Silence is Violence

Two weeks ago, Temi Odumosu, a Sweden-based academic posed the question: Do we have the courage to address Black Lives Matter and to confront the prevalence of racism in Nordic art life? [1] The pronounced silence from Sweden’s art institutions would seem to answer with a resounding “no.” What is this institutional quietness? Do these institutions, art spaces, galleries, venues, and museums have to remain apolitical and neutral, so as to not jeopardize their own funding? Is BLM ‘there’ and not ‘here’? What does it mean to stay so silent? What is this silence a symptom of?

With this letter, we, artists and cultural workers in Sweden, demand that Swedish cultural institutions sit with the problems raised by BLM, listen to them and work to answer these pressing questions. This is not a quick fix; we want to see long-term development of action-based strategies that can implement real tangible change and reshape the Swedish cultural landscape through everyday anti-racist practices.  

Therefore, we insist that institutions, art spaces, galleries, cultural venues, and museums address the issue of race beyond representation and surface gestures. We seek structural re-examination and a redistribution of power and resources. We want you to tackle these issues at every potential point of exclusion, including the attitudes which limit your understanding of race as well as the extent and entrenched nature of these problems. 

The failure to acknowledge and understand the significance, urgency, and relevance of BLM here in Sweden screams of an insularity characteristic of an imagined egalitarian, social-democratic utopia of whiteness and immense privilege [2].

This strain of myopia obscures the extent to which whiteness is centered, institutionalized, and expressed through denials [3] of racial discrimination and colonial violence that have shaped the liberal self-image of Sweden’s cultural elite and wealthy middle class. This was clearly addressed last year in an essay by Sweden-based artist Santiago Mostyn [4]. “Sweden has had no civil rights movement, and no public reckoning with the social genocide committed against its Indigenous Peoples,” wrote Mostyn, “meanwhile, a small and comfortable fraternity of the cultural elite, convinced of their own progressive values, retains authorship over the country’s consensus-driven identity.” In addition, Mostyn also refers to the illegal ‘ethnic register’ of Romani people initiated by Malmö police in 2013 as “not an anomaly,” but a “continuity of form.” 

In the Swedish language, ‘vardagsrasism’ (or, ‘everyday racism’) is a word coined by White people to indicate a  “gentle, soft,” form of racism that is “not to be taken so seriously.” As if racism has ever been something bodies can just shake off [5]. Over one-quarter of all Swedish citizens have foreign heritage—including approximately 350,000 Afro-Swedes, most of whom arrived in the past fifty years [6]. Black, Indigenous, Romani, and other minority communities in Sweden are subjected to this “continuity of form” in documented discriminatory practices in the labour market [7], in the frequency of racially-motivated hate crimes [8], and in the access to housing, particularly for people whose names are Arabic or Muslim [9].

When BIPoC artists and cultural workers in Sweden recount racist experiences to their White peers, they are commonly met with incredulity, surprise, bafflement, and confusion: “How could this happen here? We don’t have racism here.” [10] Racismis ubiquitous in Sweden; that racism may not regularly appear in your actual lived experience is a mark of privilege, not indisputable proof that it does not exist. This is among the many examples of the relentless unspoken demand to contort a BIPoC person’s reality to accommodate White comfort—to neutralize, trivialize, or avoid altogether. How do you talk about racism in a consensus-driven culture?

This letter is directed to Swedish cultural organisations (see full list here) with a call to action. We exhort you to take on the questions in this letter as your own. We call on you to recognize and understand the actual lived realities of BIPoC in Sweden today.

●     When an employee or student is on the receiving end of racist language/actions, what is the standard procedure for dealing with it? Is it a safe place for them to speak out, or do they risk their future professional work/relationships with peers and professors? How do you ensure their safety?
●     Are there BIPoC on your board of trustees, or active at the level of policy/decision-making in your institution? 
●     In the BIPoC makeup of employees (if any exist), how many of them are employed in curatorial teams, selection committees, or other senior decision-making positions within your institution? Which fraction has a permanent contract, who has an hourly-based contract, and who has no contract at all? 
●     How many BIPoC artists are represented in your galleries, collections, public programs, residency programs, and among your grant recipients?
●     How many BIPoC and cultural workers do you invite to participate in public programming around topics that are not centered on white supremacy, racism, identity politics or other topics centered on Blackness or race? [11]
●     How do you decenter whiteness and the Western canon in your organization, collections, and public programming? [12] 
●     Can a BIPoC artist paint a surrealist still life of onions? Are they treated with the same lens as White artists? Do they have equal rights to opacity, the same breadth of expression and range of subject matter? Do they have equal rights to poetry and play? Do they still have value if they/their works do not clearly function as discursive, diasporic, or diversity entities for your institution? If they are not clearly bearers of your benevolence, progressiveness and goodwill?
●     Is there space in your institution for critical self-evaluation of your public programming, engagement, and structural issues in relation to race? Is there space to address these issues and ask: What can we do better? Or is there only space to list positive 
outcomes? [13]
●     How can you support and actively amplify existing BIPoC voices in your art community? How can you make more space for them? How do you remunerate them?
●      Who writes about art and culture in your institution or gallery? E-mails, press releases, wall text, publications, event descriptions, catalogues, etc. 
●     Do BIPoC receive compensation for the extra emotional labour they perform when working with White institutions as a non-White person? [14] 
●     Are there existing anti-racist policies in place in your institution? How do they function? Is there an institutional impetus to proactively educate yourself and your colleagues in anti-racist work? If so, what does it look like? What actions have you taken from there? 
●     Is there an ongoing practice of rethinking, recontextualizing, and re-evaluating the public art within your region, mandate, or care? Is there existing public art in your region that is, for example, made by the Nazi sympathizer Carl Milles, or which feature “Morianen”/caricatures of Black people? If so, how are they contextualized? Are such artworks harmful for the public?
●     Why have your cultural or educational organisations not publicly shown solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement? 
●     Whose concerns are at the forefront in your institution? Whose voices matter? Who is it permissible to dismiss? Who do you want as your audience?
●      If running an education or pedagogical program, who is eligible to apply? What is the hiring process for teaching positions? Upon what criteria is student work assessed? Have you taken action towards dismantling white supremacy within your curriculum? What infrastructural changes have been implemented to make it possible for non-European students to study in your institution after the introduction of fees for international students? 

Please do not reach out to BIPoC artists for free labour to ‘address’ BLM, as a consequence of this letter, or to tell you what to do, or to do the work for you. If you wish to invite them, please provide remuneration, and be careful with your own feelings of guilt and shame. 

Large and small institutions alike need to show solidarity and support for BLM by addressing and confronting whiteness and racism. In addition, they need to commit to anti-racist practices in the long term, beyond the efforts made today by protesters worldwide. With this letter, we have provided resources and guidance for sustainable changes. We encourage you to share your answers to these questions publicly.

In solidarity with BLM,

Artists and cultural workers in Sweden


[1] Temi Odumosu, Something Happened. 10.06.2020, The question can be understood, more precisely, as this:  if and how the art community will process recent events; if it will look/move courageously towards these issues and thoroughly investigate local entanglements with (and manifestations of) racist logics, or if the sector will maintain a recurring attitude that racism is an American problem with no effect on arts policies, practices, and relationships.”

[2] The Swedish art scene is a context in which a local gallery deemed it appropriate to declare “All Lives Matter!” on its social media channels on Blackout Tuesday alongside a photo of a two-tone wall. These initial posts on the gallery’s accounts were removed hours later after provoking strong reactions, only to be re-published on the gallery founder’s own accounts. The following post was then removed two weeks later.

[3] What Gloria Wekker, writing in the context of the Dutch welfare state calls, “white innocence” coexisting alongside aggressive racism and xenophobia. See: White Innocence: Paradoxes of Colonialism and race, Duke University Press, 2016 

[4] Santiago Mostyn, The Blind Spot of Swedish Exceptionalism. 09.05.2019, 

[5] See for example Fanna Ndow Norrby, Svart Kvinna2014, Natur & Kultur Allmänlitteratur

[6] Alexander Burlin, Sweden’s Shameful Record on Racism Shows Why We Need Black Lives Matter22.06.2020, Jacobin

[7] Länsstyrelsen Stockholm Rapport 2018:21 Anti-svart rasism och diskriminering på arbetsmarknaden 

[8] Hate Crime 2018 Statistics on police reports with identified hate crime motives English summary of Brå report 2019:13, 

[9] Boverket,Hur fördelar fastighetsägare lägenheter p.14 + p.77 – 79, 2009. 

[10] Sources wish to remain anonymous.

[11] This question is credited to Black Artists and Cultural Workers in Switzerland. We have drawn inspiration from and are indebted to this letter, along with all the preceding Open Letters to institutions in Europe. We thank the writers and thinkers before us.

[12] On the Limits of Care and Knowledge: 15 Points Museums Must Understand to Dismantle Structural Injustice

[13]Drawn from this discussion: Desai, J. & Muhammed, Z. (2020, May 27) “This Work Isn’t For Us” hosted by Lux Moving Image

[14] Question drawn from this open letter: Open letter- No anti-racist museum without structural changes