From Iceland — Unmasking The Burden Of Being A Woman

Unmasking The Burden Of Being A Woman

Published June 12, 2023

Unmasking The Burden Of Being A Woman
Photo by
Art Bicnick

Júlíanna Ósk Hafberg embraces womanhood through intimate reflection

It was the use of colour that initially attracted me to Júlíanna Ósk Hafberg’s work – shades of pink, turquoise and blue. Her art exudes a sense of softness, flow and lightness, or so it seems at first glance. We met at the MA Fine Arts Degree Exhibition at The Living Art Museum, where Júlíanna and six other graduate students display their final projects. It quickly became evident her work delves into profound and intimate subjects, capturing attention with its multiple layers.

Radical softness 

As an artist, Júlíanna is constantly experimenting with different mediums — painting, textiles, jewellery, glass cutting, woodwork, sculpture and writing. With a smile, she says, “I’m just very creative. I’m very playful and explorative in my art.” 

“It’s definitely the most vulnerable piece that I’ve done.”

She describes her art as embodying a borderline radical softness and vulnerability. “My art is very much based around the notions and the thoughts around bringing more soft, feminine energy,” she explains. “It’s something that I found I was missing in society, especially in our more harsh capitalist structures. I like to use vulnerability very deliberately. I also like challenging what we have labelled as ‘girly’ or ‘women’s art.’”

Imbalance in the world and our society often serve as a starting point for discussions that fuel Júlíanna’s artistic expression. “It’s quite radical to be vulnerable in a society that is in some ways sort of individualistic,” she says.

Beyond moulds

Júlíanna’s graduation artwork titled Byrði þess að vera kona (The Heavy Burden of Being a Woman) offers a very intimate glimpse into the artist’s personal experience. “These are casts of my breasts that I’ve taken myself,” says Júlíanna as she shows me two delicate pink sculptures. The artist deliberately omitted one step from the cast-making process, resulting in the pieces’ delicate appearance. “They look very defeated and deflated. This is about my own personal experience with carrying very big breasts all my life,” Júlíanna shares.

Photo by Art Bicnick

The piece is based on Júlíanna’s eponymous poem. “It’s almost like an autobiographical poem that traces my journey from the time I got my breasts when I was 11, and then all these different experiences I had — having to go to an adult lingerie store when I was 14, because my breasts were already too big to shop in normal girls’ stores, being sexualized at 15, slutshamed, and also just the burden on the body, the physicalness of it — the pain in the back and the neck,” she explains. 

In the piece, Júlíanna incorporates the words starting with the letter B from the poem. They have, in a way, become a poem on their own — words like ‘byrði’ (burden), ‘bungur’ (the breasts), ‘blúndur brjóstahaldara’ (lace bra), ‘blöðrur’ (balloons) underline the artist’s personal struggles.

“In this piece, I’m going straight into the vulnerability of exposing my own journey,” Júlíanna says. “I’m talking about the physical, mental and societal burden of being a woman and the different aspects of that.”

The weight within

Júlíanna opens up about her years-long struggle with chronic pain. The strain on her shoulders, back and jaw has been so severe that she has been seeing chiropractors since her teenage years. Júlíanna has always wanted to undergo breast reduction surgery, and coincidentally, the procedure will take place just a day after the exhibition concludes. “That’s also where this comes from,” she explains, adding: “There’s also this level of dealing with the healthcare system that we have here.”

Photo by Art Bicnick

Júlíanna shares how she has been trying to get the surgery through public health insurance, but due to stringent rules and long waiting lists, this became increasingly difficult. Júlíanna, like many other women facing similar circumstances, has decided to go private. “This kind of procedure costs about a million ISK,” shares Júlíanna.

“The piece came out of my whole journey going through this process,” she reflects. “Being an artist, I wanted to capture this and the feeling. I feel like I’ve done that — the piece has managed to capture the feeling of the burden, the heaviness and the exhaustion of it all.” 

Júlíanna agrees that one can evoke empathy by sharing their story. “It’s definitely a feminist piece,” she affirms. “I just wanted to shed light on these things. As women, we carry a lot of things with us without openly talking about them — we hide our tampons when we go to the bathroom. We’re sort of taught to do all those things. [This piece] is about wanting to open up to it. I think many people and women relate to a lot of things that this piece is talking about.” 

Where art goes next 

Following the surgery, Júlíanna will take a break from work, as she needs to refrain from lifting objects for approximately six weeks. With new projects still up in the air, she’s confident she wants to keep this piece. “I’m so much in the process of going through these emotions right now,” she confesses. “It’s not a retrospect, it’s not something that has happened. I’m working through it.”

“I’m so interested in seeing how these pieces look or feel in a year or straight after my surgery. I don’t know what happens,” Júlíanna admits. “I’m very much putting myself for show. These are my breasts on display. It’s definitely the most vulnerable piece that I’ve done.” 

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