Meet four Icelanders changing the face of arts and culture
The past 30 years have brought about the biggest demographic shift in Iceland since disgruntled Norwegian pagans settled here more than 1000 years ago. In the decade leading up to 2022, the percentage of Iceland’s population composed of first and second generation immigrants doubled from 8% to 16.3%. Look back to 2002 and that number was just 4.2%.
Iceland’s evolving visage has become increasingly obvious in recent years as a new generation of artists with mixed racial descent step into the spotlight, showcasing the expanding diversity of the nation. We sat down with four artists of mixed heritage to discuss the Icelandic identity and the impact of multiculturalism and race on art and society.
Born in 1993 to a Thai mother and an Icelandic father, María Thelma Smáradóttir has been at the forefront of the emergence of young, multiracial actors beginning to make waves in Iceland’s culture sector. And she’s setting the bar high, having already appeared in several Icelandic TV series as well as co-starring in the 2018 movie Arctic alongside Danish actor Mads Mikkelsen.
“When my mom landed in Keflavík everything was covered in snow – something she’d never seen before – and she felt it was magical and thought ‘this is where I belong,’” María relates.
Earlier this year María appeared as Snæfríður Íslandssól in the theatrical adaptation of Nobel laureate Halldór Laxness’ novel Iceland’s Bell. The performance was a collaboration between the National Theatre of Iceland and Elefant, a group of young Icelandic actors of mixed racial descent.
Iceland’s Bell is, in many ways, the quintessential Icelandic novel. It starts out with the story of Jón Hreggviðsson, a rather unfortunate, often drunk, poor farmer who is punished with lashings and sent to prison in Copenhagen for stealing a piece of string. The novel was released in three parts, with the first published in 1943, a year before the country gained independence, and the third in 1946. It both explores and mocks what it means to be Icelandic and the relationship the country had with its Danish rulers.
“In high school I read Iceland’s Bell at a point where I was considering becoming an actress,” says María. “I connected so much with the character of Snæfríður Íslandssól, but I didn’t think it was possible for me, being of mixed race, to portray her in Iceland. There were no mixed race actresses, so I really doubted if it was possible.”
The character of Snæfríður Íslandssól can be seen as an idealised image of Icelanders – she believes in justice and self determination, but she is controlled by the more powerful men in her life. She is also a romanticised personification of the perfect beauty, with her figure being described as “elfish” and her being referred to as “the light woman.”
It is hard to disregard the symbolism of a multiracial artist depicting a character as Icelandic as Snæfríður Íslandssól. In the 40s, Laxness sought to explore what it was to be an independent Icelandic nation; now the Elefant staging of his work holds a mirror to 21st century Iceland, forcing us as a nation to consider who we are.
“The feedback I received was just positive,” María says matter of factly. “I don’t know if there were people who didn’t like it – possibly there were – but I try not to focus on comments like that,” she says. “The demands of audiences have also changed in recent years and they want more diversity on stage, which is great.”
María believes artists can occupy a unique place in the conversation about race and Iceland simply by continuing in their creative endeavours and making themselves more visible. The more the general public sees the cultural output of Icelanders of mixed racial descent, the more they will shift their focus to the quality of the work and away from the race of the creator.
“I think society is going through a kind of growth spurt,” María suggests. “When people see something they are not used to they get almost an error message in their heads and can’t process what they are seeing. But after they’ve seen something often enough they get used to it and stop thinking about it.”
A father’s heritage
“We didn’t want to take the activist approach to art – we wanted to put the issue of what it means to be Icelandic into the hands of the audience, to make them face that question,” explains actor and musician Davíð Þór Katrínarson, an Elefant member who starred alongside María in Iceland’s Bell. He was born in Norway in 1993 to an Icelandic mother and a Gambian father, but moved to Iceland when he was six-years old.
“My father has never really been a part of my life and I lost touch with him pretty early on,” Davíð explains. “But in recent years I felt a need to get in touch with him again, especially because I just became a father myself.”
Without contact with his extended family in Africa, Davíð says he didn’t give much thought to his Gambian heritage as a child. However, that changed when he received a message through social media. “A year and a half ago this woman sent me a message on Instagram saying her name was Juka Darboe and that she was my aunt. Before that, I knew nothing about my Gambian family.”
In making that connection and learning more about his father’s country Davíð found a part of himself that he didn’t even know he was missing while growing up in Iceland. “I want my daughter to know about the Gambia, because knowing where you are from makes it easier to understand where you are in the world and where you are going,” says Davíð.
It was not long after reconnecting with his Gambian heritage that Davíð was performing in Iceland’s Bell and discovered he is a direct descendant of Magnús Sigurðsson from Bræðratunga, the inspiration for one of the novel’s main characters. “It’s kind of funny,” he muses, “if anyone would say that I have no right to be in Iceland’s Bell, then I could argue that few people have more of a right.”
The question of who has the right to adapt or stage Icelandic cultural works was raised following the March 2023 premiere of the play. Apparently, there were people who objected to Elefant’s performance, with one furious woman calling the theatre to admonish it for performing “this story with this group.”
Still, Davíð feels Icelandic society has taken leaps and bounds toward inclusivity in recent years and he’s hopeful future generations will be even more willing to see past the colour of a person’s skin.
“Kids today aren’t shocked when a black girl starts in their class, or if their friend’s mom is wearing a burka,” he says. “If we get used to something at an early age, we normalise it. And when we’ve normalised things, we don’t have to constantly have this conversation.”
People have a tendency to focus on the things that make us different from one another, but Davíð believes a greater focus on what we have in common is what will foster a better, more empathetic society.
“An Icelander is someone who goes to the pool and orders Domino’s,” he deadpans. “It is not what you look like, or the colour of your skin. We all live here, we pay the same taxes, are all affected by inflation and each year we hope we’ll have a nice summer, but it never happens. I believe it’s those shared experiences that make us Icelandic.”
Too Filipino to be Icelandic, too Icelandic to be Filipino
“When I think about the Icelandic identity I picture myself freezing cold on a boat in the middle of the ocean, fishing with my dad and working too much,” says Dýrfinna. “My father used to tell me with pride about the time, when he was younger, he’d stay up for 58 hours straight processing fish.”
Dýrfinna Benita Basalan is a 31-year old visual artist and musician who often goes by her nom de guerre Countess Malaise. She is of Filipino and Icelandic descent and her works often explore her upbringing as someone who is a part of two cultures, while feeling she didn’t belong to either.
“My mom is Filipino and my dad was an ancient boat builder and fisherman born in 1934 in the tiny fishing village of Raufarhöfn in northern Iceland,” says Dýrfinna. “Dad was a very old school Icelander and I think I got my DIY attitude, and my love for old music and the accordion from him. I fuck with the accordion.”
Dýrfinna explains that belonging to two different cultures was not always straightforward and could be confusing growing up in Iceland, leading to feelings of alienation. “In a way, I was excluded from the Filipino and Icelandic communities. I was never enough for anyone and was never allowed to be a part of anything,” says Dýrfinna, sharing that her mother opted not to teach her Filipino, believing that it was better in the sociocultural climate at the time, that she speak only Icelandic. “For the longest time I didn’t know who the fuck I was, and because society and the people who raised me failed to give me satisfactory answers I had to go searching for myself.”
In 2019, Dýrfinna, along with artists Darren Mark and Melanie Ubaldo, founded Lucky 3, an art collective seeking to explore the place and identity of the Filipino diaspora in Iceland.
“I had no brown artists to look up to when I was younger and part of why we founded Lucky 3 is that, at the bottom of it, we are all healing our inner child. We are doing this for our younger selves who needed someone like us, someone to show us love,” explains Dýrfinna.
The group’s 2019 debut exhibition at the art gallery Kling og Bang was a milestone for inclusion and diversity in the Icelandic art scene, but Dýrfinna claims that it also provided insight into the need for greater self-reflection within the country’s cultural institutions. “It has never been acknowledged that we were the first brown Icelandic artists to exhibit in a major gallery, or anywhere that might be considered an ‘institution,’” says Dýrfinna.
The legacy of Hans Jónatan
Logi Pedro Stefánsson has long been a staple of the Icelandic culture scene. Since founding the band retro Stefson in 2006, he has gone on to release two solo albums, found a radio station and design for international fashion brands.
Born in 1992 to an Icelandic father and an Angolan mother, Logi says, “it is clear that my background is always a factor in what I do. Say, if you are from Akureyri then that is going to impact you, and when your background is more varied, then your point of view will be even more different. When you are working in creative fields, it is important to have people with different points of views and experiences.”
From the outset, an alternative point of view was a noticeable feature of Retro Stefson, which also counted Logi’s brother Unnsteinn among its members. Their mother would listen to Angolan and African music at home and those influences helped shape a sound that was often hard to define.
“It has become clearer to me in recent years that we are all playing different roles,” Logi explains. “For me, some roles are very European, some are very Nordic, some are African and some are African diasporic. I’ve never lived in Africa, so in some way I have more in common with people of African descent in Europe than my family in Africa.”
This spring Logi completed a degree in product design from Iceland University of the Arts. His graduation project focused on how heritage manifests itself through design by analysing the works of the African diaspora in Europe. The project is called “Love letter to litla Kongó” and is inspired by the remarkable story of Hans Jónatan, a once enslaved person who became the first known person of African descent to settle in Iceland.
“I read Hans Jónatan’s biography, The Man Who Stole Himself, and it made me wonder why I had never heard about this man before and why I had never learned about the colonial history of the Nordic countries,” says Logi. “At the same time, hundreds of Icelanders can trace their family lineage to him.”
Hans Jónatan was enslaved by a colonial overseer in the Danish West Indies. After being taken to Copenhagen, he became a war hero in the Danish navy before fleeing from Denmark to east Iceland, where he settled in the village of Djúpivogur and married. For a long time, Hans Jónatan’s story was clouded by the nation’s racism-fuelled shame, but Icelanders have recently begun engaging in more fruitful conversations about race, sparking a renewed interest in “the man who stole himself.”
“I have two boys and both of them are blond and much whiter than I was as a kid,” Logi explains. “Seeing them made me understand that we have all these definitions that don’t really matter. It makes no difference whether my blond son defines himself as black or white.”
Logi remembers vividly the debate that raged when, in 2004, Sheba Ojienda, a woman of colour, appeared on the cover of the Reykjavík Grapevine dressed in the traditional costume of the Fjallkonan – the female embodiment of Iceland. The image sparked a strong reaction in society and for weeks after little else was discussed. The uproar saw the Grapevine receive hate mail from enraged Icelanders and international neo-nazi organisations who like to consider Iceland a bastion of “whiteness.”
“We need to understand that it is all nonsense,” Logi says matter of factly. “Anger is a big mover when it comes to nationality, race, sexuality, identity, etc. But when we remove that anger, everything becomes funnier. I could be angry about the discussion happening when [Sheba] was Fjallkonan. I remember the debate well. But I now understand that anger is not a good way to approach things.”
“People are all programmed a certain way and in a sense we need to have sympathy with them, because I believe it is much better to tackle issues with sympathy than with anger.”
Logi believes that the reaction would be very different today than in 2004 and an ongoing conversation about race and identity in this country helps foster a more inclusive society. “I think a big part of living in a society like Iceland, which is going through big changes, is to not focus too much on it,” he says. “Not that we should ignore it. But we are going to work at it and we do that by having a conversation – one I hope my art can contribute to.”
Under the glacier
The characteristically cynical Halldór Laxness once wrote “soon times will be better, with flowery fields and sweet, long summer days.” Perhaps being an Icelander is sharing the feeling of the oft misplaced optimism that drove people to settle on this rock in the north Atlantic 1000 years ago. Perhaps that is a requirement to make it through the darkness of winter, waiting for a summer that is always around the corner. The sort of maniacal optimism that births a nation that celebrates the first day of summer in April, yet routinely experiences frost in May.
As we barrel through the 21st century, the isolation that marked most of our history is gone. Iceland is becoming ever more international and diverse. It’s up to us as a nation to see how this diversity enriches our culture. It is up to us to look in the mirror and ask ourselves who we are and what sort of a country we want to be.
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