• The Scarlet


    Written by Ksenia Rundin

    Anja Niemi’s world is a faceless personal story of the film Paris, Texas’(1984) peculiar kind of sadness, accompanied by David Lynch’s neo-noir mystery and wrapped in Francis Scott Fitzgerald’s remarkable melancholic feast of a human fantasy, stretching itself from a luxury hotel in Paris to the blue-grey rocks of Monument Valley in Utah. Being the front figure in Anja’s artworks, the enigmatic blond woman is an expressionless symbol of the inimitable plots, which are narrated by the imagery of marvellous details, divulging a true collector soul of the artist. A kimono from the 1920s, acquired at a vintage shop, a pair of worn-out glittering party shoes, purchased on Ebay and a pink beauty kit from the 1950s, discovered somewhere else online, become pieces of a greater puzzle, making the story complete.

    Niemi tells us amazingly intriguing stories without actually saying a word, but painting those with the lens of her camera and the unique wealth of her visual world. In fact, the stories are a looming metaphor about looking for your true self, while doubting and hesitating, loving and devoting, daring and challenging, without giving up your hopes and abandoning your dreams. The transitional nature of the photographs form a bridge between the bold newness of modernity and the scary uncertainty of the ever changing postmodern times by including an endless account of layers that you never get tired of discovering. Beholding Niemi’s artworks provide us an opportunity to become an architect of our emotions and feelings, each time exploring a new intriguing dimension of our visual perception of the world. Following her invincible gut feeling and exquisite artistic taste, Margita Ingwall, PR and Marketing Chief at Fotografiska (a centre for contemporary photography) in Stockholm, kindly introduced the writer of this article to Anja Niemi, what later turned into an alluring and heartfelt conversation. 

    How did you discover photography as your artistic language?
    After I had shot my first film roll, trying to achieve something rather than merely snapping, I think is how I discovered that. Being a creative child, I was always filled with imaginative stories but my dyslexia made me struggle with words. It was not until I attended a photography class at the age of eighteen that I found a tool to tell my stories with. It was the first time the things I saw in my head and the stories I imagined, could be turned into something I was able to show or share. After that I just knew that it was mine.

    You have yourself in the photos but at the same time you have made it clear that it is not about you. Who is the woman that you put in the focus?
    I think, she could represent anyone and any gender. I want to talk about what it is like to be human, what it is like to be a woman. However, it is, as you mentioned, never about me, I do not find that part very relevant to share. Therefore, I make my characters either faceless or expressionless; sometimes neutral or very exaggerated. It is in order to turn them into symbols rather than real people. Hence, you can project whoever you want and the viewer can identify the character with their own selves.

    Since they are all female, I am asking myself whether this is about being a woman. Maybe some of them actually are but, in general, it is a gender-neutral topic about us as people, about emotions and relationships that we have with ourselves. And I do not think those are necessarily gender-specific. Because I am a woman, there are certainly female elements sneaking to it. Especially, it could be visible in my early works, when I was doing a twist on female icons and characters, who we normally see in the movies, directed by men and created by men, allusions and an unattainable ideal. An unattainable ideal is also gender-neutral but it can also become very feminine in a rather exaggerated way. I also find a lot of inspiration in drag queens. It is a mix of things, not just a classic female ideal with certain unwillingness added.

    In your series “Darlene and Me” you have two female twins in the picture. Do they represent any kind of alter ego or any archetype?
    Yes, they definitely do. And this is something that goes through my work. It is about the relationship we have with ourselves, when it is double or even when it is triple. It is an inner dialogue. That particular series is about one woman and her relationship to herself, where you see her in all the shapes and forms, which such relationship can take. It is quite a brutal connection at times; it is very extreme to all ends of the spectrum.

    Actually, a lot of my works start with a clear inspiration and very often it is an object. Being a devoted collector, I collect old things, which once belonged to someone and you can read something out of them. I use character triggers and often include those collected items in a composition. With “Darlene and Me”, it was a beauty counsellor suitcase from the 1950s or 1960s. I ordered it online. It looked really beautiful, containing jars with powder, cream and make-up samples for a door-to-door sales kit. When it arrived, it looked really beautiful with the powder still left in there and you could open those little jars and smell. I did open them all and it created an amazing feeling. Nevertheless, I quite quickly realised that it was so much more than that. It had a clear story to it.

    Obviously, my story is partly a fiction, but the woman’s name was written on the papers. So I know something what I did not know for sure was her story. However, what I acquired from it, was an old but, in a certain way, untouched suitcase, where most of the jars were still full and the lipstick looked almost new with the owner’s fingerprints on it. I also looked at the paperwork enclosed to the kit and there were only few receipts. The owner did not really do many sales. When I took a closer look, I realised that the sales she did were to herself. I could see her image as a beauty counsellor, selling the products  and as a client, rehearsing her role in a career she might have dreamt about. This is what led me to the character and to the story about how she had struggled and got in her own way. I think, we often do that at a certain stage of our lives, a ‘destroy it all’ feeling. This is how Darlene was born, through a suitcase leading me to her.

    How do you prepare for your photo sessions?
    My process of getting to the point where I am actually photographing is really long. It is me, the whole process is me. I work alone on everything. When I know what character I want to make, I start collecting things that I assume she would have, finding clothes, wigs and make-up she would wear. It takes some time to complete. Prior to every new story, I clear my studio and start filling it with new items, exclusively belonging to the story. Then I find locations and plan the trip. When I have built up a character and everything is ready, I pack it all up and go to make the images. It takes between one and two years to make a series for me. Finally, when the show is up, I immediately start working on the next series.

    Do you conduct the whole styling process by yourself?
    This is a building process. I do have a costume collection but for every character you always need new pieces. I know what I need for my character and then I just look through vintage shops, online or anywhere. Mostly, I mix decades to make them timeless, with the exception of ‘The woman Who Never Existed’ maybe. I want the feeling to be genuine to make the character more real to me when I wear them. There is something immersive in using older objects like shoes or clothes, what undeniably comes through. And there is history in them, coming from and created by real people.

    What role do you think fashion plays in your artwork, if it does at all? 
    At the beginning it did not matter for me, but later I started really coming closer to the costumes. Gradually, it became my world through the construction work with the character, while looking for things to complete the image. After I started making this work, I really fell in love with clothes in a new way. Today there is a connection between fashion and art imagery with a lot of inspiration, crossing over both ways.

    Don’t you think that you create your own fashion in your photographs by putting clothes in the limelight in a very special way?
    At the beginning of my art career I thought a lot about the language of dance, which was more accessible to me than the language of words. I use the body to talk, to tell the story and disclose feelings. I might, as well, be doing it by means of the clothes that I use in my images. It is a body language in connection with the way I dress my character. There is a very different feeling from a cowboy outfit with rough fringe leather chaps to a vintage lace-dress with the lace dripping off the character.

    How do you usually scout for locations?
    It is pretty straight forward. At a very early stage, when I have a character, a vision appears quite immediately. My world is very visual, it is all images. I see right away what I want it to look like and it is just a matter of searching through everything. Through film sets, through landscapes and houses for sale and for rent, magazines, museums - anywhere where the look will exist.

    In the series “Do Not Disturb” I used hotel rooms. I would  pack up a selection of  costumes, take it all with me and see what would happen in those hotel rooms. I just spent around two days behind those doors in order to make a character. Later, it evolved and became much more specific. And for “Darlene and Me” the images I first got, were connected to that suitcase, sort of putting her into the 1950s time era. But it is never like a period drama, where you have to specifically stick to an era.

    The Woman that Never Existed” was, for example, inspired by an actress, who works in the 1920s. When I first started collecting dresses and kimonos from the 1920s, fans and makeup jars, I suddenly discovered that I did not mind mixing other things. I am not documenting anything specific story but using fantasy, where you can do whatever you want. 

    Could you please tell more about the series “The Woman that Never Existed”?
    This series was sort of a shift in me, because it was the first time where I really had a clear inspiration coming solely from words. Words have always been my enemy. But in this case it was words that actually triggered something. I was reading an article about an Italian actress, who had worked on the theatre stage and in silent movies during the 1920s and 1930s. As a person concerned about her privacy, she never wanted to give any interviews. Once she told to a journalist, “Away from the stage, I do not exist.” Those words just jumped out of the page and I could see a character right away.

    This person I started to imagine dissolves or fades away, when no one is looking at her. If she is not directed, having her role or a script, the woman simply does not know what to do. Seemingly, it immediately gave me a new narrative and I started searching for requisites. From the beginning I wanted the plot to look luxurious by adding exclusive fabrics like velvet and silk, frescos. It might seem over-embellished but I did it intentionally, because I wanted to show her world which holds her up and constitutes her allusion. If you took it away from her, there would have been nothing left. She has no facial expressions. Her face is either heavily painted or completely expressionless, reminding of a doll. And that is what she became in my had - an empty shell.

    You last series “She Could Have Been a Cowboy” illustrates a completely different world, continent and plot. Where did you photograph it?
    I did it in Utah and Arizona. Basically, after I knew what my story was and what I wanted, I collected everything I needed and took a road trip to the American Southwest. I drove for about two and a half weeks by myself, having all those locations preplanned, and my costumes with me. I hiked up mountains and rode horses. The experience becomes a part of the story, I do not turn it to the main point of the images. However, my work process becomes a part of the final product, because the experience of going through it on my own is of significance. My trip to Utah was the biggest challenge so far, it is a very foreign scenery for me, as a girl from Norway. I did not really know how I would feel driving those roads on my own but I certainly knew that it was what I wanted.

    I had imagined this character, who dreamt of another life but became stuck in her own reality. The character wears a pink lace-dress, while her fantasy is to be dressed in fringe and leather, while riding horses in the Wild West. There is an image in the series, where you see her sequence repeating itself. It illustrates where she is stuck and what her reality looks like with days repeating themselves and her wearing the same dress. Everything else is just a fantasy built upon things she sees in Western movies and magazines. All the images that I have made represent things she has seen without ever having been to Utah.

    I had to go to those classic locations like Monument Valley and the places where John Wayne's films would have been shot. Seemingly, I lived out her fantasies, took that trip and experienced it all, wore the cowboy costume for her. It ended up with an image of the woman sitting on a horse, what actually turned to be my symbol of braveness to dare to be what you really want to be.  Her story might have had a sadder twist but, I think, it became something else afterwards. I wanted to create a series that would feel familiar to everyone, who live their life differently to the way they truly want. It could raise the question “Who is stopping you?”

    When you were a little girl, could you imagine that one day you would become an artist?
    Not being a fabulous illustrator or otherwise showing any special talent, I felt very lost. My sister is a writer, a beautiful writer at that, I remember her making books with exciting stories when she was just seven years old. I was filled with stories too but I did not have the means to express them. I did not do so well in school but I always knew that I had creativity however, I did not really know what I would do with it. For a while, I secretly wanted to be an actress, because of my love for storytelling. But I was very shy and socially anxious, therefore I let it stay a fantasy. With a love for transformation, using my grandmother’s cocktail dresses, I could create a feeling of becoming someone else, someone special. At the age of eighteen, I took a photography class, what I previously mentioned, then I knew. A wordless language became my tool.

    The Chrysler
    The Garden Hose
    She Could Have Been A Cowboy
    The imaginary Cowboy
    The Dancing Cowboy
    Room 39 Vanity
    The Roller Girl
    The Socialite
  • photography by LINDA ANDERSSON
    make up & hair INA PALM
    model ALICE BLENNERUD / Mikas


    Written by Ksenia Rundin

    The Phoenicians and Carthaginians, the Romans and later the Greeks and Tojans — all of them once left their cultural traces on the enchanting island of Sardegna, which today has inspired the new Swedish brand OKULT into their mystical aesthetics filled with both modern and postmodern elements. With a slight flavour of political retaliation virtuously mixed with social realism of the Orthodox East diluted by Pop Culture of the progressive West, OKULT speaks its own young and fashionable voice. The brand illustrates an unexpected cascade of hidden messages, as Yves Saint Laurent would suddenly start a collaboration with Andrei Tarkovsky or the surrealism of Louis Aragon would be directed into a disillusioning bourgeois play by Françoise Sagan. The garments constitute something aesthetically whimsical and therefore visually intriguing, making one aware of sustainability of both shapes, materials and processes as such.  It is all about an idiosyncratic eccentricity locked in the irrational immateriality of the material forms.

    Please tell us about the brand. What is the idea behind it? 
    The original idea was starting a creative studio with the intention to design and work primarily with fashion and then with interior design. Producing clothes and objects such as ceramic vases and carpets, working side by side with artisans in Sardegna and being supported by their knowledge and history of craftwork.

    Who are you — people behind the brand? 
    Lisa has a background in fashion and arts with seven years of studies in the subject and with a Master from The Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts in Fashion, including an exchange semester at Die Angewandte, University of Applied Arts Vienna, coordinated by professor Bernard Wilhelm. In 2016 she was selected as Vogue Talent from Denmark.
    Tommaso has a Bachelor and Master in Cinema and Literature from the University of Tor Vergata in Rome. For the last ten years he has been producing cultural events and gone on tour in Europe as music agent, releasing records with his own label. Currently he is working at HAUSS SPACE in Malmö.

    What does OKULT stand for? 
    The word OKULT is a neologism which comes from the Swedish word ”ockult” and from the Latin ”cultus”, owed to deities, temples and shrines, being embodied in ritual and ceremony. For us it stands for something hidden, isolated, magical and mysterious in regard and opposition to the fashion system and the mass production. But it also refers to the island of Sardegna in Italy and its ancient history. 

    Could you describe the creative process for the latest collection? 
    Lisa: I was very uplifted and embraced by the beautiful light and the landscape of Sardinia when I chose the materials. I worked with the materials as a starting point and was so inspired and fascinated by the characteristic materials, which I had found in Italy through direct contact with textile factories still located in Italy. Then I created one garment out of each one of the fabrics I had chosen.

    Often I start the design process intuitively with a lot of inspiration and ideas and later reduce elements step by step until it becomes rather simple. I work with contrasts in geometrical shapes simplifying those until the bones.  The work method I used to create the garments for the latest collection was to draw over and over again by using tracing-paper in order to find the right lines and then making a lot of prototypes.

    On your webpage you indirectly say that you challenge “the old fashion system”. Please, describe how. 
    We are in a time where the fashion industry is in such a need to reinvent itself. Challenging the “old fashion system” for us means to be resistant to the capitalistic side of fashion which is destroying our world and enslaving people with a miserable salary and just making huge profit out of it. To give back the value of clothes that we make with quality and respect for the process and time it takes to create a piece of cloth.“Sustainability” is just a trendy word for a lot of brands, especially the big ones, involved in “green” events. As a rule, they keep their production in a country where there are almost no rights for the workers and no laws regarding the natural environment.

    To conclude, challenging “the old fashion system” means for us, being 100 percent transparent and ethically honest. It means to be in control over the whole production, every step of it and to create human relationship with the people you are working with. Success is not only an economic issue.

    What inspires you and how you keep yourselves inspired? 
    Could be a dream, a conversation. Everyday life and history. Everything that is included in the sphere of humanistic studies. We keep ourselves inspired by reading and watching films, traveling and meeting people. 

    On your Instagram I have seen a picture from one of Sergej Parajanov’s movie. It is quite a rare concept for people outside the former Soviet Union. Tell me about it. 
    Sergej Parajanov made some of the most beautiful films ever seen. The richness of his films is outstanding with the attention to every detail, handmade costumes, colours and poetry. His films are like a long historical (Armenian and Georgian heritage) and surrealistic hallucination, full of symbols, metaphors, morals and religious allegories. And everything seems to be deciphered making his poetics timeless and his films immortal. 

    What are your future plans?
    One-piece productions, collaborations and work with the concept of sustainability.


    Written by Ksenia Rundin

    How do you bring a few centuries of art and fashion history together under a forward-looking vision of tomorrow? Nationalmuseum of Sweden has an answer by offering the visitors to participate in their solution in place. Following five years of renovation and reconstruction, the museum has reopened its doors with extended areas, new colours and lighting, where the daylight flux virtuously varies with artificial illumination to create varying feelings and emotions. By focusing on displaying, collecting, preserving and researching, the cultural institution has made the art experience accessible in a remarkably new architectural context, achieved by the scenographic character of the building and emphasised by the digital and technical solutions. Since its foundation in 1792, the museum has always upheld its progressive perspective, showing the way forward. Nowadays this strategy remains in general the same but, through practicing its features within the contemporary context, it conceives new opportunities for the visitors to engage themselves in the future by observing and interpreting the past. Odalisque Magazine has had the honour to meet Director General of Nationalmuseum, Dr Susanna Pettersson and discuss achievements, visions, strategies and future plans of the museum.

    What was the cultural and strategic points behind all the work with the reshaping of Nationalmuseum?

    Let us talk about some bigger trends taking place in Europe that affected the decision-making process and created the context for the changes performed at Nationalmuseum. It all started at the end of the 1990’s, when national museums and galleries around Europe began to question their own activities, wondering whether they were doing things in the right way and whether they were doing the right things. It turned to be the starting point for the self-reflecting work that was addressed by scholars like Peter van Mensch. At the same time there was a growing interest for the museum history and history of collections. One of the outcomes is the research project called European National Museums (Eunamus) under the leading of the Swedish Professor in history Peter Aronsson. The project was aimed to provide an institutionalised arena for negotiating new understandings of the nature of political community through balancing the stability of the old with the disruption of the new.

    The importance of knowing your own heritage and learning from history is one of the main aspects in the current context at Nationalmuseum. Swedish and international art, arts and crafts as well as design are displayed within the same frame in order to create a varying experience.

    Could you say that you have made an attempt to democratise the access to art?

    Yes, we have abandoned the Romantic ideal of art being the privilege for certain groups. Art is for everyone. We analyse daily a big amount of visual material such as photographs, taken with our smart phones. Everyone can be considered as more or less experienced and skilled within the field.

    What have you added to the museum that was not there before and what have you removed as something obsolete?

    The first significant change was to receive the daylight back to the gallery by opening the windows. The second modification was to go back to the colour design introduced by the German architect Friedrich August Stüler (1800-1865), who was inspired by North Italian Renaissance. New technology was introduced to meet the current standards in terms of climate and humidity for instance. The first weekend we received 16 650 visitors and the total for the first eleven weeks was 311 000. It says something about how popular we are today.

    You have used the words re-mind, re-think, re-view, re-value, re-lease and re-load in the recent marketing strategy. How have you succeeded to stay a step further in your planning, reshaping and reloading the museum and its concepts during all the five years while the “remaking” were taking place?

    In general, research- and collection-related questions remain unaltered through times. Meanwhile, the interpretation in a contemporary context is always changing. Art has not been born in any kind of downpipe but is always developing in an intimate interplay with the intellectual progress of the society. Therefore, the true challenge is to link the art history to the present-day society through contextualising and questioning art movements, art techniques and art objects. It is important to explain the meaning of an art object in its original time context in order to bring it over to the current environment and let the visitors experience it. It is about how to use art objects as sources of interpretation and uncover different layers, using an analytical approach.

    Why have you decided to have John Singer Sargent as your first exhibition after the opening?

    One of the main functions of Nationalmuseum is to introduce less known artists to its audience. Sargent fits perfectly well into that description due to the portraitist’s social ties with Sweden, such as a good acquaintance with Anders Zorn, other Nordic artists and collectors. Being a true cosmopolite, he became friend with a few international artists and collectors during his time in Paris.

    Why has “Madame X” not been included in the exhibition?

    When it comes to specific artworks, there is always a high demand on certain works. That exhibition almost coincided with the exhibition devoted to Sargent’s Chicago connections, “John Singer Sargent and Chicago’s Gilded Age” at the Art Institute of Chicago.

    During the grand opening of the museum there were a lot of influencers presented. Are you planning to collaborate with influencers in your marketing strategy?

    Certainly! Today, we should be able to make use of different channels, where influencers have access to a unique target group, which we would like to see amongst our visitors.

    What is your strategy to keep your loyal customers and to attract new ones?

    The target groups we primarily work with are visitors who are interested in culture, people living in Stockholm, tourists, families with children and young adults. The last two are especially important for us to engage and to inspire, because they build our future audience.

    What picture of national branding are you creating for Sweden?

    The 19th Century was one of the most significant periods in history of nations – a time of global transformation connected to the national idea. It was also a time of prosperity, when most of the national art galleries in Europe were established with the aim to illustrate the history of art in a more international perspective. Through the history of art the nations searched to formulate and comprehend their own national identity. It was about presenting national art in the international context and that principle is actually still applicable today. As a researcher in the field, I would say that Nationalmuseum’s collections are brilliantly multi-facetted and really significant in the Nordic countries. It creates a strong and durable profile of Sweden as a country with a high cultural diversity. The better the state maintains its cultural institutions, the stronger the culture profile of the country becomes.