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...


rauna said...

I can't believe you have all these 'Lapp'-themed plates! They used to make me cringe every time I saw them for the exact reasons you mention. The Arctic Circle just outside Rovaniemi is the worst of the worst when it comes to exploiting Sami culture and presenting the Sami as the Santa's little helpers... (See http://www.santaclausvillage.info/eng/main.htm and http://www.arcticcircle-information.fi/sami.html where the Sami are called 'a national population group,' not an indigenous people...). There have been several demonstrations to oppose this, with very little concrete results. The latest was recently, at the end of October in conjunction with the Sami Conference held in Rovaniemi, organized by Sami youth. As usual, Finnish media didn't give it much attention. And no, Andreas Alariesto wasn't Sami.

northshorewoman said...

Yes, I have those plates! Aren't we all in some ways complicit in this consumer world of ours? How does one live a life clean of all taint? I even have a bracelet made of African elephant ivory, that also was a gift given to me about 28 years ago. And I have lots of gold which is one of the dirtiest of all commodities, that is responsible for so much contamination and environmental and social destruction. I guess I can write a long list of my complicities with destruction. Maybe I will make up a list of 100 things and send it around email and folks can check off how many things they have done/are doing that contribute to problems.

American Finn said...

Not sure where rauna's info is from, but Alariesto definitely was Sami! For Andreas Alariesto the preservation of Sámi culture was an ultimate task and most of his work reflects the sadness of disappearing the traditional lifestyle.

There will be an expo of his work in Sami Museum in Inari, Finland this summer...


Anonymous said...

Snobs !