Art & Artists

Artist InterviewMinna Henriksson on Archival Assemblage

Artist Minna Henriksson photographed at the Rikhardinkatu library in December 2023. Photo by Helmi Korhonen.

Minna Henriksson
is a Finnish visual artist working with an array of mediums ranging from text to drawing and painting to linocut printmaking. Her educational background spans studies in Brighton, Malmö, and Helsinki. Now based in the latter city, her work often relates to leftist, anti-racist and feminist struggles with a focus on genuine historical contexts. Rooted in thorough research, her art aims to highlight positions of power as well as oppression.

In 2017 Henriksson was awarded with the Anni and Heinrich Sussmann Award of artistic work committed to the ideal of democracy and antifascism. Still today, she holds an active presence in various socially committed collectives – be it through activism, art making, or literature.

As a member of the Kiila association, Minna took part in Together Again through the support of the Finnish Institute in the UK and Ireland. The first phase of her work for Together Again took her to London, where it was presented as part of the ‘Editorial Tables: Reciprocal Hospitalities’  -exhibition and public programme.

The Kiila Feminist Archive (Wedge) – Minna’s work that was first showcased in London in the spring of 2023 – then made its way to the Together Again Festival, which took place in Helsinki the following September. At the festival, the Kiila Feminist Archive took shape as a public intervention, where a selection of hand-made booklets were wedged in between books on display at the Oodi and Rikhardinkatu libraries. Minna’s illustrated booklets contained lesser known passages from selected short stories, novels and poems by authors Tyyne Maija Salminen, Elvi Sinervo, Iris Uurto and Katri Vala – all also founding members of the Kiila association.

Helmi Korhonen spent a snowy afternoon together with Minna, discussing her artist’s approach to archiving, all while exploring the Rikhardinkatu library’s winding, shelved pathways and intricate architecture in Helsinki.

Minna photographed at the entrance of the Rikhardinkatu library, where she displayed parts of the Kiila Feminist Archive during the Together Again -festival. Photos by Helmi Korhonen.

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Helmi Korhonen: Much of your work with the Kiila association focuses on re-tracing obscured, lost, or edited-out feminist issues that have largely been discarded by official historical accounts of the organization. Could you elaborate on the significance of this archive-as-artwork approach and how it may contribute to contemporary feminist dialogues?

Minna Henriksson: “In much of my work I am interested in the history writing itself; how histories are written, what gets to be saved for future generations in the archives, and what gets discarded. In the case of the Kiila association, the practice of archiving is particularly interesting, as the archives of Kiila from its founding in 1936 until 1944 have gone missing. The loss of the archives offers possibilities – it is a kind of a void, a blank page to be filled.

After WW2, notable members of Kiila aimed to fill it with their male-dominated perspective, marginalising many of the women members of the group. Part of the work in the Kiila Feminist Archive has been to observe the ways in which this marginalisation has happened. Still, even today, such marginalisation happens much the same way.”

In your mind, what power do these almost-lost stories hold, and what can we gain by unearthing them?

MH: “There’s much to learn from the texts written by the women writers who were active in Kiila in its early days. Many of them include sharp critique of the prevailing social norms in the 1930s, with some offering fundamental commentary on patriarchal values. These books feel relevant and current even in today’s context; after all, some argue that we are currently living in another 1930s, with growing militarisation and increasingly patriarchal values.”

The Kiila Feminist Archive on display in September & Minna showing the archive’s old spot in December. Photos by Petri Summanen and Helmi Korhonen.

Your work for Together Again included collaborations with The Showroom in London, the Finnish Institute in the UK and Ireland, as well as Frame Contemporary Art Finland. How did collaborating with these organizations shape your project for the Together Again festival?

MH: “Working with these institutions enabled me to develop the Kiila Feminist Archive further and focus on an already existing creative process. We improved translations and made new ones, and worked together on the displays for The Showroom and Together Again. As a result, my work became more accessible compared to how I’d displayed it earlier.

Perhaps the best thing was that it felt that the texts became alive in the several reading circles that took place, when read out loud or discussed next to contemporary leftist feminist texts.”

The Kiila Feminist Archive on display at the Rikhardinkatu library in September 2023. Photos by Petri Summanen.

The Kiila Feminist Archive unfolded as public intervention and satellite event during the Together Again festival. As part of the intervention, you made and inserted booklets into the poetry and fiction sections here at the Rikhardinkatu Library, as well as in Oodi. Why was it important for you to showcase these pieces in public and in physical form?

MH: “I wanted these books to have a presence on the library shelves. I think that they deserve to be read, and to still be in circulation in the Helsinki City Library system. They are often not included in anthologies of Finnish literature and can only be laboriously found in single copies, and often in bad shape. I wanted to raise awareness of these hardly known books.

With the intervention, I also wanted to highlight the fact that the selection of books at the Helsinki City Library system has become reduced and more mainstream. While working on the intervention at the Together Again festival, I learned that AI makes the decision on which library books are selected for the Helsinki City Libraries – thus acquiring or discarding books is based on a “click-economy”. The much celebrated library system in Finland is perhaps facing the same destiny as the acclaimed Finnish education model; cuts and mediocritisation.”

You took part in a panel discussion at the Together Again festival, examining the possibilities of creating social change through collective and community-led art practices. In what ways do you believe collective art practices, such as those showcased in Together Again, can contribute to social change – particularly regarding the issues you address in your work?

MH: “I think that only by way of collective practices can we start to shift the working culture within the arts into a more sustainable and healthy direction. Many structures in the art world are built on precarity, competition and the (thin) possibility for individual artists’ success. A question arises; how can one refuse to participate in that game, and still get by, earn a livelihood and enable art production?

The current political climate is reflected in the art field as well, with increased institutional pressure for more conservative and less radical approaches. How does one avoid falling prey to that and the self-censorship it necessitates?

The women and men who founded Kiila in 1936 felt the need to go against the repressive structures of their time and to align politically as a collective. As discussed at the festival, it has again become necessary to align and stand together for what we believe in. It is time for artists to understand that this involves us, too.”

Minna overlooking the Rikhardinkatu library. Photo by Helmi Korhonen.

HK: What’s coming next for you, and how has being part of Together Again influenced or informed your next steps?

MH: “Regarding the Kiila Feminist Archive, I am now planning to conclude the project in a book format. I will start to work on an annotated bibliography, which will allow me to collect a large spectrum of different kinds of material from the Kiila Feminist Archive into one book. I’m happy to continue collaborating with Lily Hall, who I got acquainted with thanks to Rehearsing Hospitalities and Together Again.”

A guiding principle in the Together Again -project has been the concept of togetherness. What does togetherness mean to you?

MH: “Togetherness is collectivity and sharing. Visual art making is often a lonely process. At the core of the Kiila Feminist Archive is an attempt to understand why these writers, women in majority, decided to found a leftist and antifascist organisation in a time when they knew it was dangerous; when the right wing ruled and any leftist activities were monitored by Valpo, the state police. In a repressive time, people chose to come together.

Attending demonstrations nowadays in Helsinki almost on a daily basis, it becomes concrete that only en masse can any kind of demand possibly be heard. This is the way many improvements for a more equal and just society have been gained throughout history.

However, I do believe in the power of art as well – perhaps as a more subtle and slow manifestation, lacking a direct address, but leaving a lasting impression. A proof of that power are the great novels, short stories, and poems by the writers of early Kiila.”

Minna photographed by Helmi Korhonen.

Find more about Minna and her work on her website.