Future Watch: Emma Dominguez
Since her much-discussed degree exhibition at Konstfack in 2018, Emma Dominguez has continued to work with art in ways that involve both activism and collective processes. “Creating art by locking myself in a studio has never really worked for me. Everyone is different and creates differently. For me, my art is something I want to keep alive in processes and dialogues with others”, says Emma about her collective approach.
Emma Dominugez. Photo: Corina Wahlin (C-print)
C-P: Back in 2018, your BFA-degree exhibition at Konstfack in, Vita Havet (White Sea), generated a lot of attention. Rather than exhibiting solely your own work, you invited other artists of colour who don’t have access to this kind of institutional space. You have described it as an exhibition which manifested the power of working collectively and presented a countermovement against the idea of the solitary genius of the individual white artist. While it’s been a while, it was such a pivotal moment in time. Your conviction must have been so clear in order to undertake such a selfless act?
E.D: The decision to make my solo exhibition into a collective takeover of Vita Havet was something that took me several years to think through. Already in my first year at Konstfack, I was surprised by the lack of focus on collective practices. It came up a few times on history courses, but it’s not something that permeates any higher art education in Sweden, as far as I know. The homogeneous environment and the lack of other stories and bodies was also a fact, and even though I was prepared to face all this, it’s something that gets so obvious and shocking no matter how much you prepare yourself for it.
Being part of the Brown Island collective meant having a space to talk and process these thoughts further. So, once it was time to decide what to make of the solo show, it felt like an obvious thing to do. The takeover was a clear and straightforward criticism of the homogeneous, individualistic, colonial and oppressive structures that are repeatedly reproduced by institutions such as Konstfack. In hindsight, I don’t see it as a selfless act but as taking a clear stand, something that most of us must do to prompt change.
Emma Dominguez, EXIL, Vita Havet, Konstfack. Photo: Fernando Illezca
C-P: As the exhibition criticized the use of agency and the homogeneous environment at Konstfack, how has the school implemented such addressed criticism? Have things changed since you left?
E.D: Prior to the exhibition, I applied for funding from the group for broadened admission at the school. The funds we received were used for fees to all artists who exhibited at the takeover of Vita Havet. The fact that we got this support shows that the school has an ambition to be open to this type of criticism, but the problem is deeply rooted in many layers of the institution. I encountered resistance when our bodies took over the space. Some people asked the artists if they could refill the toilet paper in the restrooms, as they thought we were cleaners when we were building the exhibition. The caretaker staff were worried that we would drag too many people “from outside the city” because we had a DJ. in their view, openings should be low-key and serve wine, not beer. Someone called guards on us, accusing us for having painted graffiti in the restrooms, when it was actually done by visitors of another, “low-key”, opening taking place simultaneously. I think the school wants to be “woke” and externally they communicate that they want to work for broadened admission. However, the problems with disproportionate admission and homogeneity cannot be solved through nice wording; it is a way of thinking that must permeate the institution and entail action. Recognizing that they are in need of broader admission is a step in the right direction, and more than what certain other schools do, but a real change still needs to pervade the entire school. It becomes clear that they have not come very far in their work towards change, when professors from the institution write history-less debate articles with arguments such as “snow is white and there are white refrigerators”. They should know better.
Installation view, MAMI : AMA : MÖDRAR, Botkyrka konsthall, 2020. Photo: Hanna Ukura.
C-P: Could you elaborate on your thoughts on the benefits of collective artistic practices, in light of the collectively arranged exhibition MAMI: AMA: MÖDRAR at Botkyrka konsthall last year?
E.D: Creating art by locking myself in a studio has never really worked for me. Everyone is different and creates differently. For me, my art is something I want to keep alive in processes and dialogues with others. When I did my graduation project Om plats exil och ärr, which tells the story of my mother’s struggle through depictions of her scars, places she lived and letters to the social insurance office, I felt that it was important to let the work become something more than just a story on an individual level.
Through an open call, we became a group of 10 artists with the will to create art about our mothers’ struggles. We worked on the basis of our individual artworks in a collective process, in a space that allowed us to test, talk, and develop the works together. Sometimes we had collective studio conversations, and other times there were long discussions and practical decisions on Facebook threads. Everyone has had their personal experiences of the project, but for me the advantage of working collectively has been having access to a context where I could both talk, process and create together with others who could relate to my process. The whole project was also enormously instructive. From trying to understand the group dynamics to everything that happened in between in relation to both our own artworks and the space, it has taught me more than several courses in school altogether.
Emma Dominguez together with her mother in front of her installed work; Om plats, exil och ärr. Utställning: MAMI : AMA : MÖDRAR, Botkyrka konsthall, 2020. Photo Fernando Illezca.
C-P: Another work you exhibited last year is Tvätteriet, a site-specific project that was part of Misschiefs Takeover. Can you briefly run us through the nature of making this work, from coming up with the idea to its final outcome?
E.D: The curator Paola Bjäringer invited me to participate in her project Misschiefs. She had recently gained access to a space on Linnegatan 4 in Östermalm and planned to do what became Misschiefs Takeover, where she invited several artists to inhabit the space and create works on site. What immediately caught my interest was the skylights in the room, and after asking Paola what kind of room we were in, she told me that it had previously been a laundry facility. In my work, my point of departure is usually the question of who can inhabit and be visible in a space. Art becomes a way to both make visible and question prevailing power structures. Paola gave me the name of the laundry facility, and we did some journalistic-inspired work to locate the women who worked there before the premises were emptied.
I came in contact with the fantastic Nena, who worked in the laundry facility for over 20 years before the company was sold and moved to Kallhäll. I got the chance to interview and photograph her and several other women who used to work there. Something I often struggle with is the fear of ending up exoticizing bodies when taking portraits, especially when I know they will be seen by people who don’t share their experiences. Taking portraits of people inevitably means objectifying them, but in this case, the process of the conversations and meetings was important in making the decision to lift their portraits out into the room. I could relate to them – the tiring work that consumes their bodies are similar to what my mother went through. Besides, they were very proud of their profession and wanted to display it. The result was large portraits and close-ups of their hands, printed on transparent film that we pasted on the skylights. When the sun shone through the windows, one could distinguish the contours of their faces on the ground. Part of the interview was hung on the wall with a QR code that led to a webpage with pictures of the new laundry facility where they currently work. Placing their portraits in the ceiling, symbolically watching and looking down on the visitors, was an act aimed at making visible those who would otherwise be invisible in the room.
Image of work in progress, installing Emma Dominguez's Tvätteriet. Misschiefs Takeover 2020. Photo: Daniel Camerini.
C-P: On your website, you state that your art is both a struggle and freedom. What kind of reactions, thoughts and conversations do you hope your works will inspire with an audience?
E.D: It may sound dramatic, but for me it has been a struggle to make art. I think many who grew up in the suburbs with migrated parents feel the same way. We have had to kick open doors and fight our way forward to get space to do what we dream of. At the same time, art is a way for me to fight. What reactions I hope for depends on what room I create something in and who I do it with. I want to reach out to people who can relate and recognize themselves in my narratives and issues, and I hope they can feel strengthened, hugged, inspired or just sad in their encounter with the art. Sometimes I focus on making art that provokes and attempts to question hegemony. In those cases, I usually want my art to touch on sore points – it should make people change perspectives and feel uncomfortable.
C-P: You’re setting a new precedent for what it means currently to be a social activist as an artist. For instance, you were one of the leading figures behind “Alby är inte till salu” (Alby Is Not for Sale), a group of residents who in 2013 organized themselves against the sale of the rental apartments in Alby (Botkyrka). Social activism and art-making are such personal acts; as rewarding as they are, one mere alone can be so consuming, let alone the two together. What things in life do you derive your own strength from?
E.D: Before being active in “Alby är inte till salu”, I had dreams of making art that had been extinguished quite early, while encountering an art scene that wasn’t diverse enough for me to feel that I could belong in it. Right after the massive campaign that “Alby är inte till salu” became, I was completely burned out. I could not feel my face and lost the power to use my hands, had panic attacks and could barely get out of bed. In recovering from my burnout, I took the time to think about what I wanted to do, and art came back as an alternative. That’s when I applied to Konstfack, and now I make art more actively. So, the energy and strength is not always fully present, it comes and goes. Creating and making art gives me the strength to fight and be active. And for me, activism and art are not necessarily separated, but intertwined.
I believe that art has the potential to be so much more than what we traditionally learn that art should be. It’s possible to be an artist who practices activism through what they create, and activism can also become art. What’s important to me is not making art and presenting critique that end up merely as decoration. Also structure and rest are things that bring me energy.
Emma Dominguez installing the work Tvätteriet. Misschiefs Takeover 2020. Photo: Daniel Camerini.
C-P: Finally, what are your plans ahead, and what do you look forward to in 2021?
E.D: Right now, I’m working with an ongoing project called Mothers Meet Lawyers, in which I want to continue to develop and find ways for art to function in the borderland between art, activism and society. All the artists who exhibited in MAMI: AMA: MÖDRAR are also working on a publication, as a way to take the exhibition further. In addition to publishing the exhibition in printed format, we will dive deeper into certain works and invite authors to comment and react to the theme. Young writers at a school in Fittja have been invited to write reviews, and mothers have been invited to write their own texts. Sissela Nordling Blanco works with the design of the publication, and Macarena Dusant is the editor. I’m also currently working with the association FOLK in Skärholmen, where I’m developing an art program for our exhibition space in Skärholmen centrum. This year’s exhibitions will be connected to site- specificity in different ways, and I really look forward to seeing everything that will happen in our space of 200 m² during the year.
This feature was originally produced for C-print's The Future Watch Issue in print, a close collaboration with the BA3 Class in Graphic Design and Illustration at Konstfack, and released (May 2021) and sold at Index Foundation in Stockholm (our main distributor).