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.


“It feels like we’re categorized as people who are ‘complete foreigners’ here, not just foreigners”, Pradhan describes his experience. He says it might have to do with Icelandic people being less familiar with non-European countries and thus sticking to stereotypes. “People have asked me if there is any design in India”, he says.


Opportunities outweigh difficulties


Still, all of the artists want to stay in Iceland, at least for now. “The support I’ve received and the opportunities I’ve had as an artist make me wanna stay here”, Llanes explains. He just wishes Iceland offered more opportunities for non-European artists, such as a special visa, as the UK or Germany do. Pradhan emphasizes the creative freedom Iceland offers him.


His post-graduation visa of six months (which is a rather short period in international comparison) just started in June – “I’m currently trying to figure out what a specialized job could be that would allow me to get an extended visa”, he says. His plan B is to enrol at the University of Iceland to study Icelandic – the only other possibility of staying in Iceland without a specialized job or founding his own company.


Hugo Llanes

Llanes might do the same. “I’ve been looking for employment, but there’s none”, he says. He hopes he’ll be eligible for a permanent residency after four years – having a diploma in Icelandic from the University of Iceland could support his case. Even if that means he’ll have to go back to being a student and only being allowed to work 40 percent to support himself, instead of pursuing his creative profession full-time.


Of course, not everyone’s affected in the same ways. Danish-born performance artist Michael Richardt’s (Insta) experience of living in Iceland attests to what a big role one’s passport plays in receiving opportunities to work. Richardt, whose father is Nigerois, says it is definitively a privilege to be in Iceland as a Nordic citizen. Unlike Ubaldo, who is an Icelandic citizen, he says he’s never experienced any racism in Iceland.


Michael Richardt

“The way I’m dressing and presenting myself is almost like an exoskeleton”, he says, in that very moment wearing a pink wig, platform shoes and a shiny jacket. “They probably just think I’m an attention-seeking, poorly styled artist with bad taste”, he adds, laughing. Moreover, he’s not actively seeking to become part of the Icelandic art community per se and doesn’t plan to learn the language. “I’ve always been such a hermit”, Richardt explains his choice. “I inspire myself; my work inspires my work and because I grew up being excluded as a chubby and feminine kid, it doesn’t really bother me”.


Addressing racism within art


Ubaldo and Llanes, however, have been vocal about racism within their art. “En þú ert samt hvítasta dökka manneskja sem ég þekki“, is the title of Ubaldo’s current show. „And yet you‘re the whitest dark-skinned person I know“, as the exhibition‘s title reads translated into English, will be shown at Gallery Skilti in Reykjavík until mid-December. At the heart of the exhibition is an installation with the same title, a white-on-white print that spells out the insult. Ubaldo’s work is based on her own experience: "This sentence was said to me in a conversation”, she explains.


It is not the first time Ubaldo has used an insult hurled at her in her art. She has incorporated phrases such as "She’s more Asian than me” and “What are you doing in Iceland with your face?” in her art. “Sometimes, you just get paralyzed in the moment someone says something like this,” she says. “I’m reclaiming those sentences that were said about me.” And she wants to make a white audience uncomfortable.


Llanes presented a painting that he describes as containing a “straight-forward message about white privilege and whiteness” as part of the group exhibition “Blindspot” in the Reykjavík City Library. The exhibition was part of the European Action Week Against Racism – maybe a sign that Iceland is finally confronting its problem with racism.


Yet most artists have ambivalent feelings about such political statements. “As a minority artist, I feel like, whatever I do, I’m representing my culture, my identity”, Ubaldo says. She sees this as a dilemma – but will continue to address racism directly in her art. “I could easily do cute paintings, but this is what I’m interested in, what inspires me”. Pradhan thinks it’s interesting how everyone tackles the same issue in different ways. He hasn’t made political statements with his art yet – “I think l can address this very straight-forward, because some people don’t understand this artistic way”, he says.


The structure needs to change


In the end, they all agree that the main problem is a structural one. “We, the artists, are very conscious about what the scene is like”, Ubaldo says. In her opinion, it’s the big art institutions that need to “man up” because they’re the ones picking the artists for the shows. El Ansari says it is more difficult for governmental institutions like national museums to change, her hope thus lies on the independent art spaces. “They have more freedom to do this”, she says. And Pradhan thinks the overall awareness for this topic needs to change, as it is “a constant thing, that doesn’t only happen those few times we speak up.”


Yet there is hope: “The younger generation is much more aware of discrimination”, Pradhan says. He just wishes they would stand up against discrimination not only for their friends, but also when facing “older generations” and more established artists, who he doesn’t perceive as “very welcoming”. It’s clear, then, that this problem will not be solved overnight and will require active work and rethinking of established patterns – be it in terms of residence and work permits, funding or general support.


Words & photos: Noemi Ehrat

 

Noemi Ehrat is a freelance journalist from Zurich based in Reykjavik, Iceland.