Memory, the exhibition of Anna Retulainen in Helsinki Contemporary 5.9.-28.9.2014.
The texts are from pages of Helsinki Contemporary

Memory consists of a series of paintings and drawings that examines memory and remembering. The exhibition builds upon the experiences of two journeys Retulainen made to Africa in 2013. The first one started at Villa Karo in Grand Popo on the coast of Benin and took her to the savannas in the northern parts of the country. The second trip, during which she spent time in Boukombe in the Atakora district in Northern Benin, also encompassed travelling in Togo.

Retulainen stayed with the locals during her trips. She observed life, people and values; tried to understand. She also wrote about what she saw, attempting to render everything she was seeing and experiencing somehow believable. The drawings are her notes; drawing means being present.

Anna Retulainen: Lasti  (Nigerialaista salakuljetettua bensaa, ruokaa ja valkoinen auto). Kuva: Jussi Tiainen
Anna Retulainen: Lasti (Nigerialaista salakuljetettua bensaa, ruokaa ja valkoinen auto). Photo: Jussi Tiainen

“I’m drawing from observation, the observation is pure. I don’t know what I see, and I can’t understand what functions the objects and occurrences I witness actually serve. I painted from memory. The paintings are attempts to go back. I wanted to be as frank as I possibly could, to paint as soon as I came back home before the traces in my mind would vanish or become something else. The original observation is less present and more diluted in the paintings. While they aim to evoke a colour or shape that I once appreciated, what now remain are mere fragments from the past. As if I tried to remember a person who passed by or a scenery that I left behind.”

“I’ve been drawing the routines here, this strange life that has welcomed me as its guest. I’m being present in relation to these people and their homes. I perceive myself by drawing all this unfamiliarity and strangeness that excludes me from the community. I can never belong. The smallest of all our differences is the skin colour; we don’t meet except through smiles. It’s useless to try to explain this in words to anybody. Nobody who has not been here can possibly imagine how it’s like.”

In connection to the exhibition, Retulainen will publish a book, A Motorcycle Journey: Benin Togo 2013, that is based on her two trips.

An Evening in Paris is an exhibition serving as a preface to the Memory exhibition, it lasts for only one evening. It features the time Retulainen spent in an artist residence in Paris in the spring 2014 and the new works she created there. The discussion will revolve around Paris and its meaning for art and artists throughout history. It will also examine Paris in contrast to Berlin, another important centre for art and hub for artists.

The works in the exhibition are observations of everyday life. Drawn on large as well as small papers, they are depictions of a city called Paris, its past and present, and its memories, both common and collective, and private.


Discussion – Anna Retulainen & Mika Hannula

Mika Hannula: The title of the exhibition, Memory, is a direct reference to its subject matter – literally. Why memory? How did this interest in memory start?

Anna Retulainen: I’ve always done drawings before painting. For example, I always used still-life drawings as the base for still-life paintings. While painting, the lemon was no longer physically present: I had a drawing of a lemon and a memory of it. When I was drawing my mother on her deathbed, I realized that I’d very clearly remember all her facial features and her gnarled hands. This was really the first time that I focused in-depth on her features as a human being. Previously, I’d looked at her only as my mother.

The drawings are usually black-and-white. I look for the colours for the paintings in my memory, and they get mingled up with elements that disrupt observation, like, for instance, the memory of the unbearable heat in the Africa paintings. In Africa my perceptions were pure and free of knowledge and previous experience. I didn’t recognize the elements of everyday life. I drew so that I would remember, and so that I could believe I had been there and experienced it all. For me drawings imply being present in a given situation and places.

MH: How do you experience the materialization of the act itself, remembering, in drawing and painting?

AR: Drawing a thing, a place, or a situation imprints it on my mind. I don’t remember words or names, but I do remember images. The drawing tool traces a line in my memory at the same time as it leaves a mark on the paper. That is why drawings are ultimately unnecessary to me. They are only an intermediary.

MH: A drawing as an intermediary for a painting, yes – but what about the works that are drawings, for example, from the series you made in Benin, and which are in the new book. How does making them through and with the aid of memory make and produce reality in this series, both in its continuities and in certain exceptions? It seems memory in this case would not be a mere result of copying and recording. Rather, it would serve as a certain intermediate space that gives a pulse and space for something new and special.

AR: The drawings are not an intermediary for a painting, but for the image I immortalize in my mind, my memory. This image is real to me, I have experienced it. The drawings do not just record the reality that I see; they contain the whole situation, my own presence in it; my own state of mind. If I am hot and hungry, my perception is very different from when I am feeling good. Hunger and heat are good metaphors in the sense that they were powerfully present every day in Africa. By drawing I order and give shape to my environment. My drawings are very personal, they are my experiences.

I’d say the paintings are more like intermediaries, between me and the viewer. They are detached from the original experience, but at the same time they make it visible to the viewer.

MH: The exhibition is strongly linked with the time you spent in Benin. How did the time and experiences in Benin affect your way of working?

AR: I suppose at first I imagined I would be liberated. But now I would see the liberation being linked to a total lack of understanding of events, places, the language. I did not understand or even recognize anything at all around me. My own expectations and cultural determinants became useless because there was no room for them in my life there. What little I learned to understand of the local customs and life ultimately became a shackle that limited me even more than my own cultural expectations. I also got tired of constantly being a target of negative attention and an object of observation. Being aware of who I am became pointlessly important.

This didn’t happen on my visit in spring 2013, but only during my five-week motorcycle trip the following autumn. I was then constantly, for 24 hours a day, outside of my comfort zone. I was intensely aware that, if I didn’t draw, I wouldn’t believe my own stories later on. Drawing also gave me an excuse for being there. In the end, nobody questioned my existence. The most interesting thing about drawing was noticing that everything was alien. I was forced to look and think carefully about what I was seeing before I drew. At home a large part of my observations are constructed from memory. In Benin, however, I couldn’t use my memory – everything was new and strange, including people’s features.

I’m not able to experience the Africa that I encountered solely as a visual and experiential source of inspiration. I didn’t understand what I was seeing, and now, ultimately, I’m not sure whether it would be better if I still didn’t understand. The poverty, the squalor, the constant pleading and begging, the world of values and actions that was totally alien to me, all overwhelmed me. And it defeated me. I don’t want to think about the overpopulation in Nigeria (and all the other countries), or about the continent’s growing of plastic. The tropics cover and conceal the plastic. But it is and remains on the ground, and ultimately destroys everything. And I can do nothing about it.

MH: What about Paris, the residency there in spring 2014 – how has that affected your way of working?

AR: Paris was wonderful. I felt perfect peace there, and I found Paris the most comfortable city I have ever lived in. I fitted in with the majority there. I could walk around in peace, live a life whose basic structures and rules were already familiar to me. I was able to take some distance to Benin and Togo and the realities there. The drawings and writing I did in Paris and afterwards have rendered my African journey something true, something that really happened. Without them I would definitely believe I had imagined it all. It possible I may have actually distanced myself so much from Africa that it would be hard for me to go back there now. I guess I had to admit to myself that I am European and that I enjoy life in Europe.

MH: How do your experiences in Benin and Paris compare with each other?

AR: A white woman from the first world in black Africa is like a lighthouse. This was intolerable for me. I loved Paris, because I could walk around in peace, people barely notice passersby there. The most important thing both experiences afforded me was the chance to work in peace. I was beyond the reach of the expectations and determinants of my home country. I felt alien in both places: in Paris in an enjoyable and calming way; in Benin and Togo, at certain moments, in an extremely oppressive way. The fact that an adult person can do nothing, knows nothing, and is ultimately unable to engage with their fellow human beings on any recognizable level was intolerable for me in Africa.

I am not prepared to adopt alien customs; I can be a guest and respectful, but I can’t be changed. The centre of Paris is perhaps the one world’s most exclusive places. Everything is beautiful, the streets are cleaned every day, the food and pastries are, at best, works of art. People drink champagne and eat oysters. The city is filled with amusements: opera, theatre, music, countless museums and art galleries. People have Internet connections, and every possible personal entertainment device is available. In Boukoumbé there was no electricity. There was one bar that was alright, but became infested with mosquitoes as soon as it got dark. And the darkness lasts for 12 hours. The temperature at night is over 30 degrees. I’m glad that I have visited both places, and that I can now concentrate on growing vegetables in the peacefulness of Helsinki.

MH: And how, on the other hand, was Benin, through its colonial history and current contemporary situation, also present in Paris? How does this special arc and connection affect your work?

AR: I was in Benin when it became clear to me I’d have to go to Paris next, although I still did the motorcycle trip in Benin and Togo before Paris. I couldn’t understand anything about the life around me: I couldn’t decipher what was originally a product of the old colonial power, France, and what was African. In order to be able to grasp at least a little bit of all that, I knew I had to go to Paris. I had never lived in France. I’ve lived in England and Australia for longish periods, and I think I can recognize Britain’s influence on its old colonies. Consequently, in the end, another option would have been Ghana, but I don’t think I would’ve been able to stand it. In Ghana I might’ve been able to distinguish between what was African and what was of colonial influence, and I think that would’ve also helped me better understand the corresponding dynamic in the former French territories.

France’s presence in Benin and Togo is very visible and also, in my opinion, quite oppressive. Almost all tourists there (very few) are French or from Francophone areas. Information, schoolbooks and, of course, the language and all bureaucratic and administrative practices are inherited from the French. In any case, I am not particularly interested in colonialism. Yet it is impossible to miss it in the old colonies, where the presence of the “mother country” can be powerfully discerned in people’s ordinary everyday lives. My awareness of this was reinforced in Paris.

The way I felt about and related to Paris would’ve been very different had I not been in Benin. Simple observations I probably wouldn’t have noticed before: Paris’s city centre is extremely white. Disconcertingly white for the capital of Francophone Africa in Europe. The blacks are ‘hidden’ far from the city centre, except for the small, but lively Chateau Rouge commercial district. There it’s actually possible to sense something of Africa’s life and fragrances. The great dream of Europe and Paris ends in the sewer, and people from sub-Saharan Africa end up selling kitschy Eiffel Towers to tourists. The towers jingle and clatter as the sellers come out of the sewers. The story people tell at home in Africa is bound to be a lot more glamorous.

The pompousness of Paris, the victory symbols, the luxury oozing out everywhere and, on the other hand, the remnants of the colonial period such as the human zoo, took on a different meaning in my mind. The Eiffel Tower, a 320-metre-high, totally useless iron structure, with the zoo’s newly renovated 65-metre-high artificial mountain and the giraffes walking around it – a neat miniature Africa. Suddenly there was an awareness of Europeans once bringing citizens of their old colonies to “human zoos”, where people could go and marvel at them. In the same way as they now marvel at giraffes around the high mountain. Total exploitation and incomprehension are still a reality. People are very unequal, which is a self-evident statement, but now it has considerably more meaning to me. Things that previously were self-evident in everyday life aren’t self-evident anymore.

The subjects of my drawings are selected very much on the basis of my experiences. I would’ve never sought out and found the ruins of the human zoo from the 1931 colonialist exhibition in the Bois de Vincennes had I not been in Benin, the former Dahomey. I had read that there was a Dahomey pavilion there and I wanted to see it. I spent my birthday in the area, drawing. Now, the Human Zoo series is an important part of my exhibition. My attention was drawn to things that I would hardly even have glanced at before, or at least I wouldn’t have tried to remember them. Now, I went back and drew them, and I remember.

MH: And these experiences birthed the works, both drawings and paintings, that are now in the exhibition.

AR: Yes. I don’t think I would’ve drawn the Eiffel Tower without considering the relationship between Benin and France. It is, of course, a frequently drawn subject, and I perhaps could’ve approached it through art history. Now, however, I see it as a symbol of power and strength. The Champ de Mars park surrounding the Tower used to be the human zoo, the village nègre. The Tower outraged the residents, but apparently the village nègre didn’t, or at least I haven’t found any mention of it. Nowadays, blacks sell flashing kitsch-Eiffels beneath the Eiffel Tower, in the same place.

I made the Tricolore drawings on my last day in Paris. All I had left was red and blue, plus white paper. I continued painting it once I was back home. The endless boulevards and squares, the Egyptian obelisks, the fat, winged woman high up on the top of a column, the equestrian statues. The Eiffel Tower and one of the Catholic Church’s most important landmarks, Notre Dame. The steps up to the Sacré-Coeur and the city gleaming in white. The triumphal arches and the arrow-straight Axe historique from the Louvre to La Défence, the fluttering French flags. The river and the bridges, and the artificial mountain looming in the distance. The pomp, the power, the history, the pride. The words liberté, égalité, fraternité written everywhere.