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2010

MAY - REYKJAVIK, ICELAND

THREE REGIONS

SCOTLAND / SAPMI / NIGERIA: ARTIST'S USE OF LOCAL LANGUAGE AND CULTURAL SIGNIFIERS IN THE DECONSTRUCTION OF IDENTITY AND HERITAGE

Mother Tongue RESEARCH PAPER (EXCERPT) PRESENTED AT THE ART IN TRANSLATION CONFERENCE, NORDIC HOUSE, REYKJAVIK

Between these different regions, there are strong parallels between artists work as they attempt to balance traditional culture with their role in modern society. Each region’s respective artist attempts to deconstruct and rebuild their culture through an investigation of their heritage, a realisation of their own personal identity, in relation to their national identity. Languages - including indigenous languages, regional dialect or slang - are used as a method by which to critique the hybrid nature of their multi-layered identities.

In addressing this balance, the artists examine common stereotypes and histories romanticized interpretation of events and icons, often combined with strong political undercurrents. The contemporary Scottish artist Graham Fagen deals with our own Scottish national heritage, in particular the legacy of Scotland's national poet, Robert Burns. Fagen employs radio broadcasts as a means of merging the rhythm of Burn's poetry with reggae music from the seemingly disparate region of the Caribbean. While Fagen inserts extracts of Burns poetry directly into reggae music, the Nigerian artist Olu Oguibe uses Pidgin English in a much less obvious example of cross-cultural overlaps. Pidgin English originated out of a need for a common language between English, French, Portuguese and Dutch traders along the West African coast during the colonial period. Both a symbol of the uneducated working class and a disillusioned youth, Pidgin English is used by Oguibe in his critique of the policies of the Nigerian government. For the Re-Thinking Nordic Colonialism exhibition (2005), "Colonialism Within: Indigenous Rights and Multicultural Realities," the Sámi artist Geir Tore Holm contributed the concert recording, "Mun Rahkistan - In Mun Ge." The video is a translation of Serge Gainsbourgh’s "Je T'aime - Moi Non Plus" in to Holm’s native language. His practice embodies aspects of history, place and time; shared issues that exist beyond regional boundaries to drive these artists to forge a cultural renaissance and reawaken a national identity.

Living on the borders of multiple cultures is reflected in Sámi contemporary artists’ dynamic and open concepts, creating works in the cross currents of many diverse influences and split identities. Sámi artists have had to break through the art forms defined by Western cultures and reinstate their own culture as a modern day movement.

The Sámi artist Geir Tore Holm was involved in Act IV of the Rethinking Nordic Colonialism programme. His practice embodies aspects of history, place and time and studies the meaning of belonging, applying nationality, hybridity and ethnicity. His practice often acknowledges and draws upon his minority Sámi culture, and refers to, or incorporates food and more recently blood. Through his interest in social relations and power structures, he discusses individual identity, connecting to a larger cosmos, and then addresses difficulties in ethnic representations.

“‘Vara addit!’ means ‘Give blood!’ in Sámi language. Blood seems to be more than a red bodily fluid. Due to its importance to life, blood is associated with many beliefs. A basic one is the use of blood as a symbol for family relationships; to be ‘related by blood’ is to be related by ancestry or descent. This bears closely to bloodlines and sayings such as ‘blood is thicker than water’ and ‘bad blood. To be ‘of Sámi blood’ has a positive value, or not, depending on the context this is expressed in. Of course you can be proud of your blood and your ancestors, but on the other hand your pride can be reason to hostility and conflicts, even wars. Millions have given their blood because of the madness of warfare. I found it interesting to make a stand that can inform about blood and simply serve as a stand for the blood donation service in Rovaniemi, recruiting donators among the exhibition’s visitors, especially addressing potential Sámi donators by information material in Sámi language printed for this occasion”

Pidgin English originated out of the first contact between tribes along the West-African coast and European traders; Nigerian Pidgin is largely based on English and Portuguese with French influences. Reclaimed by both the working classes and the urban youth, it has become a signifier for patriotic pride and socialist politics, and is used frequently in contemporary music.

‘National Graffiti,’ a series of prints by the Nigerian artist Olu Oguibe, were produced during the rule of the dictator General Babangida. The wave of optimism post-independence had shifted to a mood of Afro-Pessimism, as democratic elections failed to materialize and with corruption rife. In this work, Oguibe prints directly on to woven mats; a cheap material found through-out Nigeria. In using this surface, the artist aligns himself with the average Nigerian citizen, which is further suggested by his use of Pidgin English and his deliberate misspelling of words to suggest the local pronunciation and accent. In a previous interview with the artist, he has said of his use of Pidgin, ‘many of the quips in the paintings are mere variations on popular sayings from the period... pidgin is an active and dominant language of communication among Nigerians, so it [felt] appropriate for a work about the Nigerian state.’ Oguibe’s choice to use Pidgin is with the realisation that with so many tribal languages, Pidgin is the only language that unifies the politically fragmented Nigeria. His appropriation can also be seen as a direct reference to the legendary Afro-Beat singer Fela Kuti, who sang in Pidgin English about the realities of modern life and the remnants of colonialism in Nigerian society in a gritty and uncompromising manner, and who was also openly defiant against the government and police authorities.

Drawing from our individual periods of research in Nigeria, Sápmi and our homeland, we have identified the mutual preoccupations, among visual artists, with existence under multiple identities. The weight of cultural responsibility is evident in each of the artist’s practice, a burden to hold close or rebel against. They have not only shed light on issues previously unrealised but have questioned their inheritance and the selective historiography it relies upon. Their work reveals that cultural responsibility does not lie solely with politicians or national figures, but also with the individual; it is the collective responsibility of all. The alignment of these seemingly disparate regions highlights the universality of this condition, and its continued relevance in an increasingly globalised world.

Our limited edition printed publication on this project can be found here.

Art In Translation
International Conference On Language and The Arts
University Of Iceland and The Nordic House, Reykjavik, May 27–29, 2010