Bande à part
“The combination of a decline in self-confidence and having to get my life together resulted in my working with making music videos, advertising, scenography, and those kinds of jobs. But I also came to the conclusion that it's okay for it to be like that”, says Greta Weibull when speaking about the turbid time following her graduation from the Royal Institute of Art in Stockholm. She is one of four artists I’ve decided to get in touch with to discuss the hypothesis which is rather actually a fact – that the life you face as a newly graduated artist is generally challenging and unpredictable. However, in light of this year’s pandemic, this universal condition for artists reaches new heights. I contact Niklas Holmgren, Greta Weibull, Roxy Farhat and Niklas Wallenborg, to talk about experiences of their art education, and the partially harsh reality that followed. I’m interested in their past expectations on what life would be like after graduation, in relation to how it actually turned out. When speaking to these artists, a few things become clear, of which the most pivotal appears to be: it’s all about finding your own ways to make it work.
When calling Niklas Holmgren, I hear the soft tunes of a piano playing in the background. It’s Glen Gould playing Johannes Brahms, he explains when I ask him about it. He’s spending most of his days painting in his studio at Iaspis in Stockholm, where he is currently one of the residents. It’s been almost 20 years since Niklas Holmgren graduated from the Royal Institute of Art in Stockholm, commonly known as just Mejan. He remembers the school years as a positive experience, a never-ending flow of speed and desire.
– At first, I was a little obsessed with the idea of entering this magical school. For me it was very loaded with meanings, this mythical school that felt impossible to be admitted to. Once I got in, I felt that I could do anything, and I basically did. This permeated all the school years, the feeling of always flowing forward and doing everything.
At Mejan there were good financial means to implement ideas, and an encouragement from the school to spend the five years discovering oneself – to find out what one’s art is really about. The teaching was very much focused on formulating one's own artistry, something that Niklas Holmgren was fulfilled by during his school years, and still driven by after graduation.
– It was more of a short-term thinking back then, now you can look back and actually see what you were doing. Now I can establish that I did basically the same thing when I was fifteen as I do now. But maybe now I’m better at it.
Niklas Holmgren, 'Alexander rörelse', 2018, oil on canvas, 40 x 57 cm
Niklas Holmgren was fortunate enough to receive a severance grant immediately after graduation. But eventually reality came creeping up on him, and he felt worried – where would the money to pay rent come from? It had not been included in his calculations, the financial aspect of being an artist was not something his education had prepared him for. Even so, he still has a positive attitude towards the focus at Mejan.
– It’s really good that the education puts the focus on your own work – that is the important part, not everything surrounding it. It results in you having a huge strength in your own work, you know that your artistic practice always comes first. Knowing that has taken me to the right place many times; choosing based on what I want to do, even though it may have seemed crazy. I think it always works out eventually. If you work hard in the studio it pays off in the long run.
According to Niklas Holmgren, the biggest challenge after graduation wasn’t the financial aspect of paying rent. Rather, the challenge was to remain true to himself, while still making projects happen and seeking ways to go forward. One of the most important things he brought with him from school is his driving force, together with the realization that he could do just about anything he wanted to.
– It created a strong foundation that I have used since then in my professional life, the act of doing, that you are to some extent unstoppable – it’s about taking things into your own hands and just making them happen, instead of waiting for money or for someone else to do it. There is probably an impatience in me, that is perhaps both good and bad.
Niklas Holmgren was a painter when he started at Mejan, but over time he changed tracks and started making films, eventually becoming a film director and screenwriter. With Marie-Louise Ekman as the principal of Mejan, he was encouraged to continue working with film during his school years. To me, switching from painting to filmmaking still sounds like a rather big leap. I ask him what prompted this quick change of direction in his artistry; what made him change tracks and leave his paintings behind him completely for so many years.
– When I came to Mejan, it was very out of fashion to be a painter. It was questioned a lot during the school years, I was asked "why do you paint?" and I had no good answer to that question. There were new technologies at the school and on the art scene.
Niklas Holmgren had some experience from theater and a great interest in literature, which resulted in him trying out video art and performance. He describes it as if he got into his system that he could no longer paint, that it was wrong to continue down that path. Growing within him was doubt, and he could no longer find his foundation in painting.
– Or rather, I didn't think the foundation I had in my paintings was enough. I thought they required a cool and contemporary concept. It’s like that when you are young, you dare not really believe that what you have is enough. But I think you eventually end up where you’re supposed to be. When I started making movies, it was very encouraged from the professors, so it felt very logical to continue.
Many years went by without him touching a paint brush. But since a few years back, Niklas Holmgren has resumed painting. I'm curious as to why, and he declares that it was a series of events that caused his resumption. In the film industry, the production process is always very long, yet sometimes it ends with no movie at all. Making a film doesn’t mean a daily creative work, it’s divided into productions, and it’s a relatively small amount of time that constitutes the creative process. The inertia that it meant to be working with film made him question whether it was the right thing for him to continue doing. However, the sudden need to paint again also came from something highly personal.
Niklas Holmgren, 'Kungsholmstorg 1' (detail view), oil on canvas, 120 x 86 cm, 2019
– A friend of mine who worked as an actress died, and I realized that I myself would die. I realized my own mortality and got a huge whim: I have to do a painting now, I could die at any time. I took my colors out of the basement and made a painting that I had been carrying inside me for a long time. And then I was stuck, sort of like I was thrown back to the years when I was painting as a very young person. I couldn't stop, I just had to keep going. So I wound up all film projects, and since then I have been painting full time. And all of a sudden, things worked out perfectly, the economy improved and everything just flowed. Everything fell into place, even artistically – what I wanted to convey.
Niklas Holmgren still sees the years of filmmaking as very valuable. He points out that he has always stayed within the same themes; whether expressed through film or painting, he is telling the same stories. Besides, the years of devoting himself to film have influenced the painting practice that he’s devoted to now. Niklas Holmgren almost exclusively depicts other people in his paintings. Working with film gave him a very good tool to employ – actors.
– As a screenwriter, you engage in psychological and emotional processes and learn a great deal about cause and effect, what causes people to act in different ways. You have refined the tool that revolves around the human mind. My own theme has been clarified to me over the years, it became clearer after each film I made. Now that I have resumed painting, I have much more knowledge than I had as a young painter.
Today Niklas Holmgren understands the connections between filmmaking and painting, something he didn’t see when he was younger.
– The issue I work with the most now is about whether one can paint a psychological state in a person. It’s not visible in the picture, but can you feel it when you see the painting? The emotions never appear in words in a movie script, so I've always been thinking around that subject, trying to get behind the facade, capturing what's inside.
Working primarily within performance and video art, Roxy Farhat takes on the structures we live in; what we can do within them, against them, or outside them. Her work often deals with issues such as racism, feminism, the body and experiences of immigration. All very serious themes, but often with elements of humor, references to popular culture and a D.I.Y-aesthetic.
Roxy Farhat did her BFA at Konstfack in Stockholm. At first, she didn't even think she would continue with an MFA, as she felt pretty done with school at that point. However, in her last year she got the opportunity to take an exchange semester in Oakland, San Francisco.
– It felt like it opened up a whole new world to me, there were other perspectives. The school and the art world wasn’t as white for example.
The positive experience during the exchange semester made Roxy Farhat apply to master programs in the United States. She ended up going to UCLA (University of California Los Angeles) – she had never been to Los Angeles before and felt attracted to the location, and the school had a good reputation. She describes Konstfack and UCLA as two very different places.
– When I was at Konstfack, I had a lot of friends who were studying at Mejan and Konstfack was a lot more academic in comparison; we had compulsory courses and had to write papers and such. But UCLA was on a whole other level in that sense, the academic load was much higher. UCLA is a large university, so there are many more departments besides the art department and I signed up for classes at other departments as well so some of that pressure was also self inflicted.
The fact that UCLA harbored a higher pace and a different level of ambition became most evident during the Open Studios, which was held twice a year.
– Before the Open studios, it was like everyone was repainting their studios and, like, renovating them, for the public and all our professors to come and visit. I haven't done a masters in Sweden, but compared to the bachelor, I think people had a little more fire in their engines.
I come to think of Roxy Farhat's video work “Middle Class Paradise” (2010) that was made during her time at Konstfack, recorded in the school environment and paraphrasing Coolio’s “Gangsta's Paradise”. The work criticizes the white middle class standard that was very dominant at the school. I ask if she experienced similar problems during her master's degree in Los Angeles.
Roxy Farhat, Middle Class Paradise (2010)
– Even though education isn’t free in the US, I still experienced that people came from slightly more diverse backgrounds at UCLA. There was a greater diversity in LA – even though people might have come from largely similar economic backgrounds there were a lot more cultural and social differences.
Roxy Farhat believes that the difference between the schools is partly due to Sweden being a much smaller country than the US.
– The United States has a very diverse population, racially and ethnically it's very different from Sweden. Here in Sweden, art schools are still not that diverse. Since the United States looks completely different in its population, I think it’s natural that the problem is smaller there.
However, the art educations in the United States are not completely unproblematic either, according to Roxy Farhat.
– Education is not available to everyone because it’s very expensive. There are also no social safety nets in the same way as in Sweden, which makes it much more difficult to choose a precarious career such as an artist.
She adds that there is a gap between the BFA in Sweden and the BFA in the US. People are much younger when they start a BFA in the US, they often come directly from high school, which means that they may not have had the opportunity to develop their artistry to the same level as BFA-students in Sweden.
After graduating from UCLA, Roxy Farhat moved back to Sweden. For the first time ever, she had to support herself as a freelance artist. During the first year she felt panicked at the end of every month – would she be able to pay for rent next month? After a year she started feeling a little calmer, it all worked out pretty well and she felt that she could relax a little bit. But just like Niklas Holmgren, she doesn’t think her education had prepared her for the life that came after.
– Only a very small part of the education deals with what life will look like after graduation, how to manage your finances etc. There’s not a lot of preparation for the practical side of working an artist. But of course I knew I was getting into a very uncertain field, it’s not like you’ll get hired as an artist somewhere after graduation. I was prepared for it to be a "take it as it comes"-situation.
However, she wasn’t prepared to have so many different projects and jobs ongoing simultaneously.
– I often have parallel jobs, projects and exhibitions. I've had to work with a lot of different things simultaneously, to survive financially. That's something I wasn’t very well-prepared for, in school you have the time and space to focus on one or two projects at a time. To juggle several projects simultaneously has been and continues to be a challenge.
Collaborations seem to be pervading in Roxy Farhat's practice – she has frequently worked with other artists, musicians, playwrights, and so forth. I ask her about the importance of the collective, helping and supporting one another. Is it essential to create your own networks and structures?
– Yes, I would say it’s super important. I’m still in touch with and work with a lot of the people I went to school with, both from Konstfack and UCLA. The notion of the artist as a free floating singular genius is disappearing. You really need your environment and your colleagues, your network and your community, people to get support from and collaborate with. Helping and supporting each other is very important.
Performance; 'Self-Portrait', in collaboration with Dimen Abdulla and Yoann Durant, Sven-Harrys Konstmuseum, 'Swedish Art: Now!', 2016
Since graduating, Roxy Farhat has tried out many different things. Still, video art and performance is what she prefers to work with artistically. What appeals to her with those expressions is the directness. Videos can have a very direct way to address its viewer, and additionally, video art entails the possibility to reach a wider audience via internet.
– I think video is a language that most people speak. Video art doesn’t always require a lot of prerequisites in order for a viewer to be able to connect to it. When it comes to performance, I like its directness; it’s in the present, you are in the same space as your audience and you are creating a moment that exists then and there, with the people who are present. It lives on as a shared memory of something. It’s in the here and now and it can’t be caught.
Since her graduation from UCLA eight years ago, Roxy Farhat says she has developed and refined her artistic language. Moreover, she claims she has begun experimenting more and dares to try different things.
– I have worked with set design, radio theater and documentaries. So I have tried working in different genres, being open for what comes my way.
What about the Swedish art scene then, I wonder. Has it changed since you went to Konstfack?
– There are of course several new artistic styles and expressions visible on the art scene. There's also a much more extensive discussion around the lack of diversity, and many other voices are being heard and seen.
Greta Weibull just put her child to sleep for the night when we get a chance to speak on the phone. Out of all the artists I get in touch with, she is the one who graduated most recently, having finished her MFA at Mejan in 2016. Nevertheless, a lot has changed since then. She has enrolled on a completely different education; currently studying costume design and scenography at Stockholm University of the Arts (SKH) in Stockholm.
Despite coming from a middle-class family, she barely had any encounters with art growing up, with the exception of visiting a museum with her parents once in a while. After high school, she studied for two years at a liberal arts college which opened her eyes to the art world and the possibility of becoming an artist.
– Before I went to the liberal arts college, I had no idea that you could become an artist. I thought about becoming an illustrator or something else that I thought of more as a “real job”.
Greta Weibull was admitted to Mejan in 2010, something she describes as a bit of a shock. She was only 20 years old and not really prepared for what it actually meant, but she knew that it was a fantastic opportunity. She describes it as riding the wave, seeing where it would take her.
Greta Weibull, MFA-degree exhibition, 'Bent Out of Shape', Royal Institute of Art, Stockholm, 2017
– I had a pretty tough time there in the beginning, I was very young. I probably didn't know what I was interested in yet. Then this whole world opened up with its endless possibilities; of working around the clock, always being at school, partying. It was like a paradise but it also meant a great amount of freedom. And managing that freedom was hard.
During her second year, Greta Weibull took a break from school. She felt depressed and unsure of what she was doing there. But she describes Mejan as a fun place to be at.
– In general, there were a lot of fun people, it was pretty wild, many fun artists went there at the time. It was a high pace, a lot happened. I did a lot of different types of performances.
During her third year, a study trip was made to Addis Ababa. Loulou Cherinet was a visiting professor and organized what Greta Weibull describes as an amazing trip. There she found a book on a flea market, which came to be of great importance to her artistry.
– It was some kind of D.I.Y-book from the 70's in Amharic, that I couldn't read. It was illustrated with small drawings of completely incomprehensible objects. When I came back I started making those objects – that's how I started working with sculpture. I tried to decode some kind of language that I couldn't understand, which became the entrance to the work that I then continued with.
During her third year she was hesitant to continue with a master's degree at Mejan. She even applied for the scenography education that she would later enroll in, but back then she didn’t get in. Something of which she is happy about today, since it prompted her to persuing a MFA at Mejan.
– My master's degree became very valuable and something completely different from the bachelor's.
Greta Weibull, MFA-degree exhibition, 'Bent Out of Shape', Royal Institute of Art, Stockholm, 2017
Greta Weibull was politically involved during her time at Mejan. She says that she often can’t help but get involved when she finds something frustrating. This made her join the student union at school as early as her first year, which she later became the president of for a period. What drove her was the desire to understand the place she was at.
– Mejan seemed so impenetrable, and I wanted to try to decipher the school I was attending. It was probably a lot about wanting to make it less difficult to understand, giving everyone insight into what is happening and making them understand that they could have an influence.
During her last year, Greta Weibull joined the school board. She was also involved when Marta Kuzma took over as principal, an event that she describes as dramatic and exhausting.
– A lot of us were involved, and we felt unfairly treated by the academy (Konstakademin) and the media. It was a difficult period at school and the choice of Marta Kuzma was very unanimous. Then everything collapsed. There were lots of internal conflicts that could probably have been avoided. It became a difficult position to sit on the board; things happened around the reorganization, a lot of rumors spread and so on.
She also claims it was difficult to be committed without it spilling over into how people viewed her art. It eventually became an obstacle between her and the professors, not being able to talk about her sculptures because they interpreted her as a political person – as if it automatically made her art political.
– I was not at all interested in making political statements through my art, I have never been interested in using art that way.
In general, Greta Weibull believes that students at the school were perceived in different ways depending on the type of art they made. For herself, it meant that her professors read politics into her work, something that became most evident during her graduation show. The exhibition also included a master’s essay, which she published as a small book. The essay deals with, among other things, the conflict it means to be a woman and a person with opinions, the attitude towards one's own creation and the gaze from others.
– My examination was pretty tough. I wrote things in my essay that needed to be left outside the room, then you could go inside and look at the art I made. You could not put the essay as a transparent paper over the exhibition – they were supposed to stand next to each other. But it was very difficult to make it work.
Music video, Wildhart 'New Beginning', 2017, director: Julia Thelin
After graduation, the scenographic work gradually took over. During her time at Mejan, she had worked with other things simultaneously, such as driving the metro. She continued this after her graduation as well, which led to other things than art taking up most of her time. She received a scholarship from KKV that she never really got to use, since she had no coherent time to work with her art. Instead, she started getting more jobs as a scenographer. This meant that she could suddenly make money on something other than driving the metro. She describes the period after graduation as bumpy regarding her own artistic practice, but meaningful in other ways – she found other things that she made her own.
– I had an exhibition in Umeå 2017, which I made brand new works for, and I also got a scholarship. I struggled to continue, but it became very difficult. I have realized my own need to have other people around me, which I always had at Mejan. Being alone in a studio was very difficult, I had a hard time finding out what the road ahead would be. The idea of a cross fertilization between scenography, theater and art became stronger.
She adds that she had quite the self-confidence dip, which she thinks is quite common after graduation. Suddenly you’re sitting in the studio yourself, working on something that had felt natural within the walls of the institution, but suddenly didn’t. Continuing without large workshops and access to certain materials was difficult – especially since she prefers to work very large-scale in materials that were economically inaccessible.
– The combination of a decline in self-confidence and having to get my life together resulted in me working with making music videos, advertising, scenography, and those kinds of jobs. But I also came to the conclusion that it's okay for it to be like that. I think it’s easy to feel that there is only one possible way ahead, and if that doesn’t work out, you think of it as a failure.
She was initially a bit hesitant to apply to SKH – she was out of student loans, and she also had a child now. It was another life situation that needed to be considered, as her partner is also an artist. Now she is happy with the decision. Studying at SKH is very different from the education at Mejan, although, she adds, it might just feel very different due to her being ten years older now.
– At Mejan there was a completely different freedom, which I sometimes long for. At the same time, I like that SKH is so structured, that it’s always clear what to do next. It’s a completely different type of educational institution – at SKH you work with your classmates towards becoming colleagues, the plan is to graduate and keep working with each other. It's not so much about exploring anything; it’s more goal-oriented, aiming for employment. It’s very different, and my life looks very different now as well.
The transition to scenography was natural for Greta Weibull – her artistic practice goes hand in hand with the performing arts and scenography. She has worked extensively with movements and full-scale installations; in her master exhibition she remade the entire floor. The stage-rooms she now makes are often in the same materials that she was interested in when making art – organic material that meets metal or large fabrics. It’s all connected.
– I’ve had ways of arranging or relating to my sculptures, that have been similar to directing a room, or wanting to make people stay in the room. The language of the scene has always been in me when I work, which has led me to the theater. I can also see that working with performing arts and scenography opens new doors to my artistic practice.
Probably the most distinctive in terms of thematic approach of the artists I speak to is Niklas Wallenborg. Coming from a non-academic, non-artistic background, Konstfack gave him access to the theoretical and historical part of the arts, as well as the space needed to explore his artistry.
– In hindsight, I think the school’s approach to drugs and alcohol was a little too loose, I'm probably not the only one who spent a little too much time partying.
He graduated from Konstfack in 2006, with the goal of being able to support himself on his art.
– But I quickly realized that dream was naive. Now the goal is just managing to be an artist. I think we talk too little about how people can afford to be artists, sometimes I don't understand where people get money from. I think the art world would feel much better if we talked more openly about the economic conditions – who can afford to be an artist.
After graduation, Niklas Wallenborg felt a bit lonely – the spaces that were provided, that made it possible to be active as an artist, disappeared. He had no distinct plan for his artistry, which led to him taking a short break, working in stores and in advertising.
– Then around 2015, I got tired of it and started dedicating myself to my art again. Instead of waiting for someone to open the doors... I started to create my own rooms and platforms to operate on. For instance, through my zine-publisher Sci-fi is For Real, I have arranged talks, exhibitions and published about 50 creators.
'Där världen kallas Skog' , Köttinspektionen, 2019, Uppsala. Works showing by Timo Menke, Hanna Ljung and Niklas Wallenborg. Photo: Jean-Baptiste Béranger
Right now Niklas Wallenborg is in a position where his art pays for his making of art – at least when it comes to studio rent and materials. To support himself, he works 80% as a personal assistant.
– I find it difficult to enter and find a place in the art world; there are many closed doors.
Niklas Wallenborg's art often interacts intertextually with references within film, music and literature; often based on existing material taken from the internet. He tells me that his artistry has evolved to include three tracks – something that has become clear to him in recent years. His art has for a long time derived from a consistent sphere of interest; it takes root in peripheral realities, alternative truths about life, existence and future. For this purpose, it becomes natural to turn to the world of science fiction, to explore how the visual and narrative world of sci-fi can be used as an artistic method of work.
– Under prevailing existential threats to the future, it is my belief that science fiction can serve as inspiration to broaden our views and give rise to intellectual awakening, which may sometimes only happen if the gaze is directed beyond what was traditionally seen as obvious. If my artistry moves in the borderland between fiction and reality, it is through the sampling, translation, editing and reproduction of existing text and images that I work with.
The second track is the role as a curator – something he doesn’t see as separate from his art, but a way of creating contexts for the specific area of contemporary art in which he works. It enables an association between his own artistry and other artists working similarly; a way to widen and move forward in one's own work.
Niklas Wallenborg, 'Our Cyberpunk Present' (Post-virtual-reality and the melancholy of imagination!) Untitled 001. 40x40cm. Ink, copper tape, masonite. 2020
The third track is the work with the publication and the publisher Sci Fi Is For Real. It’s a self-funded publishing project to which other creators are invited to contribute.
– My art is so much based on the textual that it has come to be an organic development of my art, to work with the printed medium in a collective spirit. I strongly believe in a D.I.Y or "do it togheter" culture. It’s about finding and creating new platforms, contexts and collaborations that fits the art you are currently working on.
Ella Saar is a contributor in the editorial team of C-print.