Letters Tell

"Who draws a bird the best" asks the principal in the classroom while the students work. A line of proud students stand at the front of the class, they have been chosen to be a part of our art group.

Text: Eeva Honkanen ja Kastehelmi Korpijaakko
Photos: Emmi Holm, Eeva Honkanen ja Kastehelmi Korpijaakko



We realised an art project related to Beninese-Finnish culture in Grand-Popo. As artists, it felt natural to initiate an art project for teenagers, which would encourage cultural understanding.


Neither one of us had previous experience in organising art teachings outside of the Finnish school system. Working through an interpreter brought challenges to reciprocity between students and teachers, during the project we often considered the purpose of what we were doing and gained a lot of experience in organising teaching in a foreign culture. 


The planning of the project started before our trip to Benin in Eeva Honkase’s visual arts group in Sompio’s highschool, Kerava. Each student was allowed to choose a letter around which an illustration was built through a collage. The letters inspired students to communicate different things about Finnish culture with pictures.

Lapset askartelevat pöydän äärellä.

For example, salmiakki, sisu and sauna where popular S-letters. Most of the students were also very happy with posting photos of the works on the Instagram page, through which it was possible to follow the progress of the project from both countries.


Neither of us speaks French, so we knew that the language barrier would bring its own challenges. On the other hand we chose letters and words as the base of the images for this very reason: to find a way of communicating with the Beninese students.


The art sessions in Grand-Popo were originally intended to be carried out in the same way as in Finland. We brought with us the works made by Finnish students, and the idea was that young students would tell and write stories about them. This would make it interesting to look at images from a different cultural perspective.


To joy of making images

Why would one initiate an art project during their residency? Who benefits from it? Does the project have anything to give to the people of Grand-Popo? Through these questions, we made acquaintances during the project.


However, there remained a sense of relief. The students involved in the project clearly enjoyed working with different materials and imaging problems. That joy is the same regardless of culture: small experiences of success and the magic of creating a world that looks like one’s own.

Lähempi kuva lasten askarteluista pöydän äärellä.

Because art education in Benin’s elementary schools is very minimal or based on model drawings, the conversation about the images were explained with short sentences. The students were not used to discussing images and their meaning.


In addition, the writing skills varied widely among students of different ages. French is only the second mother tongue after Mina’s language and misunderstandings and challenges were not avoided. For example, coming up with words related to daily life and culture posed a challenge to the students. Which letter does the bird begin with? What about the sea? After realising the language challenges, we invested more in doing than in speaking and that the children enjoyed!


The collage technique we chose required several steps: processing the base color, selecting the artwork, drawing and experimenting. The moments of joy for the students were clearly related to the application of the paint and the enjoyment of the colours and the insights of the drawing phase. Using many tools was a new experience for the youngsters; for example, the use of watercolours and wax chalks resulted in many joyful moments. Presented in parallel, the works of the students from Kerava and Grand-Pop tell of the challenges and joys of imaging on both continents, the similarities and differences in everyday perceptions.

Mustavalkoinen kuva luokkahuoneesta, missä on lapsia. Luokan takaseinällä on liitutaulu täynnä kirjoitusta.

Joy was also on our side, as through the lessons we were able to spend time with local children and experience a little enrichment in the lives of local people.


From individual projects to a permanent form of activity

On Wednesdays, school children in Grand-Popo have a short day. That means Wednesday afternoons is a good opportunity for art education outside of regular school work. In order for more students to enjoy the joys of imaging or other art activities, these Wednesday afternoon art sessions would be lovely to become weekly activities. In the case of our own project, we noticed that there were no established practices for cooperation between Villa Karo and the local school, but each project is justified and organised on a case-by-case basis.


In order to develop artistic activities, we believe that the operation of permanent practices would be important in the future. We would wish for the cooperation to go smoothly so that every student at the local school would have the opportunity to participate in art activities in Villa Karo at least once. This way, each student would have their way to come and bird drawing skills would no longer be the only gateway to participation. Persistent practices would also encourage scholarship holders to collaborate in schools.

Lapset katsovat seinillä olevia teoksia.

Lissa Gbassa is an amazing space for realising different art sessions. For art education, accurate information on the availability of materials would be needed for residents. Small things like the number of scissors can affect the smoothness of work greatly. We brought the working materials with us and donated them to the school at the end of the project.


Letters & Stories

We are delighted to have the opportunity to carry out an art project in addition to our own artistic work in Grand-Popo. Not everything went as we had originally planned, but even more so, we experienced feelings of success as the work progressed. After all, the art project continued to become a very functional educational base for future intercultural cooperation projects.


Hanging the works of the students from Grand Popo and Kerava, the joint exhibition in Lissa Gbassa proved that the joy of success did not only concern us teachers. At the opening of the exhibition, students proudly presented their own works to their friends and had friendly competition on who did the best.


The works of the children from Grand-Popo travelled back to Finland with us and they will be on display at Sompio school in the late spring of 2015. The students' works can also be admired on Instagram under the name @letterstories

Yhden oppilaan värikäs kollaasi.