From Iceland — Behind The Masks

Behind The Masks

Published August 11, 2023

Behind The Masks
Rex Beckett
Photo by
Supplied by the Nordic House

The exhibition GRÍMUR uncovers queer history

When the ‘80s rolled in, the queer community could never have predicted that over the next decade, the HIV/AIDS epidemic would tear through and decimate their population. As the death toll rose – largely ignored powers-that-be – it was joy, beauty and love that held the community together.

In 1983, queer Norwegian visual artists Kjetil Berge and Gøran Ohldieck arrived in Iceland to display a photography exhibition at the Nordic House showing the fervent jubilance of their friends and community. When the exhibition opened, management of the institution recoiled at their images of unabashed queer exuberance, telling the artists to remove the “distasteful” works from the show. Kjetil and Gøran, both in their early 20s at the time, told them to get fucked, packed their show and left. The exhibition was up for just two days.

Forty years later — also the 40th anniversary of the scientific isolation of HIV — the show rises again at the Nordic House.

“In 2019, I curated an exhibition at the City Center Library about art in relation to Samtökin ’78,” says Ynda Eldborg, curator of the exhibition now called GRÍMUR (“Masks”). “I was going through the Reykjavík municipal archives and that’s when I came across this exhibition. I had never heard of it. I was speechless”

She describes the revelation as “an absolute Nirvana moment.” She contacted the artists, asking them to take part in the 2019 exhibition, and they gladly obliged.

“I was a bit pissed off but I was not really angry,” she says about learning how the exhibition was shut down. “I saw it as a victory, as a contribution to queer history. I thought, ‘I’m just gonna grab this concept and move forward,’ rather than wasting time on being angry.”

Ynda’s mission to bring queer art to the forefront in Iceland has been a long and fraught journey, much like the ongoing fight for queer rights. After living in the UK for 15 years and completing a PhD in art history, she returned to Iceland in 2014 and began trying to curate exhibitions in all the major art institutions.

“I introduced programs to all the museums,” she says. “I either got a ‘No’ or they would say ‘There’s a board meeting next week and we will decide then,’ and then nothing happened. So I just gave up.”

Rather, she forged ahead on her own path, determined to fulfil her mission. In 2022, the Living Art Museum (Nýló) opened their doors to her and co-curator Viktoría Guðnadóttir to put up their show On Display: Queer Above Others.

From there, the ball started rolling and she struck a deal with Kjetil and Gøran that when finished with the exhibition at Nýló, they would be her next show. She contacted the Nordic House’s director, Sabina Westerholm last autumn, who welcomed her with open arms. The exhibition opened August 10, in the prime of RVK Pride week, and runs until the end of September.

“This exhibition is also a dialogue with the ‘80s, but it also is a dialogue to what is happening here today in terms of trans people, particularly transwomen,” she says, emphasising the importance of the exhibition’s timing. “They are facing the same hate as gay men in the ‘80s. It feels like we keep on repeating.”

“We’re trying to create an intimate space or conversation between the viewer and the pictures,” she says, walking through the exhibition of A4 sized portraits full of intimacy, attitude and sensuality. “This is such an important part of the queer art history of Iceland. You see the joy. Friends just fooling around and having a good time.”

The show is a profoundly poignant celebration of resilience, solidarity and survival. Both gay as in happy and queer as in fuck you.

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