If two can speak about their own, what can we speak about together?
If two can talk together without an assumption about what we should talk about, what we could talk about, what do we then talk about?
And what happens then? -Silta Kollektiivi
(All translation in text by me, the originals can be found below. I apologize to people whose words I translated if something was lost or added.)
Outlines is a feminist film festival feat. talk show organized this past weekend in Helsinki by Silta Kollektiivi (the Bridge Collective). Silta Kollektiivi is comprised of antiracist, feminist activist and journalist Maryan Abdulkarim and Koltta Sámi activist, theatre and movie producer Pauliina Feodoroff. Outlines is part of a three event series curated by Ahmed Al-Nawasin entitled Remembering Silences. The next events in the Remembering Silences Series will take place in Helsinki in December 2015 and April 2016.
The event is realized through Checkpoint Helsinki a contemporary art organization that loves “extraordinary, unexpected art”. In a Q&A on the Checkpoint Helsinki website about Outlines Abdulkarim and Feodoroff answer questions about the festival under the title: If an identity is constructed on false history, what is someone’s own story? The question segues into the themes of the festival, which are: power, colonialism, indigenous peoples, the now-moment and black feminism.
In the same interview, Abdulkarim speaks of the collective amnesia and erasure of identities that happens as power obscures what passes as history. She states [a]:
“If we think for example of children with immigrant backgrounds in classrooms, the picture of history that is handed to them of their own backgrounds and identities, has nothing to do with real history. It is not exactly the history of the victorious, but it does come from the outside”
She continues [b]: “For example, what link do these children have with their parents, to their communities, to society? How does memory disappear?”
On what brings Abdulkarim and Feodoroff together to produce Outlines, Feodoroff states [c]:
“Our attempt is to create conversation that is by its nature public and in a public space and that these conversations in public space fortify and give permission to a certain ways and forms of being”
On the first day of the festival, I arrive forty minutes late, in the nick of time to watch the first film A Gay Girl in Damascus: The Amina Profile (2015) directed by Sophie Deraspe. The documentary unravels the elusive identity of a blogger hailed formerly as the “Heroine of the Syrian Revolution” – a brave out lesbian and freedom fighter. The story is told through the eyes of “Amina”’s lover, a Canadian woman who had a six month online relationship with the blogger. Internet identities, identity politics, the integrity of news reporting, and trust are thrust to the forefront of the viewer’s minds as Amina is kidnapped. A vigorous hunt and campaign to save her life end abruptly because Amina turns out to be a false identity puppeteered by a heterosexual American cis-man. What the fuck?
A Gay Girl in Damascus: The Amina Profile is followed by a vlog by Mia McKenzie, black feminist and queer writer, activist and founder of Black Girl Dangerous . The vlog can be found here and is entitled: The Rachel Dolezal Situation: Blackface, Appropriation and F*ckery, Oh My! For those of you who might have been in Finland or otherwise out of the US news cycle when Rachel Dolezal made headlines: Dolezal is a white woman who pretended to be black for years with the help of spray tans and hair weaves, when really she is as white as the next European colonizer.
Through the examples of “Amina” and Mia McKenzie’s astute deconstruction of the “Dolezal Situation” Outlines moves into talk show. Abdulkarim and Feodoroff are joined on stage by Sonya Lindfors dancer, director and choreographer. What follows is the answer to the question asked by the Silta Kollektiivi: What happens then? An opening of public space for conversations that can no longer stay private, for voices that cannot be silenced.
Spurred by the two videos, the ensuing conversation on stage approaches identities through power, appropriation and layers of complexities. What the speakers expose to the audience is a white colonial mind that demands access to everything: to the black woman’s body and experience, to the identity and voice of an Arab lesbian, to the land of the indigenous, to the center of discourse, to the authority of knowledge. The white colonial mind that can only conceive of its ‘inherently complex self’ in opposition to a stagnant, fixed, one dimensional other. The white colonial mind that sees itself reflected and positively reinforced in all facets of culture. The white colonial mind that needs to take no turns, no detours as it validates itself through the oppression of others.
As someone who attended the event, it seems counter to how the festival was organized to attempt to “make sense” of it. As a bi-lingual person I feel compelled to write about the experience in Finnish. English is my academic language, my mediator language, the language in which I correct other people’s grammar. It seems unintuitive to align words in neat lines that follow each other in a pattern defined as “logic” by the standards of white supremacist capitalist hetero patriarchy (bell hooks). The hastily jotted inky crows feet of my notebook were never intended to recount the intellectual, honest, brave, critical and captivating bridges that Abdulkarim, Feodoroff and Lindfors crossed, created and deliberately let fall with each other and the audience.
As an explicitly antiracist and feminist experience, I came to Outlines to search for the answer to the question: what is contemporary feminism in Finland? Even as I write about the event, what is mine to recount is to be questioned. In a discourse where colonization, black feminism, indigenous peoples and power are deliberately centered, who occupies space and how will define what is remembered and what is devoured by amnesia. With intersectional analysis (Crenshaw) the multifaceted surfaces that outline our own relationships to power and privilege also determine where our feminisms stem from. It is at the borders of our complex identities where we can recognize our privileges and give space to each other accordingly.
What is contemporary feminism in Finland? One way I perceive my question approached during Outlines was through the language used to talk about specific forms of power and oppression on stage: what words and what concepts must be taken from other languages and used mixed in with Finnish? What has yet to be named in Finland (onko sen pakko olla suomeksi?)? Are for example, imported English words that spill from centers of hegemonic power, a form of cultural imperialism? Does for example the adoption of US centered anti-oppression rhetoric and tactics globally homogenize struggles, or does it create space for transnational solidarity? What discourses can contemporary feminism in Finland make use of to chart its own course through intersecting identities, power and privilege? I pose these thoughts that Outlines shaped for me as questions, because on stage Sonya Lindfors proposed what perhaps ought to be the root of contemporary feminisms: to ask questions. To keep asking questions.
In the interview with Abdulkarim and Feodoroff on the Checkpoint Helsinki website, Feodoroff states: “Even though Finnish culture has been colonized, it is so much more difficult to speak about colonialism with so-called “Finnish-Finns”(kantasuomalainen, does anyone have a better translation?). It is interesting how a certain history of an oppressed, pummeled people unites us [Abdulkarim and Feodoroff]” [d].
As a white Finnish-US citizen with white Finnish parents, who attended an international elementary school in Espoo, then a Finnish middle school and high school, I can testify that the history of the Sámi people was most certainly absent in my education. Even the existence of Sámi people was absent. I can also testify that the historical narrative of homogeneous whiteness went without scrutiny. The definition of a Finn as something more than a white person never made it into my schoolbooks, Finnish fiction books, or cultural representations.
The collective, deliberate amnesia that shapes what and who constitutes a Finn is particularly painful when Feodoroff speaks of her people. What is it like to bear witness to the gradual extinction of your people? What is it like to embody the contradictions that made you look for life away from them? I use extinction here because Feodoroff used it on stage. The wording jolted. Why is it so hard to talk about colonization with “Finnish-Finns”? The conversations nag at our complacency, our silent, inherent complicity that we conceal in chosen ignorance.
Through Outlines, Silta Kollektiivi creates the public space for conversations that center what will no longer be obfuscated precisely because of people like Abdulkarim and Feodoroff. It is within these spaces that those invested in creating feminisms that are intersectional in more than rhetoric can come together. Come together like Sonya Lindfors also said: understanding that there are questions that will remain unanswered, that there are ways of coexisting that will look different on different days and in different spaces. Silta Kollektiivi reminds its audience that feminism should be the true commons, where colonizers are vanquished; the uninterrupted flow of white power is stemmed and space is claimed and held for people to “become the bridge to their own power” (Kate Rushin, quoted by Abdulkarim and Feodoroff in the program of the event).
Originals in Finnish:
a. Jos mietitään vaikkapa maahanmuuttajalapsia koulunpenkillä ja sitä historiankuvaa, joka heille annetaan omasta taustasta ja identiteetistä, sillä ei ole mitään tekemistä todellisen historian kanssa. Se on ikään kuin jos ei nyt ihan voittajan historiaa, mutta tulee ulkopuolelta.
b. Mikä on esimerkiksi näiden lasten linkki omiin vanhempiin, omiin yhteisöihinsä, yhteiskuntaan? Miten muisti katoaa?
c. Yrityksenämme on luoda keskustelua, joka olisi luonteeltaan julkista ja julkisessa tilassa ja että nämä julkisen tilan keskustelut vahvistavat ja antavat lupaa joillekin tietynlaisille olemisen tavoille ja muodoille.
D Vaikka Suomen kulttuuri on kolonisoitu, niin sanottujen kantasuomalaisten kanssa on paljon vaikeampi puhua kolonialismista. Kiinnostavaa on se, kuinka tietty alisteisen, hyvin runnellun kansanosan historia yhdistää meitä.