Finland: Burkas in Finnish nature

Three figures clad in blue burkhas make a circle in the snow with their footsteps. Five others, in identical attire, walk in a birch forest in the springtime, then in a yellow rape field, and later on a rocky seashore. Finally there are more than ten of them walking on an ice-covered lake.

Usually we are accustomed to seeing burkha-covered women in completely different surroundings - in pictures taken in hot and dusty places. Or actually, we are not used to seeing them anywhere - certainly not in a Finnish landscape. What are they doing there?

Burkhas in Finnish nature are part of the Finlandia exhibition by artist Rosa Liksom, which has opened in Stockholm.

"I have used women in burkhas in my comic strips already from the 1990s", Rosa Liksom says. From there they came to my paintings, and now into videos and photographs. When painted or drawn, the image of a burkha has not raised any passions at all", Liksom says.

Liksom has learned that photographs and video are different. When the proprietor of her gallery in Stockholm sent Swedish publications a photograph with a burkha theme along with a press release about the exhibition, the telephones started ringing.

Women in Finnish surroundings dressed in burkhas were immediately taken as a very political artistic statement.

Rosa Liksom does not agree.

"I was born in the far north, in a small village, where most of the people were members of the Conservative Laestadian sect. There women were always dressed in black, and they wore black scarves, showing only their faces. As my roots are in this type of culture, Muslim dress was never a very foreign element to me."

The burkha is an extreme version of many different types of Muslim attire. Liksom became acquainted with it in the 1970s when she lived in suburbs of Paris in the 1970s, and later in Copenhagen and Stockholm. From there it came into my paintings, more as an aesthetic element."

Then Liksom became inspired to examine landscapes, and especially the concept of a "national landscape". "I thought what would fit with it as an element of alienation, and I came up with the burkha. Its blue colour calls to mind the Finnish flag. It is both graphic and figurative as a material. And naturally, it is something that raises powerful emotions", Liksom adds. "Islam is so demonised in the West that I wanted to tame the burkha."

Wearing a burkha was a powerful experience for the volunteers who took part in the video project of more than a year and a half. "Some felt so anguished inside the burkha that hshey were unable to participate", Liksom says. "But those who did not get a panic attack found that there were good sides to the outfit. We managed to understand that some want to use the burkha voluntarily."

Rosa Liksom herself is one of the burkha-clad women appearing in the Finlandia video. For her the experience was a personal step toward understanding that the human mind is the same everywhere, even though cultures vary.

The aim of Liksom's work is to spark debate, not to appear as a defender of the burkha.

"If the extremes of the image of a woman are the burkha and appearing half naked, then perhaps each of the extremes have an equal right to existence. Liksom asks uncomfortable questions. Why do we approve of women being unclothed in advertising on the street, and not of a woman who is covered up? Who determines the codes of dress, and whose wishes do they carry out?

The Finlandia video is to be made a trilogy. After the first part, which was shot in nature, the second part will have the burkha-clad women appear in Finnish suburbs and areas of wasteland. In the third, they will be depicted in luxurious milieux.

The video featuring women in burkhas is a poetic journey through four seasons, and different landscapes. The photography is by Kari Pullinen, the editing is by Heikki Kotsalo and the music is by Roni Martin.

The most important props - the burkhas themselves - were came from Kabul, where the housekeeper of the local Finnish chargé d'affaires and a Finnish anthropologist bought them at a local bazaar.

The image of Finland and Finnish history have long been topics of interest for Rosa Liksom. "My Finlandia offers everything but a meringue picture of Finland I want to make the Finlandia-connotation something everyday, to show that something that is so sublime has value even in a mundane context."

Source: Helsingin Sanomat (English), pictures from the exhibition available here

See also: Norway: Traditional Norwegian burka, Norway: The Norwegian Burka

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