Johanna Gustafsson Fürst explores the grafting of tongues

The Swedish sculptor investigates the marginalisation of Meänkieli and the politics of linguistic homogenization at Accelerator, Stockholm.

by Jones John Published on : Sep 17, 2020

The formation of a nation-state and the assumption of a singular national identity occurs amidst several ontological conflicts. The marginalisation of divergent indigeneities almost always accompanies the naturalisation of a single culture as being essential to a large geographical area. There is a violence in such homogenisations but there is also a sense of peace. On the geopolitical level, a stability takes the place of turbulence but for those whose identities have become peripheral, getting habituated to this synthesised calm requires contending with the loss of heritage, of linguistic, ethnic and several other socio-cultural patrimonies.

‘Untitled’, 2020 | Graft the Words, Whip My Tongue | Johanna Gustafsson Fürst | STIRworld
Untitled, 2020 Image: Christian Saltas, Courtesy of Johanna Gustafsson Fürst

After almost a century of the majority of the globe progressively shedding the yoke of European colonisations, it is easy to assume such displacements to be inherently post-colonial but this notion is periodically put to the test as narratives of fractured cultures within European modernity enter the public domain. The ongoing story of the marginalisation of Meänkieli, a Finnic language native to northern Sweden, is one that emerged from such a history. “An unequal relationship in Sweden can be said to have culminated between 1880 and 1957, when the Swedefication of the areas around the Finnish border was most active. However, it is a relationship that still needs to be worked on. For example, as recently as 2000, Meänkieli became a domestic official national minority language in Sweden,” explains Johanna Gustafsson Fürst, a Swedish sculptor who came face to face with the lived experiences of those who have lived with this marginalisation during a residency with the artist-run Residence-In-Nature at Lainio in the country’s northern frontier.

Johanna Gustafsson Fürst | Graft the Words, Whip My Tongue | STIRworld
Johanna Gustafsson Fürst Image: Christian Saltas, Courtesy of Johanna Gustafsson Fürst

“There, I met people who told me about the linguistic violence they had been subject to in the Swedefication. In school they were forbidden to speak their mother tongues: Sami, Finish or Meänkieli. I knew about this before, but meeting people who have experienced it made it pierce into me. We risk repeating some of these mistakes made in Swedish history in a near future. For example, some political parties are trying to condition the granting of Swedish citizenship to language tests and want to forbid the speaking of languages other than Swedish during school breaks. Which is contrary to contemporary research on language development for children,” says the artist, reflecting on contemporary conflicts that have manifested from this history.

From left to right, ‘Monolingual Territory’, 2020, ‘Paroll Parole Parole’, 2020, and ‘The Wave’, 2020 | Graft the Words, Whip My Tongue | Johanna Gustafsson Fürst | STIRworld
From left to right, Monolingual Territory, 2020, Paroll Parole Parole, 2020, and The Wave, 2020 Image: Christian Saltas, Courtesy of Johanna Gustafsson Fürst

Fürst’s ongoing exhibition at Accelerator, an exhibition hall on the premises of Stockholm University, is a culmination of her ongoing engagement and subsequent contemplation on these experiences. Graft the Words, Whip My Tongue is a dialectical experience that is divided into two parts, navigating several approaches at attempting to understand and reflect upon various facets that motivate this phenomenon, and without intrinsic judgment weigh its virtues and cost. Through a set of sculptural strategies located around the gallery, Fürst grapples with censorship, exclusivity, the symbols of nationhood, cultural homogenisation and difference, social movements and a number of other poignant patterns that informs linguistic flux. “I want to delve into how language can both liberate us from and anchor us in our bodies and investigate whether language can cause us to let go of the experience that one individual is equal to one body or if it is possible to end up beyond it. I am thinking of tongues as anchors, languages as ships and all bodies as a common seabed".

In Sweden, as in many other states, such linguistic hierarchies are not merely confined to a single frontier. Recollecting her own experience with such marginalisation, Fürst says, “As a child, having just moved to the capital Stockholm, I had to go to a speech therapist for a suspected speech defect. Without my parents’ knowledge, I had to leave the classroom and take lessons. When my mother contacted the school because she thought I was speaking so rigidly, they discovered the same speech defect in her, a speech defect that was in fact Smålänska, a dialect from South-East Sweden”.

The Library, 2020 | Graft the Words, Whip My Tongue | Johanna Gustafsson Fürst | STIRworld
The Library, 2020 Image: Christian Saltas, Courtesy of Johanna Gustafsson Fürst

Accompanying the exhibition is an anthology titled Stridsskrift, edited by the literary critic Sara Abdollahi on Fürst’s request. The book can be found within the exhibition as part of the installation of The Library, and is the result of each of its contributors individually engaging with the several themes that emerge out of Fürst’s explorations. The writers who have taken part in this project include Ida Börjel, Balsam Karam, Negar Naseh, Lars Mikael Raattamma and Loretto Villalobos.

L/anguish – But if the World Gags, Does Not Nourish, Bite it Off, 2019 | Graft the Words, Whip My Tongue | Johanna Gustafsson Fürst | STIRworld
L/anguish – But if the World Gags, Does Not Nourish, Bite it Off, 2019 Image: Christian Saltas, Courtesy of Johanna Gustafsson Fürst

(The exhibition is to conclude on October 11, 2020.)

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