Out of Scandinavia resident artist: Jeannette Ehlers

Michaela WoodwardStaff Writer

This week, the Gustavus campus welcomed Danish-Trinidadian Visual Artist Jeannette Ehlers for a week-long residency as part of the Out of Scandinavia Artist-in-Residence program.

Every year, the Scandinavian Studies department hosts an artist on campus to talk about their work with students as a way of connecting the Scandinavian history of the college with contemporary cultural and creative movements from the region. 

Professor Ursula Lindqvist is the coordinator for Out of Scandinavia Week.

“The Out of Scandinavia artist-in-residence program connects Gustavus students to the Nordic region as it is today, as opposed to how it was 150 years ago at the time of the college’s founding. The professional, world-class artists we bring to campus are grappling with some of the great questions of our time through their visual art, writing, filmmaking, and music. They visit courses across campus which are engaging the same kinds of issues that the artist does,” Lindqvist said.

Connecting the artist’s work with global issues promotes a strong interdisciplinary conversation across campus and deepens the academic experience for various classes and disciplines.

“I am teaching about Ehlers’ work in my course on Nordic Colonialisms and Postcolonial Studies, and we’re also offering a course on Scandinavian women writers that counts for the GWSS major and minor,” Lindqvist said.

Additionally, the goal of the program is to highlight the diversity of Scandinavian culture and the people who live in the region.

“Our first Out of Scandinavia artist, in 1989, was the Indigenous Sámi poet, musician, and activist Nils-Aslak Valkeapää, from Arctic Finland, and he was selected to highlight aspects of global Nordic culture and society that often are unknown to people living here in the upper Midwest. Scandinavia today is not just one big white space where everyone eats lutefisk and listens to Ace of Base. The Nordic region is incredibly diverse today, and to some extent, it always has been. Ehlers, who was born and raised in Denmark with Caribbean roots, exemplifies the complexities of Nordic identity today and what that means for tackling many of the great challenges of our time,” Lindqvist said. 

Events for this year’s Out of Scandinavia Week were organized by the Scandinavian Studies department and co-sponsored by African and Africa Diaspora Studies; Latin American, Latinx, and Caribbean Studies; Peace, Justice, and Conflict Studies; Gender, Women, and Sexuality Studies; Comparative Literature; the Department of Art & Art History; the Department of Theatre & Dance; the Center for Inclusive Excellence; the Equity and Inclusion Division; the Center for International and Cultural Education; and the Pan-Afrikan Student Organization.

After a week full of events on campus, including a reception, class visits, and the public lecture “From Invisibility to Manifestation” on Wednesday night, Ehlers repeated that lecture at the American Swedish Institute in Minneapolis on Thursday. Her visit will culminate with a masterclass today, Friday, titled The Art of Performance at 11:30 a.m. to 2:00 p.m. in the Gardner Lab Theater.

As a visual artist, Ehlers works with multiple mediums, including photography, video, sculpture, installation, and performance. Her work, while varied, often focuses on decolonial messaging and bringing unsung histories to light. Her most recent solo show, “Archives in the Tongue: A Litany of Freedoms”, highlights the traditions and folklore of the African diaspora in order to shine a light on Denmark’s colonial history.

Her works are currently displayed in the exhibit “Fragments of Epic Memory” at the Minneapolis Institute of Art until July 9. The exhibit features art by contemporary Caribbean artists and focuses on how history can be reimagined through art. 

Other notable works from Ehlers include “Whip it Good”, a performance piece where she paints a white canvas with charcoal dust, using a whip instead of a paintbrush to represent the brutality of slavery and colonialism. During the performance, she invited audience members to “paint” the canvas, creating an interactive piece and inviting the audience to join her in reshaping the historical narrative channeled through the piece. 

Additionally, Ehlers and fellow artist La Vaughn Belle created the first statue of a Black woman in Denmark. The statue, titled “I Am Queen Mary” commemorates one of the rebel queens who led a labor revolt on the then-Danish, now U.S. Virgin Islands in 1878. This part of Danish colonial history is rarely recognized, and the statue is a means to decolonize the historical narrative in Denmark. 

Senior Scandinavian Studies major Mad Chase has helped organize Ehlers’ visit to campus.

“Ehlers has had many meetings with students across campus in a variety of different ways. One thing that is so wonderful about the OOS program is the ability to talk to a living artist in informal meetings, course visits, and lunches. This has been really nice in order to ask about Ehlers’ understanding of her own artist process and her work beyond that,” Chase said. 

Lindqvist hopes that Ehlers’ visit will inspire some time for reflection and relaxation as the end of the semester comes rushing forward.

“Ehlers’ visual art is incredibly compelling and speaks to so many core questions about what makes us human, what connects us, and what divides us. I hope everyone is able to look up from their flood of deadlines and obligations and engage with her art as a way to remember why we’re all here getting an education or working in education. It’s so easy to lose sight of that when everyone is so busy. I hope Jeannette’s presence here will inspire many and help us recharge,” Lindqvist said.