Beautiful entrance hall at the National Museum, the high ceiling is decorated with beautiful frescos by renowned artist Akseli Gallen-Kallela with Kalevala motifs from 1920s. Under the frescos, there is a small gallery that visitors can step into. The experience is powerful, as big photograph portraits take hold of the spectator. International art concept Studio Aleppo has found home inside the National Museum in Helsinki.
Founding idea for the Studio Aleppo can be traced back to Syrian city of Aleppo, Bawabet al Qasab Street, which was badly damaged in bombing. Photographer Issa Touma found old negatives and pictures in the middle of a rubble of an old photographer’s studio. People of Aleppo, pictured from 1920s to 70s.
Now an international art collective has started to found new Studio Aleppo installations in different parts of Europe. The result will be a gallery of portraits of new and old Europeans.
In Helsinki, people taking part in the Studio Aleppo photo session paid 50 euros to have their portrait taken by a professional photographer. With the payment they also made it possible for a newcomer, an asylum seeker, immigrant or refugee to have their picture taken as well. The session filled up quickly and as a result, in the gallery hangs 23 pictures of old and 23 new citizens of Helsinki. All participants were also interviewed, the idea was to find something that connects us all, no matter what the background.
Home for the Finnish culture and heritage, National Museum chose to exhibit something so closely linked with the current general discussion on multiculturalism and immigration in Finland. For the Museum, the exhibition provided an opportunity to take part in defining what it means to be a Finn, says head of marketing and communication of the Museum, Jonna Heliskoski.
“The National Museum gives Studio Aleppo surroundings that poignantly emphasize the message of the exhibition. The exhibition gives us the opportunity to consider the role of immigrants as builders of the society. We have to define what our stance on multiculturalism is”, Heliskoski describes.
”I admit there was discussion on how this fits to the celebration of Finland’s centennial independence”, Jonna Heliskoski from national Museum says, “however, the National Museum wants to shake up the idea of Finnish cultural heritage. We will be making similar openings in the future also.”
Looking at the permanent exhibition of the National Museum, one can notice how influences from different parts of the globe have always shaped our culture. An exhibition like Studio Aleppo is also a chance to update our idea on what it means to be a Finn.
Helsinki is after Amsterdam only the second city to organize Studio Aleppo. In Helsinki, a professional photographer Juuso Westerlund took the pictures. In the Autumn Haag and Berlin will organize their respective Studio Aleppo pop up exhibitions. In the end, all photographs along with short interviews will be collected into an internet gallery.
Producer and curator of the exhibition in Helsinki Ceyda Berk-Söderblom is very satisfied with the end results.
“Photograph is a very intelligent medium to use in this purpose. When a person is being photographed and as an object of art, it does not matter where you come from and how long you might have been here. It is a very powerful experience.”
Producer Ceyda Berk-Söderblom is also reflecting her own story, moving to Helsinki less than two years ago from Turkey, she says that while it is clearly a benefit in the art world to be international, it takes time to get to know people in Helsinki and find your place. She describes Studio Aleppo as an opportunity to give voice to the new citizens of Helsinki and make them visible.
“There are many layers in the exhibition. While being photographed a person is alone, but here the resulting photos end up together and that is meaningful.”
Editor: Anna Gustafsson
Photo: Soile Tirilä, Museovirasto