Tuesday, December 9, 2008
Arabia in Finland
I bought this small round plate for .25c at a yard sale down the street from me a few years ago. Gleefully, I brought it home and added it to my collection of other small plates that I have amassed over the years; most have been gifts. Like many other Finnish Canadians, I have a number of various small plates like this up on the walls--a collecting pastime that the Japanese seem to like to do, too. On the back of this plate it reads: Arabia Finland. Toivo G. Utrianen. Utriainen was a prolific Finnish artist who wanted to spread beauty around. He said, to me the forest is my temple. He said, I am not a frequent or eager churchgoer, but find God in nature and that's where I find stillness. Without belief the world is empty.
The back of this plate reads: Arabia Finland. Lapinäiti. Lapp woman. Design: Anita Rantanen-Siewers.
The Saami people and culture is a common theme appropriated by Finns for inspiration in art and for tourism, especially the Santa industry and all things Northern, much like non-native Canadians use First Nations peoples and their cultural symbols and meanings. For example, take the inukshuk (pardon the pun), which has seen increasing appropriation and commodification, from the 2010 Vancouver Olympics and the cover of books (that don't even have one essay by an Inuk writer despite purporting to be a book showcasing Canadian writers!) to realtors:
"Our team has chosen the Inukshuk to symbolize our business. We are here to guide you safely and comfortably through the sale and/or purchase of your cherished asset, your home."
But back to Arabia. The back of this plate reads: Lappalaiset Nuotiolla. Lapps by a Campfire. A. Alariesto 46. Made by ARABIA FINLAND. I'm not really sure if Andreas Alariesto was a Finn or Saami (or both), but what I am sure of is that there is an industry that has emerged from his work, which was a creation of his imagination. Now, I'm not against promoting the arts, for certainly artists need to make a living, too, and we should value "arts" much more than we do, especially in policy, but I do think how that art is produced and taken up is an area for discussion.
image from Suomen kasvot. The Face of Finland. (1948). One of those rummage sale books I've amassed. Some major Orientalism happening here. It's a photo of the artistic director of the Arabia factory making (or pretending to touch up for the photo op) a nude nubile African woman while an Egyptian feline looks on and another topless lithe black female poses regally in the background.
I remember as a young girl wondering about this name "Arabia" that I saw stamped on the bottom of bowls and plates. It sounded so exotic. I remember asking my mom about it. What does it mean? It's just a name, she replied, the name of the company, and went back to her work in the kitchen. The company, Arabia, has a 130 year history in Finland. The old factory grounds is now a suburb of Helsinki called Arabianranta, or The Arabian Shore, which until gentrification was an area of many homeless. I laughed when I saw the names of the streets because in typical Finnish fashion of lumping all exoticism and differences together, the street names are an Orientalist jumble: Cairo, Damascus, Korea, Siam, Syria, Indian, Java, Sumatra, Japan, Arabian Road and Arabian Shore, and just a jog down, Berlin, London and Paris. Only in Finland would Japan find its way into Arabianranta...