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The art and national idendity

The art and national idendity

Aleksandra Leonardsdóttir (left) and Elísabet Gunnarsdóttir. Photo/Lárus Karl


The Art Museum and Education Centre of the Icelandic Confederation of Labour are currently working together on a project that entails opening up a discussion between native Icelanders and immigrants via the use of art. The authors, Elísabet Gunnarsdóttir and Aleksandra Leonardsdóttir, discuss peer education and initiatives to pique interest in Icelandic and Polish culture.   

THE labour movement has fought for those with little societal voice throughout history. The Icelandic Confederation of Labour is a mass movement of thousands of workers, and workplaces and unions are frequently immigrants’ initial points of contact with Icelandic society. The majority of foreign employees in Iceland are currently immigrants from Poland, who make up about one-fifth of the country’s labour force. Poles in Iceland are a varied group, with generally tenuous ties to Icelandic society. Likewise, immigrants are frequently seen in Icelandic society as transitory employees or migrants. 

One of the main challenges is the language, and occasionally it seems like both Icelanders and immigrants are hoping for a quick-fix. Although language is significant, there are many other issues that require attention with cultural literacy at the top of the list.  For these two groups to be able to communicate openly and promote peer education, they urgently need a neutral venue. A forum that promotes curiosity about the cultures and languages of these two nations is lacking.  

Mynd: Dziwny Ogród
A Strange Garden (1902-03) by Józef Mehoffer (1869-1946). Polish National Museum, Warzaw.

Identity, self-worth, and self-assurance

Identity is a meaningful concept in the arts, sociology, and psychology. Identity is formed by a person’s overall concept of self. Many variables are present, including personality, interests, opinions, values, place of origin, gender, age, occupation, and personal background. So, many things we think pertain to ourselves are the foundation of our self-image. Self-esteem and confidence are impacted by the complex phenomena of identity which has a variety of forms that are frequently difficult to comprehend without knowledge of the history and culture from which it originates.  

Artists use a variety of methods to express themselves. The way they express themselves  reveals their feelings and experiences which in turn narrates the events that occurred at the time the works were made. These tales frequently shed light on societal issues and provide insight into the artist’s working reality. 

In this sense, art history may explain our identity and help us comprehend our origins. Every nation owns well-known works of art that almost everyone can name. These pieces reveal our own history as a nation among nations and arouse feelings such as pride, a sense of belonging and specific emotions.  

Art, on the other hand, is a phenomenon open to everyone’s opinion, though few dare to express it. People typically believe they lack the skills necessary to meaningfully discuss art. We believe that before expressing an opinion, we must be knowledgeable, have experience and learn more.  

Regardless of whether we have moved from Raufarhöfn to Akureyri, have always lived in the same place, or have recently relocated from another country or another continent. We are uneasy when it comes to discussing art. All of us are quite equal in this regard.  

A discussion of two distinct art worlds

Elísabet Gunnarsdóttir, curator of ASÍ’s Art Museum, had for quite some time thought about ​ starting a conversation between native Icelanders and immigrants with the help of art. Several of Iceland’s most precious 20th century works of art are housed in ASÍ's Art Museum whose founding goal was to make art accessible to the general public. Aleksandra Leonardsdóttir, a Polish born employee at ASI’s Education Centre, became interested in the concept. They developed the idea further and received invaluable help from Wiola Ujazdowska, a Polish artist and art historian who provided guidance on Poland's rich art history. 

The core of the project is the art of two different, but in many respects quite similar, cultures, coming together. The artworks in Ragnar Jónsson’s (better known as Ragnar í Smára) founding gift to ASÍ on June 17, 1961 tell the story of Icelanders shaping society as an independent nation. Wiola Ujazdowska contributed by using several themes, choosing Polish works and pairing them with Icelandic works from the ASÍ Museum's collection. 

Personal experiences

The project’s initial phase consists of four brief videos, each dealing with two works of art, one, Icelandic, from the ASÍ Museum's collection and one Polish from the same era or with a related theme. To discuss the works, we turned to members of ASÍ's unions of Polish and Icelandic heritage, most of whom had not studied or created works of art. For preparation, the participants were given a brief text that contained details on the author of the relevant work and its historical context. The pieces were also set within the background of art history and social change at the time they were made. The participants were also urged to conduct their own research before being asked to speak candidly in front of the camera about the details and their own experiences in relation to the works. The documentaries can be found on the museum's website - 

Here is a video where Gróa Sigurbergsdóttir and Ilona Piech discuss works by Johannes Kjarval and Józef Mehoffer.    

Mynd: Kjarval
Thingvellir (1960-62) LA-282 by Jóhannes S. Kjarval (1885-1972).

Educating through the arts

We now move on to the second phase of the project. A course on the history of Icelandic art and social development in relation to what was going on in Polish art and society at the same time will be offered by the Labour Movement’s School of Social Studies ( Félagsmálaskóli alþýðu). There will be lectures and project work, peer education promoted and discussions fostered through art. 

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