Sitting in the Reykjavík Arts Festival’s sunny downtown white-cube offices, Hanna Styrmisdóttir, the festival’s artistic director, is in a relaxed and confident mood. The 2015 festival is bearing down, and she’s recounting a story from an interview earlier in the day.
“I got a surprising question from a UK-based journalist,” Hanna says. “She asked whether I was afraid that this year’s theme—in particular, focusing on the work of women—would affect our box office. She said, women will go to films directed by women, whereas men generally won’t, while both women and men will go to male-directed films.”
She pauses, frowning expressively and letting the question hang in the air. “And I have to say, I have no idea why that might be,” she continues. “It is baffling. My answer to the journalist was no—I didn’t think about that at all. It hadn’t even occured to me that the excellent work of women that we’re presenting this year would affect our box office.”
This festival’s theme—of gender, censorship and rights struggle in the arts—has been on Hanna’s mind since she first took over the role. She has a long-standing interest in both art by women, and the surrounding issues—two facets that touched on the feminist performance art of the 60s and 70s.
“That work was very radical in a way we don’t see now,” she explains. “We don’t really see that radicalism from women artists here, or in Icelandic art in general, for that matter. It’s understandable in a way, because it’s such a small society—there’s not much distance between people. Perhaps in bigger countries you need to be more radical to make your voice heard.”
Beneath the gender stats
The year 2015 marks the 100th anniversary of women’s suffrage in Iceland, but while today’s Iceland regularly tops international charts on quality of life for women, a closer look reveals a different picture than the stats might suggest. From company boardrooms, to the number of women in Parliament, to equal pay or opportunities in the arts, the situation in Iceland is still a long way off gender parity.
“There’s probably more equality in Iceland than in lots of other parts of the world,” says Hanna. “But looking at the statistics, things are not what they seem here. Looking at the festival from 1970-2012, we found that writing is the only discipline in which women are in the majority—55% of authors presented have been women. In the visual arts the ratio is 30/70; in world and pop music solo artists, the ratio is 40/60. And in music groups, it was just 7/93.”
It’s a trend that continues throughout art organisations in Iceland, both historically and in the modern day. And despite the now familiar and widely accepted idea of a “hidden history” of female art, it’s surprising to find that even in these supposedly enlightened times, the problem is ongoing.
“After our festival, we started to look at other organisations,” says Hanna. “This included museum acquisitions, which are very important with regards to creating a history of our times. Over the last three years, major artworks by women have simply not been collected to the same extent as those by men. There are many modest pieces entering collections, but I question whether the acquisitions over the last few years really reflect the significant role of women on the Icelandic art scene.”
The festival’s programme, as well as simply presenting plenty of new work by female artists, will present a range of work that explores the connected issues of censorship and rights struggles in general. The self-styled “conscience of the art world,” The Guerilla Girls, will present a new billboard work, possibly riffing on the subject of museum collections like their famous meme that asked, “Do women have to be naked to get into the Met. Museum? Only 5% of the artists in the Modern Art section are women, but 85% of the nudes are female.” A new opera called ‘Magnus-Maria’ tells the 300-year-old story of a woman who cross-dressed to be able to progress as a professional musician, with dramatic consequences.
“Then there’s ‘Peter Grimes’ by Benjamin Britten,” says Hanna, “which has not been performed in Iceland before. Like most of Benjamin’s opera work, the story tells us what he was going through. It’s the story of an outcast. He was gay, and until 1967 homosexuality was illegal in Britain and punishable by law. When you start looking at the programme, you start realising these things are connected.”
There’s also an exhibition by Dorothy Iannone, an American artist who spent the last 30 years in Europe, and has been censored in various ways since 1959. “Many of Dorothy’s paintings are very explicit,” says Hanna, “with a strong focus on female sexuality. It’s only in the last five to ten years that there is real interest in her work, and people are prepared to discuss it or show it, and really look at the importance of it.”
The long haul
It can seem disheartening to learn that the actuality of gender equality is still so far behind the rhetoric of the day. Even with equal pay laws passed in the wake of the famous 1975 “Women’s Day Off” protest, during which 20,000 women went on strike from homes and workplaces, pay parity is still estimated by recent studies at around 80%.
“It’s one thing to make a decision to put into law that we want to be equal, but it’s another thing to actually do something about it,” says Hanna. “Unless it happens through concentrated and fully aware effort to bring about ‘this change that we promised ourselves.’ Looking at people between fifteen and thirty in Iceland, I feel like girls have actually lost ground in Iceland. It’s like there’s been an anti-feminist wave, as if feminism is something bad. But feminism is what brought us here—without it I would not be sitting at this table, and that is absolutely clear. So why has feminism become perceived as aggressive and negative, when it’s really about how we fulfil this promise we made to ourselves—to live in an equal society?”
But as recent events such as Free The Nipple and the online spat between feminist rap collective Reykjavíkurdætur and the (largely white/male) Icelandic hip-hop establishment have proven, feminism is very much a going concern in Iceland’s youth culture.
“It’s true,” says Hanna. “Even in the last five years, it feels that the tide of anti-feminism is being turned. History tells us that change doesn’t always move in positive directions and that ground that has been won can also be lost. So it’s a very important time to be vocal about what kind of world we want to live in.”
Which begs the question: should arts institutions have gender quotas, to redress the balance? “Well, in the end it’s about the work, always,” says Hanna, philosophically. “But if we live in a society that claims to be equal, we need to make sure that making work, showing work, getting work out there is a viable option for everyone.”
One recent touchstone for feminists in the arts is the emergence of an increasing number of female conductors into a traditionally male-dominated field.
“There have been a lot of articles in UK newspapers about women conductors lately,” says Hanna. “In one of them, Barbara Hannigan, a female conductor and soprano, said she’d been conducting on television, and her friend was watching with her young daughter. The daughter said, ‘Mom, I didn’t even know women were allowed to conduct!’”
The story resonated with Hanna personally. “It was actually only this March when I saw a woman conduct the Iceland Symphony Orchestra for the first time,” she recalls. “I remember the feeling. It was a realisation that, yes, this is possible. It’s not this far-off genius activity, but it’s also for people that I identify with, who are like me. Something happened then—I realised there was an attitude there that this was so extraordinary that it was beyond the means of mere females. And now, that feeling is completely changed. Knowing that pursuing your dreams, whatever they may be, is a viable option—that you can be an artist and be judged on your work and not on your gender—that’s an extremely important place to reach. And I don’t think we have yet.”