“Who are you?” Unmasking Sweden’s Colonial past with Cecilia Germain

To be interrupted is part of my daily life as a Black man living in Europe. Who are you? Where are you from? What are you doing here? Who do you think you are? Confrontations masked as questions shot at me at every turn. Living and working in Sweden, as a Zimbabwean expatriate, I have started to embrace the notion that the Black body is an invisible and hyper-visible site. It is as though my subjectivity is so little as to be comprehensible in a single conversation, and simultaneously too much to exist freely without constant disturbance. As a curator, I am interested in anti*colonial fantasies/decolonial strategies (see note 1) that are radically imaginative and limitless. However, the landscape of visual art in Sweden is currently fraught with restrictions. Artists like Cecilia Germain, are not only taking it upon themselves to untangle the burden of history, but are proving that where we are now is far from being arbitrary. Paying homage to Anne McClintock’s Imperial Leather: Race, Gender, and Sexuality in the Colonial Contest, it is fitting to trace the presence of coloniality in every crevice of contemporary society including visual art.


Earlier this year, Santiago Mostyn’s Kunstkritikk essay aptly titled ‘The blind spot of Swedish art criticism’ caused shockwaves. ‘I believe that what is actually expressed by this cultural elite is, at least in Sweden, a fear that their own authority will be eroded as the social landscape changes. Fear assumes the form of ridicule, with “norm criticism and decolonial thinking” as the main goals of their anger. Pride over a certain self-image and country is a less obvious form of nationalism, but a form which is perhaps more dangerous precisely because of its invisibility – a colourless nerve poison that maintains the status quo’ (see note 2). Mostyn’s challenge of the insularity of the Swedish art world seemed to ruffle feathers. His critique; sharp, bold and intentional, pointed to the urgency that is needed in transforming a society that has been lackadaisical in reversing the effects of the imperial project even within the sphere of art. Sweden particularly has an interesting history; the once deemed ‘dirt house of Europe’ rose to become one of the wealthiest countries in the world, praised for its ‘progressiveness’ (see note 3). In discourse, Sweden is often spared a sense of colonial responsibility, and yet the modernisation project was sponsored by plunder and exploitation of Africa (see note 4). There was direct capitalist expansion in various forms, including but not limited to, profit gains from the supply of iron chains used in the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade. Colonialism also left its marks through domestic constructions of visuality in relation to the so-called ‘Other’. Whiteness was posited as superior and affirmed through multiple discursive forms, such as ‘exploration and discovery’ literature that depicted people of colour as lesser. This history moulded the hegemonic frames that affect us up to now. Ontologies and epistemologies that are favoured in visual art are currently Swedish and Eurocentric, erasing, disparaging and deterring any ideas from ‘elsewhere’. To be seated at the table is to survive a slow suffocation.


I first encountered Cecilia Germain in 2018 at Conversations on Blackness, Beauty, and States of Being – an event held at Malmö Konsthall. She was part of the panel ‘Black Art in Contemporary’ times moderated by Sarah Nakiito, together with Fatima Moallim, and Makda Embaie. I was moved by her evocative way of speaking and was motivated to look more into her work as someone who has paved the way for other racialized artists in Sweden.


Germain was born in Uppsala in 1974, to a Swedish mother and Afro-Caribbean Canadian father. She is a multidisciplinary artist who has been active in the art scene for years. She is interested in history and archives, and uses various mediums in her practice including performance. Starting her career as a blacksmith in the 90s, primarily making artisanal objects with metal and iron, she swiftly found her way to visual art. Her eye has always been aware of power, and her subjectivity has led her to many complex investigations. In our conversation, time immediately became anachronistic, with us travelling to the lives of our ancestors—their beauty, sophistication and systems, to the violence of the Trans-Atlantic slave trade, the effects of neoliberalism, and the state of affairs in the present day. “With the rise of right-wing nationalism in Europe/the Western world, there is no time to question the extent of one’s Blackness. We are connected.” She affirmed me, a restless migrant, and held my hand as we explored the intricacies of producing and ‘being’ in Sweden.


Cecilia Germain’s performance Josephine’s House at Uppsala Konstmuseum November 15th 2018. Photo: Uppsala Konstmuseum/Pär Fredin.


Going back to her time at Konstfack, Stockholm in the early 2000s as the only Black student, she recalls walking the halls and feeling a strong sense of alienation. As a young woman who carved her own path she was initially drawn to gender and sexuality studies, but at night time she found herself getting lost for hours on the internet, searching for a deeper understanding of herself through Black studies. She simply did not exist in the curriculum as both Black and woman, and had to forge her own space. One of Germain’s earliest works, Survival strategies and Escape attempts, inspired by her independent research, took bravery to realise. It centres a fictional character who resembles her father, trying to unshackle himself from the bounds of his body but also stopped by the same body. She was inspired to construct the work from conversations with her Black cousins who lived in Canada. Constantly profiled, stopped, questioned and delayed by the police, one of them got fired from his job for always being late. The work comprises of photographs, objects, and historic and contemporary written texts. The work was met with fear, and handled as a provocation. How was it possible that she dared to claim agency? How could she question that which is deliberately, systematically left unquestioned?


In Germain’s work, there is poignant understanding of the psychosis of slavery, colonialism and the global economy, and how it eats at the Black body, how it slowly corrodes. In her performance, How to carry white men no. 3/Brown woman carrying white men/Big Mama’s Last Lullaby, she centres Black women, as women who have had to carry burdens throughout history. Displaying strength and fragility, she sits on a chair next to a bed. She gazes into the audience and takes her time, then approaches, with a slow and controlled gait. She physically picks white men in the audience from their seats, one at a time, puts them on her shoulder and places them on the bed. Unbeknownst to the audience, she starts burying these white bodies in the bed, one sheet at a time, calmly then violently, until every limb is covered with no trace of human life. Speaking to her about the performance, I feel shivers on my skin, as I connect with the emotionality of the work. In her words, she explains that How to carry white men no. 3/Brown woman carrying white men/Big Mama’s Last Lullaby is a deeply personal exorcism, an exploration and meditation on what is projected onto the Black/Brown female body. Going back to the archives, she questions the mythical construction of Black/Brown women through colonial texts; as exotic/sexual/inherently strong/maternal, and how it is still etched in contemporary imaginations. She goes further to remind us that Black/Brown women all over the world are the number one producers of material wealth in the Global economy, but remain the lowest paid. In majority white societies, medical research shows a correlation between the increase in ailments such as heart disease, cancer and high blood pressure, and being persecuted by racist structures, she explains to me. As of 2016, Germain has been spending time on consciously constructing new strategies of survival and healing. Her subsequent work, The Difficulty of Carrying White Men came out of the realisation that her body was now too weary to physically and symbolically carry white men. She now purposefully utilises technologies of refusal, control and obstruction in her performances.


Cecilia Germain is not done with digging into the archives and reminding Sweden of its colonial past, and I am just getting started. To construct a fecund visual art landscape of multiplicity and complexity, is to understand, acknowledge and deal with history.


1. https://zaglossus.eu/publikationen/alle/anticolonial-fantasies?isorc=1
2. https://kunstkritikk.se/den-svenska-exceptionalismens-blinda-flack/
3. ibid.
4. Suvi Keskinen, Salla Tuori, Sara Irni, and Diana Mulinari, Complying with Colonialism : Gender, Race and Ethnicity in the Nordic Region, Surrey: Ashgate, 2009