, Jes Fan, Marguerite Humeau, Tetsumi Kudo artworks.
Agnese: I think Mexico is interesting, because of the background of how people donated money. The concept is interesting.


Photographer: Agostino Osio

How long has your country held a pavilion in the Arsenale?
Amanda: Through my research, I found that Malta has had a long absence from the Biennale, only participating in several group exhibitions in 1958 and 1999. Its pavilion wasn’t included until 2017, making this the third pavilion it’s held.

Who is exhibiting this year? And who curated it?
Lisa: Arcangelo Sassolino from Italy, and Brian Schembri and Giuseppe Schembri Bonaci from Malta are the artists of Diplomazija Astuta, and the two curators are Keith Sciberras from Malta and Jeffrey Uslip from the U.S.

How did this exhibition come about?
Lisa: The artwork started before the biennale, around 3 years ago. Arcangelo had the idea for a single drop of fire, and he brought the idea to the curators. Originally, they wanted to put this single drop of steel under the painting, The Beheading of Saint John by Caravaggio in Malta. Logistically it didn’t work out, but they realized that the room of the Arsenale was a similar size to the oratory so they decided to take the aura of the painting and transpose it from Malta to here, in a contemporary art space.

The Biennale is one of the largest art exhibitions in the world, and there is so much to see. In three words, how would you describe the exhibition to entice a visitor to stop by?
Nicole: Captivating, Unpredictable, Encourages cultural Relativism.
Lisa: Tenebrous, Show-stopping, Mysterious

What are some of the themes in the exhibition that you feel are relevant to the world today?
Lisa: It is based on recent political events in Malta because the title means “cunning diplomacy.” There was a case a few years ago where a well-known journalist got murdered, and a lot of corruption is coming to light. The main theme of the artwork is injustice and how if we don’t put an end to cunning diplomacy, the cycle of injustice will continue. This is what Malta is currently facing now.
Nicole: The repetition of injustice, particularly to Malta, and the theme of political injustice relative to Malta in recent years can be applied to a variety of cultural contexts. However, for Malta, it’s interesting to observe the theme of patriotism towards Caravaggio and Maltese art, as well as how patriotism is sometimes used as a rejection of the significance of Caravaggio’s role in Maltese art throughout history

If you had to pick a (second) favorite pavilion in the Arsenale besides your own, which pavilion would you pick?
Nicole: Mexico
Lisa: The Latvian one, because it’s very chaotic but controlled, and it is very pleasing to look at. I like that it makes people uncomfortable.


Sigurður Guðjónsson, Installation view: Perpetual Motion, Icelandic Pavilion, 59th International Art Exhibition -– La Biennale di Venezia, 2022, Courtesy of the artist and BERG Contemporary, Photo: Ugo Carmeni

How long has your country held a pavilion in the Arsenale?
Hrafnkell: This is the first year that Iceland has been in Arsenale.

Who is exhibiting this year? And who curated it?
Amanda: The Iceland Pavillion features the work Perpetual Motion by Sigurður Guðjónsson, curated by Mónica Bello, Curator & Head of Arts at CERN (the European Organization for Nuclear Research in Geneva)

How did this exhibition come about?
Hrafnkell: It was announced in 2019 that Sigurður would be this year’s artist for Iceland. He was chosen by a committee that picked him out of a group of artists that were nominated for the show.

The Biennale is one of the largest art exhibitions in the world, and there is so much to see. In three words, how would you describe the exhibition to entice a visitor to stop by?
Amanda: Expansive, Meditative, Anachronistic
Hrafnkell: Dark hypnotic rumble!

What are some of the themes in the exhibition that you feel are relevant to the world today?
Hrafnkell: I think at first glance I thought it was very different from the works you see in Arsenale before you come to the Icelandic Pavilion. You arrive here shortly after going through the Milk of Dreams exhibition, that is full of surreal and personal works. This work feels more distant, you are looking at metallic dust moving. For me, it felt very scientific and straightforward but then it pulls you in and a lot of questions arise about what you are actually seeing. It feels at the same time very simple but also like there is a lot of manipulation going on, but I can never really put my finger on exactly what, maybe there is none. It made me appreciate this detailed way of observing and think about how we observe – which patterns we see and which patterns we project onto what we see.
Amanda: Although it is not required for the national pavilions at the Venice Biennale to relate thematically to the main exhibition, Sigurður Guðjónsson’s work, Perpetual Motion, in the Icelandic pavilion does share a common theme with The Milk of Dreams, curated by Cecilia Alemani. In her own words, Alemani describes the focus of the exhibition and its relevance as, “the representation of bodies and their metamorphoses; the relationship between individuals and technologies; and the connection between bodies and the Earth.” It is this relationship that we have with technology that not only grounds Perpetual Motion but remains a driving force in Sigurður’s practice as a whole.

If you had to pick a (second) favorite pavilion in the Arsenale besides your own, which pavilion would you pick?
Hrafnkell: I really like the Malta one, they are also next door so I go there a lot. Italia is also one of my favourites.
Amanda: The Dutch pavilion.

Overall, it was an exciting first year at the Arsenale and we are delighted to be placed next to such interesting and inspiring neighbors in the space. Thank you to all the participating interns who spoke with me. On to the next Biennale!

Amanda Poorvu

Cloud, mineral, satellite, story: Afield at Skaftfell Center for Visual Art

Cloud, mineral, satellite, story: Afield at Skaftfell Center for Visual Art


Cloud, mineral, satellite, story: Afield at Skaftfell Center for Visual Art

Skaftfell’s 2022 summer exhibition Afield (Fjær) is connected to curator Becky Forsythe’s ongoing research-based project that considers land-based practices, materials and themes. The exhibition brings together works by Icelandic and Canadian and American artists, as well as found objects collected in archeological and geological excavations on loan from The National Museum of Iceland and The Icelandic Institute of Natural History. The multidisciplinary curatorial approach tells new stories through art and scientific research. Alongside works by Canadian and American artists Diane Borsato (1973) and Geoffrey Hendricks (1931 – 2018) and Icelandic artist Þorgerður Ólafsdóttir (1985), the exhibition includes minerals collected by the Icelandic photographer Nicoline Weywadt (1848 – 1921) at her family farm in Teigarhorn, in the East Fjords of Iceland, as well as objects excavated from the archaeological dig at Fjörð in Seyðisfjörður, during summer 2020 and 2021. The exhibition is an example of Skaftfell’s importance as a venue for lively artist-led activity and curatorial experimentation. 

The artworks on view by Borsato, Hendricks and Ólafsdóttir, are shown alongside minerals and plastic artifacts found in history and natural history museum collections today. Together they constellate references to the sky, geology, land, and push further into themes of archeological exploration, mineral extraction, taxonomy and classification, and human-led environmental impact. In the exhibition human and environmental ecologies are unearthed in fieldwork, research and performance that in various ways speak to our current position in the Anthropocene.

Installation view. Courtesy of Skaftfell.

Installation view. Courtesy of SkaftfellInstallation view. Courtesy of Skaftfell.

Installation viewInstallation view. Courtesy of Skaftfell.

In A Large Sky for Iceland Geoffrey Hendricks preserves the clouds in the sky. Fleeting and phenomenal, the reference to that which is impermanent invites viewers to look up high and take note of the changes that are happening as quick as clouds, and in doing so, make further connections between the sky and the earth. In his back-to-the-land way and his many interpretations of clouds, Geoffrey’s performances, which often resulted in works like this, incorporated natural materials that, in unison with his body, were a point of reference and closeness to what surrounds us.

Geoffrey Hendricks - A large sky for Iceland

Geoffrey Hendricks - A large sky for IcelandGeoffrey Hendricks, A Large Sky for Iceland, 1984, acrylic and graphite drawing on paper, collection of The Living Art Museum.

In the photograph The Sky Below Seyðisförður, Ólafsdóttir has assembled vibrant blue pottery fragments found at the archaeology dig in Fjörður, in a nod to Hendricks’ paintings of clouds and skies. The pottery fragments were recently unearthed in Seyðisfjörður in an archeological excavation being led by Ragnheiður Traustadóttir’s Antikva project; they are now preserved at the National Museum of Iceland along with other pot shards featured in another photograph, Flowers for Seyðisfjörður. In the assemblage composed of plastic finds entitled Atlas of the Heavens, the found objects are shown against found prints of the heavens as if to evoke a distant place, with the plastic performing as potential satellites in a near-future sky. Not all of the synthetic objects found at Fjörður, arriving from our everyday lives, have been turned precious. Rather, as documented in photographs reproduced as risographs entitled Almost Artifacts, some objects have been discarded again, placed back into the ground. Time Capsules, a work based on photographs of core samples serves as an cyclical archive of time as it disappears.

Þorgerður Ólafsdóttir, Himinkort / Atlas of the Heavens Þorgerður Ólafsdóttir, Himinkort / Atlas of the Heavens, 1950 / 2022, offset print, excavated plastic artifacts (detail). Courtesy of the artist.

Plastic RemainsÞorgerður Ólafsdóttir, Riso print, excavated plastic artifacts (detail). Courtesy of the artist. Documentation by Rannveig Þórhallsdóttir. Discarded plastic remains found in the excavation dig in Fjörður.

Þorgerður ÓlafsdóttirBlóm handa Seyðisfirði / Flowers for Seyðisfjörður and Himinninn undir Seyðisfirði / The Sky below Seyðisfjörður, 2022, photographic work. Courtesy of Skaftfell.

Borsato’s video Gems and Minerals speaks to some of the world’s oldest geological resources: the rocks and minerals found in the Teck Suite: Earth’s Treasures galleries at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto. In the video, museum guides use American Sign Language (ASL) and site-responsive dance to illuminate and focus a critical lens on stories that are not usually told about the social impact of mining and extraction, and of the seductive beauty of the materials we mine. The work asks us to pay close attention to the curiosities found in natural history collections, and to push further to consider their less-impermanent objects to the stories that are told through them — by whom and at what cost? Sometimes with humor, but more often disturbing and complex, the performed stories shed light on questions of personal attachment and reliance, of land theft leading to loss of Indigenous spiritual traditions, and the environmental and economical impacts of mining and resource extraction.

Diane Borsato - Gems and Minerals

Diane Borsato, Gems and Minerals, 2018, video, 25 mín. (video stills). Courtesy of the artist.

Gathered, organized and assembled in response to works by Borsato and Þorgerður, minerals collected by Nicoline Weywadt (1848-1921) demonstrate the human desire to collection and classify. Weywadt, who studied mineralogy in Copenhagen in the 1870s (and, significantly, was Iceland’s first professionally-trained photographers) collected minerals at Teigarhorn, in Dúpavogshreppur, in east Iceland, a mineral-rich area where Schoolite, stilbite, epistilbite, mordenite, laumontite and heulandite, seladonite, opal, chalcedony, rock crystal, calcite and Iceland spar are found. Although the region was declared a natural monument in 1976, for over 200 years the zeolites here were used in various geological studies and, in the 18th century, specimens were sold to museums around the world. 

Taken together, the objects in the exhibition ask the view to consider the many ways we attend to land and its beauty, but also the equally many ways we extract what is precious from it. In Afield, ethereal hand-painted and found skies, collected gems and minerals, performed stories and archeological finds counter notions of decay to become catalysts for memory and the experience of the the passage and suspension in geologic time. By considering human desire and its impact on change in the natural, non-human world, the exhibition asks: how can the ritual of heading out into the environment, newly navigating our relationship to it, move us closer to knowing this changing world?

Becky Forsythe

Afield / Fjær opened on June 4th and is currently on view at Skaftfell Center for Visual Art until September 4th 2022.

The exhibition is curated by Becky Forsythe, with the support of staff at Skaftfell.

For more on the artists and their work:

Skaftfell — myndlistarmiðstöð Austurlands / Center for Visual Art
Austurvegur 42, Seyðisfjörður –

Breaking Inconsistencies: An Interview With R.E.C. Arts Reykjavík

Breaking Inconsistencies: An Interview With R.E.C. Arts Reykjavík

Breaking Inconsistencies: An Interview With R.E.C. Arts Reykjavík

Everyone knows that Iceland is one of the best places in the world to be a woman, or to be queer, or even to be a creative. If you didn’t know, now you do: according to X, Y, and Z studies. So, goals accomplished, right? Well…no. When you begin to really look at, and challenge the acceptance of these rankings, cracks begin to form, and we are reminded once again that the romantic vision of a “utopia” remains in our imaginations.

For example, despite Reykjavík capturing the number 1 ranking for the most accepting city for LGBTQ+ identifying folks, laws and regulations protecting these very same people drops down to a ranking of number 11, a recent increase from its number 14 spot.

The harm in numbers like these first studies is that they create a false sense of competency, which prevents actionable steps toward continued progression. Social acceptance only goes so far, but its widespread presence is a testament that further legitimizes the need for legal backing.

The Nordic Gender-Equality Paradox introduces this idea within the realities of gender equality in the consistently top-ranking Nordic countries. Iceland included. It argues that even with immense welfare support, and progressive social attitudes, women continue to be left out of the highest positions of power. Gender norms likely play a role in this discrepancy, with studies showing men are socialized to be confident and ambitious, whereas women are socialized to be self-doubting and overly modest. And normative systems are so tied to the gender binary that anyone outside of these two gender identities is hardly ever considered, even in studies like these.

Applying the arguments of the Nordic Gender-Equality Paradox to the arts in Iceland reveals that the statistics are slowly improving, with more and more director positions in the arts being filled by women in Iceland. In 2010, three of the major public arts institutions in Iceland were directed by women. Those institutions were the National Theatre, the Reykjavík Arts Festival, and the Icelandic Dance Company. Today in 2022, only one institution, the National Theatre, is directed by a man. The Reykjavík
Art Museum, Reykjavík City Theatre, National Gallery, Reykjavík Arts Festival, Iceland Symphony Orchestra: (Chief Conductor and Artistic Director, and Managing Director), and the Iceland Dance Company are all led by a woman.

Despite this proportion having grown significantly during this time period, many of these women are the first female director appointed to lead their institutions. If not the first, they are only one out of a small handful. This is just the beginning of varied and accurate representation in the arts.

While the paradox is introduced through gender, this mentality is arguably continued amongst other dynamics here in Iceland, and issues of POC, individuals with disabilities, immigrants and refugees, and the aforementioned LGBTQ+ causes should be treated with a similar attitude that things could always be improved. As these shifts in art leadership have proven, structural change is attainable. The art scene can and should more accurately reflect Icelandic society by hiring more representative teams behind-the-scenes, realizing and funding projects by a diverse range of artists, holding these artworks in significant proportions within their collections, and ensuring that arts education is supportive and accessible for all.

The first step to breaking these inconsistencies is to acknowledge the problem in the first place. Every individual identifies with many different identities, whether it’s race and ethnicity, sexuality, gender, class, or even profession and hobbies and it is through this acknowledgment of diversity and intersectionality that allows you to stop viewing others as one-dimensional. This is exactly what Rebecca Hidalgo, Eva Björk, and Chaiwe Sól did when conceiving R.E.C. Arts Reykjavík, a collective of workshops that seeks to promote diversity in the arts, especially in their own field of performing arts. Don’t be mistaken, R.E.C. Arts Reykjavík often acknowledges the privileges of living and working in Iceland and gives credit where it’s due. But they noticed that these advantages often left out experiences similar to their own, and of their wide-ranging community in Reykjavík. In this interview with Amanda Poorvu, R.E.C Arts Reykjavík gives insight into the origins of the project, their mission, and where they are headed next.

R.E.C Arts Reykjavík is a creative team & collective founded in late 2021 by Rebecca HidalgoEva Björk and Chaiwe Sól. Their mission is to bring diversity, visibility, and representation of marginalized groups living in Iceland to mainstream theatre, dance, music, and art scenes. They aim to build and provide a platform to uplift minority voices; host workshops for those 18+ who identify as being from a minority background; and encourage empathy and change through education, discussion, art, and storytelling. They are on facebook and instagram at @recartsrvk and you can email them at for consulting, collaborating and creating work, or sharing the work of artists from minority backgrounds living in Iceland.

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Amanda Poorvu: Hi Chaiwe, Eva, and Rebecca, Congratulations on the launch and success of R.E.C (pronounced: REC) Arts Reykjavík! Let’s start from the beginning? How did this project come about?

Rebecca Hidalgo: Well, we started writing a super political musical. We applied to direct it and make it at a high school here, and we got turned down. We also realized it was probably for the best because our musical was very political: about minorities, about diversity…and the school was very not diverse–

Eva Björk: It was one of the most privileged schools.

RH: –and they happen to have a lot of funding for the arts program. But we saw the importance of still doing it. We said, “okay there are minority artists in Iceland to do this, but there are so many that are not being built up, that do not have a platform, so we need to start from scratch.” Rather than writing the musical and hiring professionals to be in it, we want to hire both professionals and amateurs. We need to train these people; we need to find these people. How do we find these people?

Chaiwe Sól: Also, just the lack the diverse representation is what got to us. We found a mutual ground within ourselves living here in Iceland, and our experiences. And we were just like, “People need to hear us, people need to hear what we’re experiencing.”

EB: I also think the arts are missing everything that is not–how do you say it?

RH: Mainstream

EB: Yeah, mainstream. In my family, there are people with disabilities and they are kind of tossed aside. There is so much that we could do.

RH: That’s one of our main goals and missions because like I said, all three of us come from very different backgrounds, we all live in Iceland, two of us have lived in Iceland for a majority of their lives, and–

CS: One of us is adopted black Icelandic, working in education and theater.

RH: Queer foreign Latina.

EB: [I’m working] in a man’s world.

RH: All of the above.

EB: (points to herself and Chaiwe) single moms.

RH: –we are all very different people living in Iceland. That’s still rarely seen, at least in mainstream media. There are a lot of great works happening but those works are not being built up or funded as they should be.

CS: We were like, “What are we going to do about it?” so we got together and conducted this group. Instead of telling our stories, we wanted to have people tell their stories themselves. That led us to R.E.C Arts and the workshops.

Your mission statement states that you aim to bring “diversity, visibility, access and representation” to marginalized groups. In the workshops, we often talk about the importance of these terms. What do these words mean to you? And how do they differ from each other?

EB: I would say that diversity doesn’t come in one form, so if you are going to [seek diversity], you have to look into all minorities. There is not one persona in each minority group.

CS: All the art stuff in Iceland that is available, theater, dance classes, etc. cost money. And certain minorities don’t have access to that kind of money, which means they don’t have access to that. We wanted to be able to find a way to open up that portal for people.

RH: In terms of access, there are a few different ways that comes across. You have access purely in the physical, in the world of disabilities, access in having a sign language interpreter, and having wheelchair access, having seating for wheelchairs that are not behind a column or something like that. I do think Icelanders do a good job in that sense. Obviously, it could always be better.

There is access in nepotism. As Chaiwe was saying, there are not a lot of people of minority backgrounds out there with representation. They don’t have a family member in the industry but have always wanted to be on stage. But then they see that there are a lot of walls put up, so they feel like they don’t have access to the scene, and they get discouraged and don’t go into it. Which then feeds into the lack of representation. in terms of visibility, it’s pretty simple. Being seen. Having a minority on stage or on tv.

AP: But not only in the background.

RH: Exactly, not as a way to tick a box. That also comes with proper representation.

CS: The right representation has to be presented. Like how single moms in theater or movies are always portrayed as smoking, drinking, and completely falling apart. Why can’t we just represent single moms as someone who’s hardworking? She’s running a law firm and she’s doing her thing. That does exist It’s really sad when we have to fictionalize the minority to make it work for society. We are helping feed this society. As artists, we have to take responsibility for the stories that we’re telling because by telling that story, whether it’s to a little kid or to a grown-up, that person walks away thinking that is the truth. This is the truth that they stand by and the truth that they start to live by. If we don’t change that truth to make it match the actual truth, we have a problem.

EB: If you are a minority, and you want to go to a class–a dance class or whatever is going on–it’s also hard [to show up] if you are different. People don’t always respect what is different, which is so sad because we can learn so much from each other. We don’t learn when we are always the same.

RH: There has to be a balance of stories. There are deep ones, but that can’t be all we tell [in order] to have diverse representation.

CS: …the hairdresser, ghetto, Black girl; the single moms; the cliché characters…

RH: The cis, white, gay, best friend who is only interested in fashion, and doesn’t actually have a storyline other than saying sassy lines, and being the sidekick. Queer characters are way more deep than that. Also, picking the correct people to play these characters. It’s simply having an actual trans person play a trans character. Beyond that, the people behind-the-scenes matter with representation. That is the difference between visibility and representation. You can have a person of color on stage, but if they are the only person of color, and the director, choreographer, makeup team, producer, and everybody else is white, then it is whitewashed. I know from my experience, being one of the only minorities in a production, I did feel at one point like the annoying person. [Either] always calling things out or being like, “Ugh this is not my place, I don’t have the energy for that today.”

CS: The minority is tired of always speaking up, and what is happening is that the majority is just not aware of what’s really happening, and how it affects the other person. For us, that is where we can see our niche. We want to bring awareness.

While your workshops have individual themes, R.E.C. Arts Reykjavík is open to all definitions of minorities, including POC, LGBTQIA+, Disabled, Refugee and Immigrant folks, etc. because all of these identities are interconnected on an intersectional level. How does this shape the kinds of discussions you are having?

RH: I think it comes with openness.

CS: It’s quite beautiful to see the stories actually evolving. We have a storytelling game where you have a ball, and then you say a word, and somebody else says another word or shares something that connects to it. It’s amazing to see that we have created a space where people allow themselves to be so vulnerable and genuine and dig so deep. If one person sees [another] person doing that, it’s almost like a snowball

RH: A lot of it comes from the three of us being very open from the beginning. I think at the beginning of our online workshops, we were being very open about who we are, and where we come from. Then that allows people to come in. I think one of the most beautiful things we’ve seen during our storytelling exercises is people finding common ground with each other.

CS: We always said that we wanted to create a family. When people walk in, we want them to feel like, “I’m going to see these people, and they are my family. They are going to accept me for who I am. For these three hours, we are going to be having a good time.” Somehow, we have managed to create that for people.

Iceland has a small, tight-knit population and is often considered a progressive “utopia” in regard to many social justice issues, especially when it comes to gender and sexuality. Yet this has created a contradiction, called the Nordic Gender-Equality Paradox, which can lead to a lack of policy or legislation when it seems like there is no problem to begin with. You don’t challenge things when you think they are successful. How has this shown up in the arts here? What structures would you like to see put in place to strive toward equality?

RH: Our mission when we call out institutions is to do it in an educational way. Not saying, “Here’s why you’re bad.” but adding, “…and here’s how you can do better.”

EB: The best way to get respect is to respect others, so we do respect everyone. It’s human nature. We’re not saying anybody is mean, but once we have educated you and you still don’t want to turn the page, that’s when we can say, “Oh, okay, so you just don’t want change.”

CS: Everybody deserves a chance.

RH: I’ve heard people say, “I don’t think I’m qualified to come to these workshops, but can I?” and they happen to be a cis, white, woman or a cis, straight, woman. I’m like, “We don’t advertise it, but by being a woman, you are still considered a minority.” So, come and learn from others, and know your privilege, but also know that you can still complain. You have every right to complain. I think in Iceland, they’ve been taught that “People have it worse in other places.”

EB: I even think white, cis men who are queer, or people who have minority family members [can come]. Everybody that has this mindset is welcome, as long as you’re not in that mood thinking you’re better than others.

RH: I think being a minority is also more of a political and systematic thing. Being a cis, white, straight male, in our eyes is the ultimate privilege. Of course, you can be a minority in a certain situation but in society, you are never one. You can walk on the streets safely by the way that you look. If you dress differently, that’s a whole other thing but if you dress how society says is okay for a straight white male, you’re safe. A lot of privilege is about safety. How you look is the first thing people see.

EB: It also does matter when people are in different work fields. I’m a carpenter, [working] in a male field for 12 years and I very much feel like I have to work much, much harder to be allowed to hold a machine or something. It’s like when you walk into a wall over and over again. And then you either stop trying, or you try to create a new way. I would say this is a new way we are trying to create.

RH: We always talk about the big theaters and the big media institutions. They are slowly changing, and things are being pushed, but it’s like they don’t see a need or reason to change things that have worked for 50-whatever years. They’re ignoring the things that do need to be changed.

CS: They don’t want to put in the effort. There is an effort that goes into change

EB: It’s like, what if airplane engineers were like “Let’s just do it the old way.”

RH: I think an actual, productive way to change the structure in the arts and theater, in my opinion–we’ve discussed this as a group -is to have a quota. To have some sort of quota like, “We have to specifically hire artists of color, queer artists, artists of minority backgrounds” to create work for these institutions. Not just a one-off, you have to have a certain amount every season. And not just one director, but a team of diverse people.

There’s a theater company up in Akureyri and it’s doing the show Hair, which takes place in the US in the 1960s, and a lot of the show has to deal with racial relations between African Americans and white Americans. [One of the] roles that they cast is meant for a woman of color and is being played by a white woman. You know, we want the Icelandic theater community to see this is not okay.

There are enough people of color here to be cast in these roles. We’ve also heard in our workshops that as an actor, sometimes you feel like you don’t have the authority to speak up because it’s a job. So even though there is one actor of color in the show, whether or not he agrees with a white girl playing a role written for a black woman, it’s still not his responsibility to speak up. Doing a show about a character of color and writing their roles out, that’s called erasure. That’s also not okay. Out of a thousand musical theater shows you could do… I would rather see a less trained person of color play the role than a trained white actor pretending to be that character.

CS: That just boils down to doing the right representation. If it’s a black woman’s story it has to be a black person playing it, a trans person’s story has to be played by a trans person. It can’t just be a random actor.

What would you say to someone who does not agree with quotas?

EB: Excuse me, but the same truths have been told for how many years? Isn’t it just time for a shift? Nobody is taking anything away from anybody. People want to go to the theater, but there are not that many plays out there that a lot of different people want to go to. One very big thing is that we pay taxes here for the theater. There is enough space for everyone. People need to stop thinking, “If you’re going to take this spot, where am I going to sit?”

CS: I mean, the quota aspect is a little tricky because what is the right quota? It gets super complicated. But the idea of being open to some sort of quota starts this ideology. It doesn’t have to be so written and so structured.

EB: If you think about it, if you go to a tryout for a play, they are always looking for something. It’s already there. If you’re blonde it’s going to work, or you have dark hair it’s gonna work. So, this quota is not overstepping what was already there before. It’s just giving more variety.

CS: Versatility. If you’re telling a story about a girl in Iceland, have everyone come and try out. And maybe you’ll see something in that not-blonde-and-blue-eyed girl that’s part Sri Lankan, part Icelandic, and speaks perfect Icelandic. I mean there also has to be an opportunity for these people We have to move with the times, and you can’t just choose to exclude a whole population from your own population. It just doesn’t make sense, it’s not right. Aside from that, minorities are also a huge part of the people who are running our systems. So, they also deserve to have a platform for themselves. Just recently, they finally made a Polish play to call out to the Polish community, with Polish actors. I thought that was amazing. It’s like, Polish people have been living here–

RH: For how long?

CS: Exactly. That’s amazing, but it shouldn’t have to take 40 years for you to be able to see yourself on stage.

RH: It isn’t a long-term thing. It’s just a short-term solution with long-term goals. Then it will naturally happen. That’s the goal.

CS: Also, the quota allows for different people to come together and learn about each other. That accessibility is so important. It’s something we discuss with education where I say: a headmaster who doesn’t have a foreign friend is less likely to think about the minority kids in our school and the issues that they could be experiencing. The ability to be able to know about minorities and their struggles opens up your mind. And that’s what the quota would technically do.

EB: It takes effort when you have always tried to fit into the box, to step out. It takes a lot of courage. And I think the theater and the arts are beginning to open up to change. As soon as it is normalized in the media, it’s conditioned in people.

RH: Last year, an actress of color called the national theater out publicly on social media because they released a poster of all their house actors, and every single person in that photo was white. And from my knowledge, the majority of the people are also cis and straight. She was like “I’m not saying anything bad about these people, they are all my friends, but intuitionally, this needs to change.” Granted, for this season they did hire a few more actors of color, but it still felt like tokenism.

CS: And “backgroundism”

RH: It was like “Throw them in the background here. Oh, and let’s make sure we get them for the poster this year!” That’s how it felt to me.

EB: Not everybody owns up to their mistakes right away, but I always want to also look at the positive, that this is maybe the start of something. That it will roll the ball because we are now here to poke and poke and poke and poke. We have to reinforce this and keep going.

Discrimination in Iceland does not only appear as blatant aggression and exclusion but also in more subtle inequities or in a lack of opportunities. What are some of the examples of microaggressions in the art scene here that people might not be aware of? Do you have any personal experience with this that you can share?

RH: From my experience working on a show at the theater, there was an incident of an actor wanting to do blackface in their role, and not understanding why that was not okay. [They then] directly asked only the people of color in the cast why it was not okay. There were some other things having to do with hair and makeup, with racial and cultural appropriation that I became the ambassador on, apparently. But again, they took it into account and did want to educate people after they had made the mistake. I’m happy it became a teaching moment but if you have had a more diverse creative team, it wouldn’t have had to be there.

Another thing is from a review that came out about a show. Out of the whole cast, there were three minorities, one of which is actually a pretty well-known actor in Iceland. The review mentioned every single other person’s name on the cast and the creative team somewhere in the review. Every single person’s name and the character they played, or the role that they played, except for the three (including myself) minorities. It was weird. Nobody from the creative team or the theater saw this and was like, “You forgot ____.” As creatives, it is important for your records –even if it’s bad press, at least it’s there.

CS: Because you’re constantly fighting your battles…

RH: I was exhausted. I was like, “There are so many other things that are more important.”

CS: When to speak up? When not to speak up? When will this get me in trouble with my job? The tight-knit-ness [appears] as soon as you speak up. There are plenty of people who are like, “I want to come to your workshops but I’m scared because Iceland is so small.” There is also that insecurity because it’s a small population. If I were to give an example, I would say being spoken to in English when you walk into a store.

RH: Even after you speak in Icelandic, that’s the big one.

CS: No, no, having a whole conversation in Icelandic and they still continue to talk in English…

RH: We’ve been collaborating with the girls from Antirasictanir, and they’re young and super brave and amazing. They have similar experiences to Chaiwe, and it’s so crazy to see these young, Black girls in Iceland, who have lived here their whole lives and still are treated a certain way as if they are not part of the community.

CS: I mean there are a lot of little microaggressions we experience every day. [In theater] There is a lot of exploitation and tokenism, and taking away from people. Like, you want the story to be told but you are not giving homage and rights to people that have the story. Why are people doing this without consulting? Why is there a disconnect between taking from minorities and not feeling the need to fully give back?

RH: Appropriation is when you take from a culture and use it for your own benefit and you don’t either give back to the culture or acknowledge the culture and where it came from. You use it for profit or social media attention without actually acknowledging it. There are so many layers.

What kind of solutions to these, no matter how big or small, have you come up with in your workshops?

RH: The internet is there, it’s free and there are so many resources. It is not always a Black person or a queer person or a minority’s responsibility to do that labor and give you the information. Literally, google it. And one of the things that we’re done is that we have created a resource document of different articles, and of people on social media who do this for a living. They put out education for free and for profit.

CS: We started as R.E.C. arts and we were like, “Hmm, should we become an agency?” We can connect people to artists and dancers etc. and also make sure that when they do go to gigs, they get paid correctly and are represented correctly. That’s what we mean by giving back to the community you are taking from. It’s not enough just to take. They need to feel like they are getting help when they are putting their stories out there.

EB: We were also talking about how we to be that medium for helping out and educating the theater, so we’re going to offer that, too. So, institutions can always talk to us and nothing is a bad question.

RH: I think people are afraid to ask questions.

CS: People don’t want to feel stupid.

AP: Now there is a fear not only of getting called out for bad actions, but also for performativity if you try to fix them.

RH: I think there is a way of fixing something that isn’t necessarily performative activism. I think when you are honest and transparent about the mistakes that you’ve made, it’s even better. Because it’s education. You could put out a statement that says “We made a messed up. Things should have been done ____ way. We are going to take the time to do properly do that. And we are going to be open about it because we want people to learn.”

CS: It’s being able to vocalize yourself. Making people feel seen and heard is what matters.

EB: If you don’t feel that you are part of the community, how are you supposed to
feel like you have a purpose?

RH: That goes back to why representation matters.

R.E.C. Arts Reykjavík started during the pandemic over a series of zoom workshops that have recently moved to in-person. What else are you hoping to pursue in the future? Where do you see this community growing?

EB: The reason why we started our workshops on zoom is because of COVID-19. We always were planning on being live.

RH: The next thing that we are doing is that we have a whole-day takeover at Iðnó during the Reykjavík Arts Festival. We’re going to be hosting different educational panels, some workshops, and classes, and we’re going to be showcasing performances that are being built within our workshops. Also, some curated performances by other local artists of minority backgrounds to give them a platform. We basically wanted to show the higher-ups in the Icelandic art scene what they’re missing, and that they are people here that are talented and have amazing ideas, and have a voice and a story. So that’s our short-term thing.

EB: We are letting it grow. It is exciting to see. It is hard sometimes when you are creating something to not have a complete plan, but we have a structure and we want to be open to letting something new grow. We realized when we started this that there are so many minority groups out there trying to do their own, similar thing so this is kind of a platform for everyone to have a space to do something on one big day.

RH: The panels are going to be themed and the biggest thing about it, in terms of education, is going to be “Hey, you think this isn’t a problem? Let’s show you why it is a problem AND how you can fix it.”

A lot of people aren’t interesting in solving it, or they don’t know how to solve an issue so they just say “let’s leave it for another time” because there is that fear of not knowing how to fix it and doing something wrong.

CS: We say education and awareness, but our plan is more about giving people tools, to be able to address situations seriously. Giving people the power and the courage to stand up for something they would have never stood up for, so when you see something wrong you can be an active ally.

EB: Especially getting white people amongst white people to say something. Because people always think it’s not their problem, that it’s not affecting them. You can always do it in a polite way, and not be aggressive and make the other person feel stupid. It is 2022, we should try to talk a little bit more respectfully about everyone.

RH: All of the things we are talking about are also relevant in the United States, and here or there, but I think because Iceland is such a small country, it’s so frustrating to see. Because it is such a small country, things can happen very fast. It is supposed to be one of the most “progressive,” “equal” countries. The fact is that we’re seeing it from the inside, and we’re saying “It’s actually not, and here’s how we can fix it” and people are still insisting they want to keep it the same. That’s why we see it as a bigger problem than in some other countries.

CS: We’re not coming together. We need to come together whether we’re Black-Icelandic, Green-Icelandic, or Russian-Icelandic. We’re still Icelandic. This concept is important to me because I have a mixed son, and he is Icelandic. I don’t want him to ever experience somebody asking him “Where are you from?” I was adopted and have an Icelandic mom, I am an Icelander and my whole family is Icelandic, his father is Icelandic, and his grandparents…this is all he knows. I don’t need someone to judge him by his color and take being Icelandic away from him.

RH: I think one of the big reasons why people think there is no racism in Iceland, is because in the United States for example, there is a very clear, systematic history of racism. Whereas here, sure there are histories of racism but there is nothing as specific as the North Atlantic Slave Trade. But the mindset still penetrates within. Especially if you follow Antirasistarnir, they have been so blunt about the racist experiences in Iceland that they’ve had.

EB: We’ve also talked about more development because a lot of the people who come to our workshops have kids. We would like maybe later on–to be able to host workshops for kids of minorities. Because then they meet each other and don’t have that feeling of being different. We’re always finding new and more ways to make this a better environment for the people that haven’t been supported in that way.

CS: Creating this community is very, very important for us. It’s something that we all share very deeply and we’re trying to help and protect other people that could possibly be going through this. We know what was not done for us and we’re like “These are the things we wish would have happened and now we want to do this for the people.”

Every workshop ends with the question: Why does representation matter to you? What have been some of the most interesting or inspiring answers that you’ve received so far?

RH: We posted some of the answers on our Instagram, which you can read here, and here.

And to close, I’ll turn the question back to you. Why does representation matter to you?

EB: Because everybody needs to be seen. It’s all in that. Everybody needs to be recognized and have value in their life. I mean why are we here? It’s not like it’s easy.

RH: Specifically for me, if I hadn’t had the opportunity of seeing someone like myself on stage having their story represented, as an aspiring performer as a kid, I don’t think I would have been as motivated or excited to go into this industry.

Amanda Poorvu

Amanda Poorvu graduated in 2019 from Oberlin College with a BA in Studio Art and is part of the first graduating class of the MA in Curatorial Practices at Iceland University of the Arts. Her graduation project is a virtual exhibition titled Funny People and can be accessed at

Chaiwe Sól is an activist, artist, and educator; but most importantly a woman of color and a mother. She was born in Zambia and adopted by an Icelandic mother. As an Icelandic person of color, she has experienced and dealt with a fair amount of racism, discrimination, and the difficulties of understanding what it means to “be Icelandic”. She developed a thick skin; cultivating survival methods in order to find her footing and voice in the system. Her struggles within society led her to pursue a career in education. She is currently completing a Master’s in Theatre Education at HÍ, with a focus on using theatre as a platform to teach Icelandic as a second or third language. Chaiwe is currently working at Kársneskólí teaching Icelandic as a second language. As a mother to a mixed-raced child, Chaiwe strives to create a better environment for her child. She aims to create footprints in the Icelandic community to make it easier for her son to be Icelandic.

Eva Björk is a woman of many trades and many lives who resists throughout her existence. She is a queer single mother of two young adults. She is an activist and educator; with a Masters’ in house & furniture carpentry and a degree in teaching. As a woman in a “man’s” work field, she faced a sexist and chauvinist environment every day as she worked her way up the ranks. Her force has been recognized by many, and during her time teaching, she was invited to speak at a Women in STEM conference. Her experiences, childhood, and upbringing have made her a strong advocate for societal awareness of mental health and disability. She is now studying Psychology and pursuing a career as a practicing psychologist; her main goal is to teach people respect, communication, empathy, and understanding.

Rebecca Hidalgo is a multidisciplinary artist from Brooklyn, New York. She graduated from NYU Tisch School of the Arts (Bachelor of Fine Arts in Drama) and is a professional actor, dancer, choreographer, musician/songwriter, and artistic collaborator. As a child of Dominican immigrants, and as a queer woman, Rebecca has fought with culture clashes and expectations while finding beauty in both chosen and biological families. Many of her original artistic works address these conflicts; exposing the deep-rooted sexism, racism, and classism within the Latin community. This has fueled her artistic mission: to bring groups of diverse people and stories to the stage and screen. In 2018 Rebecca moved to Iceland and has since been working in the professional theatre scene and arts education. She very much sees the space, potential, and absolute necessity to bring the Icelandic theatre and dance scene to a new level regarding representation.

photo credit: Kaja Sigvalda.

An Invitation to Think Through Many Doorways: Interview with curator, Erin Honeycutt

An Invitation to Think Through Many Doorways: Interview with curator, Erin Honeycutt

An Invitation to Think Through Many Doorways: Interview with curator, Erin Honeycutt

4 Solo Exhibitions opened on February 5th at Listasafn Árnesinga Art Museum and are now on view until May 22nd

  • Þú ert Kveikjan / You are the Input by Ingunn Fjóla Ingþórsdóttir
  • Hringrás / Routine by Þórdís Erla Zöega 
  • Rólon / Roll On by Magnús Helgasson 
  • Buxnadragt / Powersuit by Lóa H. Hjálmtýsdóttir 

Artzine: What is the common thread running through these solo exhibitions?

Erin: The exhibitions are indeed separate but there is a common thread running through them and that thread is perception, the framing of perception, and the nature of the surface image. The exhibition also highlights art as a symbiotic system between the object and the observer, a kind of archaeology of the surface image where the surface has many layers. 

You can see with Ingunn Fjóla that the whole installation is a way of playing with the frame. It’s moveable and you set it into motion. There are also certain colors on the wall that are also framed while not necessarily being a traditional frame. It’s a very delicate look at the way we move through space, also. 

With þórdís Erla, the surface perception is about this material, this dichroic film that lets light in and deflects it. With her lightboxes, she takes the elements of what you know to be digital surfaces and she creates an imitation of a digital surface but it’s all analog which is fascinating. Also, there is a certain… routine, it’s about a routine that brings you into the nature of time as a framework and a surface image. 

With Magnús, it’s a constellation of materials. There’s a poem of objects in the room that don’t necessarily belong together but they all have an inner motor of movement that, once they are put together spark something. I always refer to him as a tinkerer- someone that doesn’t necessarily rest easily into the box of Fine Art, but instead rejects that box and looks for something else, or rebels against the idea of those rules and in that sense describes it very well in the rebellion against it. 

With Lóa´s work, there are so many ways to approach it and one that is particularly interesting to me is to relate to her paintings installed in the exhibition as one-panel comics, as akin to meme culture on the internet. There is a lore to them that is extremely public and private at the same time; an inside joke as well as the most publicly relatable incidents imaginable.

Artzine: What do the poems included in the exhibition publication bring to these threads?

Erin: Although not part of the exhibitions, but very important for me in thinking of them as a whole, is found in the publication printed on the occasion of the exhibition in which I chose poems both in English and Icelandic. I chose to do this because, for me as a person who writes about art, the perception of the image of the artwork is difficult to have a sense of without words so my writing about the artwork helps me to understand what I think and feel about the artwork. It’s almost like I am dyslexic to the image without writing. I found it to be a reflection of a way in which the works in the exhibition are about moving beyond ocular-centric perception, the perception that is just about the eyes and getting a sense of the artworks with an inner image as well. 

Artzine: What can poetry bring to more traditional art writing? 

Erin: The poetry interspersed throughout the catalog is next to more critical essays that are more strictly this category of ‘art writing’ as we know it. The poems provide a type of language for the reader that is more reflexive of an artwork rather than trying to describe or analyze an artwork. They’re more about a kind of language that is less about the critical mind and more about the sensing mind, about a language that has many doorways, inviting you to think through many doorways – it is not linear. 

Artzine: All of that being said, the exhibitions are still very light and fun, even playful – how does that tie in to the sense of surface perception that is being explored?

Erin: Yes, another thread that connects all of the exhibitions is playfulness and a sense of playfulness of surface perception and playing with the rules of surface perception. It’s very playful. I like the idea of difficulties and problems being welcome when you are playing. There’s no game without problems. You can’t play without them. So although the artworks don’t address problems in society directly, they highlight the necessity and inevitability of change in any environment, for sure. 

Flat Theatre for an Uneven Revolution –  The Berlin years of Ómar Stefánsson

Flat Theatre for an Uneven Revolution – The Berlin years of Ómar Stefánsson

Flat Theatre for an Uneven Revolution – The Berlin years of Ómar Stefánsson

„The sorcerer destroys the deception of the Creator, by creating another deception instead. But at the same time, it is important that he immediately eliminates all the deceptions he himself creates“

The Icelandic visual artist, Ómar Stefánsson, is known by many for his unconventional ways of life and art. At the age of sixteen, he gave an interview to the Icelandic paper, Vísir, as a young artist and a magician. The same year he got admitted to the Reykjavík School of Fine Arts at an exceptionally young age, where he graduated from the then new Experimental Arts Department in 1981. His art career now spans in huge excess across painting, sculpture, writing and published books as well as notorious performance work staged with the Art Brut bands Bruni BB and Inferno 5

Throughout his art career of almost 50 years,  Ómar has been consistent with the concept of his work, as seen in the above quote from the 1976 interview with Vísir. The controversial satire of human history, science and religion is a never ending theme and nothing is ever as it seems.

The exhibition Flat Theatre for an Uneven Revolution at ForA Contemporary Platform in Berlin, features paintings, sculptures and diaries that were made in the past five years at the artist’s studio in the metropolis city of Germany. These works tell, among other things, a story about the social transformation that took place during the pandemic, mixed with other dizzying chaos. For example the astronaut who almost drowned in his own piss. Thus, the exhibition leads us through the poetic and grotesque satire of human beings who live and die. A cloud-enclosed vault controls floods and tides, while the human being belongs to gravity along with other bottom creatures that it reflects on, in its daily activities.

Cloud makers and Tidal Technicians. Oil on canvas, 140 x 140 cm. 2017-2022

„Flat theatre is simply an explanation of what is going on here, the translation of things unto a two-dimensional surface, such as when maps are made. For example, where three-dimensional landscapes are projected onto two-dimensional surfaces. There are many methods for this, all of which are just as correct, or just as misleading, depending on how you say it, the glass is half full or half empty“

Ómar’s student years include performance tours along with Hermann Nitsch around Europe, an internship with Dieter Roth and jobs with the Illuminati congregation in the Alps in Switzerland. All of which can be seen to influence his work to this day. Ómar went to Berlin to further his studies and became a Meisterschuler with Professor Fussmann at the Hochschule der Künste in 1987. But fate brought Ómar back to Berlin about 30 years later when he lost his studio in Reykjavík, and at the same time he started keeping a diary in German where he describes his daily events through words, collages and drawings. Thirty diaries with his reflections, ideas and destiny now cover Ómar’s stormy years in Berlin 2017-2021, which end with a near-death experience, a physical death – „and rebirth in the zodiac sign of Scorpio in November 2021“, the artist adds and starts boasting about their new birthday.

Samples from the Berlin Diaries, Vol. I – XXVI.

The architecture of words and ideas speaks to the tangible structure of buildings in Ómar’s paintings, which are both formal and surreal. Forms take on a vivid structure that seems to be able to move and rearrange at any given moment. Man grows into himself, out of himself, becomes a house, becomes an animal and swings in the world, on the playground of existence. The exhibition at ForA gallery includes paintings about cosmogony and all kinds of uncertainties, what the artist saw during the pandemic in Berlin but also personal still lives.

„Every artist must make at least one Tempus Fugit work (Lat. Time flies) … And think of death. Every artist must think of death. And it happened to me here in Berlin, for example, to just fall ill and die and that was not my plan at all. And at this exhibition here we also have art which you can learn from. There’s a box that says what is forward and what is back. I had an intellectual conversation about this painting at the opening with a professor of philosophy and a dispute even. I was very pleased that this picture should provoke a controversy, even though it’s just a picture of a box. I said at least up and down were obvious facts. But there are different of opinions about that as well even“

We seem to live in a ready-made world where nothing is accidental. But the same cannot be said about the drawing in Ómar’s paintings, which appear to man as a wild and untamed phenomenon. Powerful and confident strokes draw a world that unites all the art movements of the 20th century, even further back. The violent and unrestrained subject matter has an obvious connection to the works of artists as diverse as Otto Dix, Hiernonymous Bosch and Hans Bellmer.

„I do not know what to say … I have been called a classical modernist. Which is also a little funny. The old new style or the new new style. First came Art Nouveau, the new style and then came modernism, then the new style and then the new new style. And this has all become a classical new style, so I’m very classical, I’d say, a classical artist. And traditional, compared to many”

Paintings from the exhibition Flat Theatre for an Uneven Revolutio. From left to right: Infected, The Battle of Amari with the Cyclope Cannibals in Crete, Inflated man falling, KaliYuga, Farming for spare parts, Choronzon, Mooning on Mars, The crazy old town. 

In Ómar’s abstract paintings and sculptures, however, one can discern the influence from his mentors Dieter Roth, Hermann Nitsch and also Magnús Pálsson, the founder of the Icelandic Experimental Art Department. Fast and energetic work methods give rise to grotesque lines and shapes in action works done with paint on canvas, mixed media and found material. Every now and then, comical titles pop up, which give this frantic world of images another angle. However, Ómar is better known for his large-scale paintings, which testify to his unique mastery of the medium and his great drawing skills. These paintings refer to the image structure of the cubists, futurists and surrealists and, at the same time, the dimensional illustrative tradition of graphic comic novels. 

The art works currently on display at the ForA exhibition are also remarkable for having escaped unscathed from the artist’s years in Berlin. Some of Ómar’s works was kept in storage at a building in the city which caught fire. He rented a studio in a building along with hundreds of other artists in Lichtenberg, which was confiscated with one day’s notice causing him and others to lose all their belongings in consequences that will not be listed here. „You are not human until you have lost everything“, says Ómar and quotes his former teacher at the Living Art Department, Magnús Pálsson, but it is obvious that the loss takes a heavy toll on him.

Panorama from Ómar’s studio in Lichtenberg, Berlín, 2019. Click to enlarge the image.

The pages of the diaries Ómar kept in Berlin are filled with drawings and collages that translate, like the Flat theatre, the five-dimensional reality of the artist’sinner world onto a two-dimensional surface. From the amount of books and the pages completed in these five years, it is clear that the artist does not let a day go by without working with these disciplines.

Even while the artist was in the intensive care unit at the hospital, the time he had awake was used for art creation and writing, with collages compiled from the hospital’s food stamps and the near-death experience written similar to other documented accounts surroundingthe deathbed. According to Ómar, he was suddenly dragged on his feet through a tunnel, which eventually led him back into the world, but not away into the light.

And what was it like to die? „It was absolutely awful … Stay alive as long as you possibly can“

In fact, it can be said that Ómar Stefánsson’s entire art career offers the audience a highly dramatic Flat Theatre exhibition. His art exhibitions and their preparation, art brut performances and their consequences, excerpts from declarative interviews with him, as well as the audience’s accounts of his fate throughout his life. All of this paints a vivid picture of an artist’s life trajectory who has walked untrodden and uneasy paths through life. Victories meet defeats in the rough oceanic waves of the typical artist’s life, which, however, form a decent curriculum vitae today. A lifespan of an uneven revolution where nothing is ever as it seems, with struggle between good and evil as serious and comical as it can be at the same time. Even when the artist himself is obviously upset about what he’s sharing, he uses his sense of humor as a tool in his narrative. His own near-death experience becomes a source of endless jokes. And what is right and what is wrong, what is truth, what is deception… the world contains only endless questions and hairy answers.

And do you really think the world is that confusing? A guest at the opening was heard asking the artist  – Yes and even more confusing than I could ever interpret in this show.

Flat theater, of sorts
at the parking lot of existence 

Squares move
and on them triangles feed.

It all goes in circles,
yellow, blue, red,

Flat theatre, of sorts,
in the parking lot of existence.

The end of reality,
sort of.

Exhibition overview at ForA Contemporary Platform

Ómar Stefánsson was born in 1960 in Iceland and has exhibited at the Reykjavík Art Museum, the National Gallery of Iceland and had numerous solo exhibitions in Iceland. Works by him have also been shown at Heine Onstadt in Oslo, Norway and at an exhibition with Cy Twombly, Joseph Beuys at Gallery Händschin in Basel, Switzerland. The National Gallery of Iceland and the Reykjavík Art Museum have paintings by Ómar in their collection as well as the Technical School of Iceland, Eimskip and an Illuminati congregation in Switzerland. Ómar also created works especially for the train station in Basel, Switzerland, together with the artists Dieter Roth, Dominik Steiger and André Thomkins.

Further information about Ómar Stefánsson, his work and exhibition can be found at the sites

Freyja Eilíf

Flat Theatre for an Uneven Revolution by Ómar Stefánsson was exhibited at ForA Contemporary Platform in Berlin, March 14th – April 10th, 2022, curated by Freyja Eilíf.

Featured image: Freyja Eilíf. Video, recording and editing: Freyja Eilíf. Images of artwork: courtesy of the artist.


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