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Racism and Xenophobia in the Icelandic Art Scene

by Noemi Ehrat

 
"How is it possible to work as an independent artist without having a legal option to be paid?"

“We like to paint this picture of Iceland as this liberal utopia, but it’s very exclusionary", artist Melanie Ubaldo (Insta) says.


She speaks from experience: Ubaldo came to Iceland from the Philippines as a 13-year-old. Today, 29-year-old Ubaldo is an Icelandic citizen, and she received all of her art education on the island: from a high school that allowed her to specialize in arts to her bachelor’s and master’s degree at the Iceland University of the Arts.


However, while Ubaldo has had major success as an artist in Iceland and will soon have her first exhibition in Berlin, she’s critical of the Icelandic art scene and its relation to foreign-born artists. “I’d like to see more inclusivity”, she says. Obviously, racist structures within the Icelandic art scene aren’t isolated from racism elsewhere in Icelandic society, which has received more attention in recent years. Yet some of them manifest themselves in specific, maybe even more hidden ways.


Melanie Ubaldo

Along with Ubaldo, four other artists with different backgrounds have shared their experiences and their hopes for change. While their experiences of living and working in Iceland differ as much as their art practices, most of them agree about one thing: the Icelandic art scene needs to become more inclusive.


Funding


Vikram Pradhan (Insta), a 24-year-old Indian designer and recent graduate from the Iceland University of the Arts, explains that racism often happens in small ways. “I’ve often felt discrimination in a passive way, not directly”, he says. One example of such hidden discrimination is the lack of names from people outside of Europe on funding and grant lists. “You always see the same generic names”, Pradhan says.


Vikram Pradhan

Egyptian-French visual artist Nermine El Ansari has noticed the lack of international names on such lists as well. “Last year, I applied for funding for the first time because I lost all of my jobs due to COVID”, she explains. She didn’t receive any grants, which made her curious to see who received financial support – “I checked the list of visual artists and there were only four non-Icelandic artists out of 83 on the list, and all of them from Europe”, she says.


'Outlanders': Iceland's restrictive immigration policy


The reason behind this one-sided allocation of funds can be explained twofold: on the one hand, non-European artists have to deal with a restrictive immigration policy, which prevents them from receiving funding easily. Visual artist Hugo Llanes (Insta) from Mexico has experienced this first-hand: after recently having graduated from the Icelandic University of the Arts with a master’s degree in fine arts, the 30-year-old now has six months to find a job in order for his visa to be extended.


The only problem: as any visual artist, Llanes is dependent on being able to make out invoices – which he’s not legally allowed to. “Because that would mean you’re freelancing, but as a non-European citizen, you need to have a work contract to be able to work and stay in Iceland”, he explains, and adds, frustrated: “How is it possible to work as an independent artist without having a legal option to be paid?”.

Nermine El-Ansari

On the other hand, both Pradhan and El Ansari report ignorance towards non-Europeans and non-European art. “The Icelandic art scene focuses too much on European and Nordic art”, El Ansari says. “They should include more people from different countries, especially from the Middle East, Asia, Africa and Latin America”. She’s convinced this could make “a huge difference, even for educational reasons”. El Ansari says that only seeing images of non-European countries as poor, corrupted and war-torn through the media helps create one-sided xenophobic views. Displaying art from different continents might help battle these stereotypes.