Living Art Museum Aims to Reflect Iceland’s Diversity

Nýlistasafnið/The Living Art Museum

The Living Art Museum in Reykjavík, Iceland, has sent out an open call for its autumn exhibition for the year 2021. The call is particularly directed at individuals and groups who have traditionally been excluded from fine art institutions in Iceland, such as the LGBT+ community, Icelanders of foreign origin, mixed Icelanders, immigrants, and “people who find themselves voiceless within the socio-political structure.”

“With this open application process, we want to counteract any kind of discrimination that takes place in our society today, such as racial inequality, and the suppression of marginalized groups and cultures,” a press release from the Museum reads.

The idea to direct the open call to marginalised groups and individuals came from the Museum’s staff and board earlier this year in the wake of the Black Lives Matter protests occurring around the world. “This struggle […] led to a great deal of introspection by the board of the Living Art Museum. As a result, it has become clear to the museum’s management that we have not been able to fully reflect the diverse growth that characterizes art and human life in Iceland.”

“It is important that all cultural institutions in the country undergo a substantial self-examination. What kind of space are these institutions creating? And for whom?” the Museum states, and the project representatives say they hope the initiative serves as a guiding light for other institutions in Iceland

To go over the open call submissions, the Museum’s board is putting together a special selection committee “in order to ensure diversity and counteract hidden bias.” The deadline for submissions is October 4. All the application details, including translation of the text to Arabic, Polish, and Icelandic can be found here.

Former PM Says BLM “Revives Racism,” Will Destroy Capitalism and the Nuclear Family

Earlier this week, former Prime Minister and founder of the Centre Party Sigmundur Davíð Gunnlaugsson wrote an article in which he suggests that the Black Lives Matter (BLM) Movement is a “revival of racism” and in which he claims that this “Western Cultural Revolution […] has all the hallmarks of extremism, including religious rites which people are supposed to undergo in order to prove their subservience to the orthodoxy.” The article has been roundly criticised and inspired a spirited response from BLM supporters in Iceland, who believe Sigmundur Davíð’s beliefs “pose a threat to our Icelandic society, equality, and democracy.”

“A revival of some of the most insane ideas that have ever arisen in the course of human history”

In his article, Sigmundur Davíð characterises BLM as a marketing ploy compelling famous figures, from (unnamed) British actresses to Formula 1 race car drivers, to pledge their allegiance or else lose their job opportunities and/or endorsement deals. He laments that “police officers – white and black – have been shot during ‘mostly peaceful protests’ as most media outlets have chosen to call them,” and takes exception to athletes taking a knee to protest police violence or to show solidarity with the BLM movement and honour the memory of George Floyd, feigning confusion at what “English football has to do with policing issues in Minneapolis.”

He also repeats a characterisation of BLM that he says he’s drawn from “British journalists who’ve bothered to familiarise themselves with the organisation’s policy,” which he says is “to break the back of Western culture and capitalism, the nuclear family, the governmental system, and especially to dismantle the police and the judiciary.”

Sigmundur Davíð continues, likening ‘cancel culture’ with execution, lamenting the criticism that, for instance, Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling has drawn for her staunchly transphobic viewpoints. “Now in some places, it’s a hate crime to quote the dictionary and its definition of the word ‘woman.’”

“Little by little, it’s become clear that the Western Cultural Revolution revolves around a hatred of Western civilisation, just as the Chinese [Cultural Revolution] revolved around both a hatred of ancient Chinese values and Western culture,” he writes. Or, in conclusion, “The cultural revolution is not just about racism, but also a revival of some of the most insane ideas that have ever arisen in the course of human history.”

‘These notions will only create more separation and deeper injustice.’

The former Prime Minister’s article has drawn swift criticism for its misrepresentations of the BLM movement and its goals, not least from a group collectively identifying themselves simply as “Supporters of BLM,” who wrote a response article in Vísir on Thursday. The article, which was simultaneously published in Icelandic, English, Polish, and Portuguese, says that the ideas put forth by Sigmundur Davíð “pose a threat to our Icelandic society, equality, and democracy” and aims to correct “several misconceptions about the Black Lives Matter movement as well as other human rights battles” in his piece.

“Black Lives Matter addresses the need to end State-sanctioned violence and liberate black people from oppression. Black Lives Matter raises awareness of the structural inequality of the systems Sigmundur Davíð mentions,” states the editorial. “The movement demands that the government, courts of justice, and policing uphold equality and liberty for all regardless of colour, sexual orientation, gender, class or position in society. These are just demands that generally most people agree with.”

“When Sigmundur Davíð attacks the Black Lives Matter movement he is therefore not protecting equality for all. Rather his notions build on safeguarding the current system that only offers up racist, homophobic, and sexist ideology. These notions will only create more separation and deeper injustice.”

The editorial goes on to critique Sigmundur Davíð for framing his criticism of the movement as being about justice, while really, the power structures that he seeks to uphold “cove[r] for and protec[t] men like himself at the cost of marginalised people.”

The editorial ends by calling for solidarity: “All the progress that has been made in the cause of human rights in the world is due to the collective power of the people who have pointed out and fought against inequality.”

“If You Are Black Or Brown: Please Leave This Town!” Racist Sticker Demands

A racist sticker was affixed to the mirror of an Icelandic family’s car in Snæfellsnes this week, RÚV reports.

Magnús Secka, who is an Icelander of colour, and his mother Sara Magnúsdóttir were travelling around the Snaefellsnes peninsula last weekend and returned to their car to find a sticker adhered to one of the rearview mirrors of their car reading, in English, “If you are black or brown: please leave this town!”

The experience was all the more upsetting because of Magnús’ family’s deep ties to the area. “We own land in Snæfellsnes,” he said. He and his mother met at the Vegamót café and then spent the day sightseeing in the area. When they returned to the café to pick up Magnús’ car, they found the sticker, which also included the url for a racist American website. “I didn’t let it get to me,” said Magnús, “but Mom was angry.” Magnús said this was the first time he’d experienced racism firsthand in Iceland.

Sara shared a photo of the sticker in a Facebook post, which drew considerable outcry and has been shared 1,000 times since. Mother and son have not as of writing made an official report to police about the event and Magnús doesn’t expect that they will. “We hope that this was just an isolated incident.”

Statue to Honour the First Black Man to Settle in Iceland

Djúpivogur is home to Iceland's latest art museum

Like many countries around the world, Iceland has been touched by the Black Lives Matter movement and has been undergoing a moment of self-examination and reckoning as regards the realities of police relations with the public, racism, and inequality in its own society. As statues honouring the lives and legacies of colonisers and slaveowners are removed throughout the US and Europe, RÚV reports that Independence Party deputy MP Vilhjálmur Bjarnason has proposed that Iceland put one up: a statue to honour the life and legacy of Hans Jónatan, thought to be the first Black man to settle in Iceland.

Hans Jónatan lived a remarkable life. He was born into slavery in 1784 on the Caribbean island of St. Croix, then under Danish colonial rule. His mother was Emilía Regína, an enslaved African woman on a sugar plantation owned by a family named Schimmelman. His father is believed to be of European heritage.

See Also: Reconstructed Genome of Iceland’s First Black Settler

As a child, Hans Jónatan was taken to Denmark, where he lived in Copenhagen for ten years, even enlisting in the Danish Navy in 1801. Following his return from service, his superior officers advocated on his behalf to Denmark’s crown prince Frederik, who wrote a letter affirming that Hans Jónatan was “considered free and enjoys rights.” Nevertheless, the Schimmelmans tried to forcibly return Hans Jónatan to St. Croix. He asserted his freedom in Danish court, but for reasons currently unknown, could not produce the letter from Denmark’s future king and his case was dismissed.

As such, Hans Jónatan escaped to the fishing village of Djúpivogur in East Iceland in 1802, where he eventually married, had three children (two of whom survived), and ran the local trading post. He died in 1827.

“It matters how this is done”

“I hope that the MPs go through with erecting a monument [to Háns Jónatan in Djúpivogur],” remarked anthropologist Gísli Pálsson, who wrote a biography (translated by Anna Yates) about Hans Jónatan called The Man Who Stole Himself. “I can recall conversations with locals who want to honour his memory in some way. There’s definitely a demand for it.” Gísli notes that tour guides in the area are often asked about Hans Jónatan but there’s not much to show visitors. “There’s little to be seen about him outside the memorial in the cemetery where he was lain to rest somewhere in an unmarked grave.”

“I think it’s about time to put up a monument to him,” continued Gísli, “but it matters how this is done.” It’s important, said Gísli, to consider what’s being memorialised. “Is it his skin colour, his enslavement, his career, or his character?”

Hans Jónatan “Chose Freedom”

It’s important, said Gísli, to recognise Hans Jónatan’s character, his descendants, and the history of enslaved people who pushed and strove for justice. He stresses Hans’s agency, and emphasises that he “chose freedom.” While many have disparaged Gísli’s choice of words in this regards, arguing that enslaved peoples didn’t have choice, he considers it hugely important that pervading notions that the white elite in the US, the UK, and Denmark were the driving forces behind abolition be challenged; really, he says, it was pressure from the enslaved peoples themselves that led to slavery being abolished. “It’s an objection to this cliché that intellectuals in the United States, in their benevolence, eased laws [legalising slavery].”

A statue to Háns Jónatan, done well, would be a monument to the man himself, Gisli continues, but also more. “He has a thousand descendants and their story is remarkable. Many of those in the second and third generation had to struggle with adversity. A monument would also honour these people and speak to the present moment that we are living in. We would be memorialising these people and their fates no less than Háns Jónatan and his story.”

Discuss Racism in Iceland via Björk’s Instagram Page

Icelandic musician Björk’s Instagram account will host a live discussion in English on racism in Iceland at 6.00pm GMT tonight. The discussion will be held by Chanel Björk Sturludóttir and Diana Rós Hạhn Breckmann, two Icelanders of mixed origin, and will focus on “how the BLM movement has had an impact here too,” according to a post on Björk’s Instagram.

Chanel produced a radio show for Iceland’s National Broadcaster RÚV last year called Íslenska mannflóran focusing on Icelanders of mixed origin and deconstructing the concepts of nationality, race, and multiculturalism. She is also a co-founder of Hennar rödd (Her Voice), an annual event that creates a platform for women of multicultural ethnicity to share their experiences of Icelandic society. Diana, a fashion stylist, has been vocal against cultural appropriation in fashion.

Over 3,000 people attended a Black Lives Matter solidarity meeting in Reykjavík earlier this month. The event was organised by African Americans living in Iceland. A meeting was also held in Ísafjörður, the Westfjords, on the same day, where some 100 people attended.

Iceland’s National Police Commissioners Meet to Discuss Prejudice Within Force

police car

Iceland’s National Police Commissioner has asked Dr. Margrét Valdimarsdóttir, Assistant Professor of Police Science at the University of Akureyri, to meet with the country’s police commissioners next week. The purpose of the meeting is to discuss research on prejudice in policing and explore the possibility of conducting studies on prejudice within Iceland’s police force. Margrét says that very little research has been carried out on prejudice within Icelandic policing.

“I hope everyone realises how positive this is,” Margrét stated in a tweet about the invitation, praising recently-appointed National Police Commissioner Sigríður Björk Guðjónsdóttir for her openness to discuss the issue. Policing has been a hot topic around the world following the death of George Floyd on May 25 at the hands of US police and the ensuing wave of protests.

Read More: Over 3,000 Attend Black Lives Matter Meeting in Iceland

Margrét told Vísir reporters that the National Police Commissioner’s invitation was a step in the right direction. “The fact that she has the initiative is a sign of strength and humility.” Sigríður was appointed to the position last March, the first woman to serve as National Police Commissioner in Iceland. Her predecessor, Haraldur Johannessen stepped down last year following 22 years in the position, shortly after eight out of nine of the country’s police commissioners declared they did not trust Haraldur’s leadership.  “Police commissioners have been interested in making changes, but the national commissioner administration has been slow on the uptake,” West Iceland Police Commissioner Úlfar Lúðvíksson told RÚV in September 2019.

Though Icelandic police do not carry guns and Iceland has topped the Global Peace Index for 12 years, there have been cases where police involvement has led to civilian death in Iceland. Last spring, 25-year-old Hekla Lind Jónsdóttir died following a conflict with police, who interfered when she was in a psychotic state. The police officers were not charged even though a forensic specialist confirmed that their actions played a significant role in her death.

US Embassy Thanks Police for Upholding ‘Basic Human Rights’

The death of George Floyd and the ensuing nationwide protests against police brutality and in support of the Black Lives Matter movement in the United States were addressed by the US Embassy in Reykjavík in statement posted on Facebook this week. The post refers to Floyd’s death at the hands of police officer Derek Chauvin as a “grave tragedy,” even while thanking police, “both in the United States and Iceland, who uphold and defend…basic human rights.”

“As a country governed by the rule of law, the United States’ justice system is taking action to seek accountability and justice in response to Mr. Floyd’s tragic death,” reads the post. “Four officers have been charged in connection to the case, which remains under investigation by state and federal officials.”

See Also: Over Three Thousand Attend Black Lives Matter Meeting in Iceland

It continues: “Though we face difficult challenges, the United States and free societies are strengthened through the debates produced through our citizens exercising their right to free speech. Governments that take human rights seriously are transparent and we welcome conversations about making our societies better.”

The post then ended with its thank you to police, a response which earned quick rebuke from many commenters, both Icelandic and American among them, as “tone-deaf,”  “propaganda,” and “disrespectful,” treating the death of George Floyd as “an isolated incident instead of a cultural and social issue of violence, division, and racism.”

Over 3,000 Attend Black Lives Matter Meeting in Iceland

Black lives matter protest Reykjavík

Austurvöllur square, in front of Iceland’s Parliament building, filled with over 3,000 people yesterday afternoon for a solidarity meeting organised by African Americans living in Iceland. The meeting began with an emotional moment of silence lasting eight minutes and 46 seconds – the length of time police officer Derek Chauvin knelt on George Floyd’s neck, leading to Floyd’s death in Minnesota on May 25.

“It was great for thinking about these issues, not just about George Floyd, but everyone that came before,” Derek T. Allan, one of the organisers of the protest, told Vísir. “The atmosphere was something else, it’s difficult to describe. It warms the heart to see so many and that they were here to listen to us.”

Police in Attendance

One Black Icelander that spoke to reporters pointed out that Iceland is not free of racism, saying she had experienced it from an early age. “It’s pain that no one can understand unless they’ve experienced it. It’s a very sad and tiring thing,” she stated.

Halla Bergþóra Björnsdóttir, newly appointed Police Commissioner of the Reykjavík Capital Area, was also present at the event. “We were here to show solidarity with the issue,” she stated. “I think it’s very important that we all be equal before the law, and it was very important to come here and hear what they had to say.”

Westfjords residents also show solidarity

A solidarity meeting was also held in Ísafjörður, the largest town in the Westfjords, RÚV reports. Around 100 people gathered in the town centre, where, like in Reykjavík, the meeting began with a moment of silence.

Black Lives Matter Gathering Held in Reykjavík Tomorrow

Asylum seeker protest Reykjavík

A gathering will be held in Reykjavík’s Austurvöllur square at 4.30pm tomorrow in solidarity with African Americans in the United States. The gathering will feature speakers and a moment of silence for George Floyd, killed in Minneapolis, Minnesota on May 25 while in police custody. Floyd’s death sparked a wave of protests across the United States calling for an end to institutionalised police violence against Black people.

“In solidarity with our Black brothers and sisters in the United States of America, we will be gathering at Austurvöllur to stand in defiance against the system of White supremacy that continues to murder Black people,” the Facebook event for the Reykjavík protest reads. Though there is an American Embassy in Reykjavík, protest organisers have purposely chosen to protest in front of Iceland’s Parliament building. “The significance of holding it at Austurvöllur is that Iceland cannot remain silent,” Asantewa Feaster, one of the protest organisers, stated. “Citizens across the US and the world have shown us where they stand, Iceland must do the same.”

At the time of writing, 1,400 were marked as “attending” the event on Facebook and 1,400 as “interested.” Attendees are encouraged to wear face masks “as a form of protest” and to practice social distancing where possible. Due to COVID-19, a ban on gatherings over 200 people is currently in effect in Iceland. If the number of attendees goes over 200, event organisers encourage those present to “cross the street to lower the number of people in the area. You will be showing support while keeping the safety of yourself and others in mind.”