Striking the right balance: Reykjavík Arts Festival

Artistic director Hannah Styrmisdóttir put women centre stage at the 29th Reykjavík Arts Festival. Maria Roberts finds out why:

When Hanna Styrmisdóttir began preparations for Reykjavík Arts Festival’s 29th edition last spring, she wanted to find a way to mark the centenary of women’s suffrage in Iceland. Rather than adding to the coverage of a woman’s right to vote, she aimed to put something unique on the events calendar – and so she has boldly programmed work over the next two years with a strong emphasis on female artists.

‘Women’s fight for equality during the last century was often met by fierce hostility, and it is important not to lose sight of the fact that these rights were gained through great sacrifices,’ says Styrmisdóttir when we talk over Skype. ‘A lot of people think it’s a perfectly equal society here in Iceland and that the situation is better than most other places, but it’s not. The situation of women in Iceland compared with other, more difficult parts of the world is good, though it’s certainly not where it should be.’

The artistic director adds that this is especially true of the creative industries. And so, to make a statement, Styrmisdóttir rifled through the archives to dig out the statistics.

‘It soon became evident that, historically, Reykjavík Arts Festival has not done a good enough job of presenting the output of women artists – although our track records in some fields is better than in others,’ she says.

‘It was immediately obvious that one edition would in no way be sufficient to redress the gender balance, and so the festival has been split into two: PART I takes place this year, and the 30th Reykjavík Arts Festival in 2016 will continue under the title PART II.’

It’s worth noting that Styrmisdóttir is refreshingly sincere and unapologetic about her approach – she’s a proud feminist and it’s not a label she uses aggressively nor lightly. In her opinion, a feminist stance is essential if women are to have equal footing. As a curator and visual artist, gender equality is of particular personal interest to her: ‘The festival has been held since 1970 and since then some extraordinary artists have visited. However, once we decided to programme with women in mind, and looked into the festival archives, we saw that there had been a real imbalance in our programming between 1970 and 2012. In the visual arts, for example, we saw that there had been a significant skew towards male artists: 30 per cent were women, compared to 70 per cent men.’

Accordingly, this year’s Reykjavík Arts Festival programme (13 May-7 June) puts women front and centre on numerous occasions: audiences will see shows and exhibitions from the likes of Kazakh violinist Aisha Orazbayeva; multimedia text artist Hulda Hákon (until 20 June); an opera, Magnus Maria (3 June), about musician Maria Johansdotter’s 1705 trial for homosexuality and male impersonation; live art provocations from the Guerrilla Girls (6 June); eclectic pop-classical singer-composer Gyða Valtýsdóttir (6 June); pioneering anti-censorship painter Dorothy Iannone (until 31 July); and a courtyard installation entitled Icelandic suffragettes prevailed 100 years ago which runs for the duration of the festival.

Was there a risk that such a female-biased strand would have an impact on the box office? It’s widely acknowledged that, while women will engage with work made by men, men are less enthusiastic about engaging with work made by women.

‘Maybe I needed to consider that beforehand, but I didn’t,’ Styrmisdóttir says. ‘Instead I counted on women turning up, because a lot of women are fed up and have lost interest in the cultural field in Iceland since they don’t feel represented by what they see on stage.’

Any attempt to claim that men are now less interested because the festival features more women is misguided, she adds. ‘It’s not an exclusive focus, as there are a lot of men in our programme too, and most of the institutions around us continue their programme as they have done before.’

What Styrmisdóttir is keen to make clear is that this particular kind of artistic activism is needed: ‘A lot of women in Iceland feel not so much disappointed but apathetic about what is on offer. For example, the film industry in Iceland has remained closed to a lot of women. Since the film fund started in 1978-9, only nine per cent of films that have been funded have been directed or written by women.

‘It’s been a very long time in Iceland since a woman got a film funded, and women in Iceland are losing interest in film because they don’t identify with what’s being put on the agenda or presented.’

She notes that the festival’s approach is essential, because the general realisation that the perceived state of equality is at best superficial has brought with it a latent wave of dissatisfaction that signals trouble for the industry.

‘I think it’s extremely important that the situation changes urgently. Women are extremely intelligent and active participants in society, but there’s something wrong if they feel they can’t identify with a cultural field because they don’t feel represented.’

What does Styrmisdóttir think of the tendency to fetishise women artists – the beautiful, the tragic, the destructive, the anarchic – to make them more promotable in the media?

‘I think that’s sometimes true and certainly you see that a lot in Iceland, as you see it elsewhere – though it’s equally true to say that you also see a lot of the opposite. I think many women artists don’t accept that kind of profiling in interviews. However, in classical music it is virtually impossible to look at the promotional pictures of young women of a child-bearing age, somewhere between 25 and 45, and for those materials not to be focussed on their sexuality.

‘I have to say that I do mind it when I read a review of an extraordinary soprano, and instead of focussing on her voice and artistic abilities, the review comments on a singer’s weight. How an overweight baritone moves on stage wouldn’t attract the same comments. But this is a very complex situation and it’s difficult to have one viewpoint.’

What about the men? Some camps argue that fighting for the rights of women in the workplace does not help women progress at all. In the 21st century, isn’t it time we stopped complaining about the statistics, and simply proved ourselves through our work? (I ask this having been criticised myself for shining the spotlight on women in recent issues of IAM). Moreover, when we have discussions around raising the profile of women, are we therefore excluding men? Should anyone be championing the rights of the disaffected male?

Says Styrmisdóttir: ‘I have a 15-year-old son who feels a little like this when he hears his feminist mother talking about gender equality – as though there’s a certain amount of equality in the world, and if a woman’s situation becomes ‘more equal’, then men will lose their rights. It can be very difficult to explain that this is not what the discussion is about. It’s not about women getting a larger piece of the pie if we claim our right to equality; this is about our choice to live in a democracy where everyone has the same rights, and these rights are bound in law.

‘Just because one group fights for equality, it doesn’t mean that it lessens what the other group has a right to – we’re just balancing what is good for anyone. This is a rights issue for men as well. I don’t know any man who does not want the same things that I want for women.’