The painting by Tyko Sallinen The daughters of the merchant (1917) is also known as “The daughters of the Chinese merchant” and “The daughters of the Tatar. The painting shows four girls. Three of them have characteristics, which made critics of those days call them Chinese or Tatars. Even today our attention is brought to their black plaits, larger cheekbones and coloured skin.
Posing as models were Sallinen’s own daughters and the Cherpurnov sisters from Hyvinkää: Nina, Katarina and Anna. The name of the family came from their father´s side and there are no identified Chinese or Tatar members in the family. And if the members weren’t any more Tatar than Chinese, why do the image their looks awake put to the title of the painting?
A plausible explanation may be related to the crisis which confronted Finland’s self-image. The people of Finland were categorised as Mongols by the outside world, something that was everything but desirable according to the racist ideology of those days. The people of Finland became Asian in the regards of the Europeans. The re-naming of the painting was an effort to avoid this image: to deny the sisters being Finnish. The aim of calling them Chinese or Tatars was to prevent Finland being defined as “the Other”.
The concept of “otherness” helps us to talk about power relations, in which someone or something is perceived by others as less valuable. Acknowledging this brings up questions and claims for equality for example in social relations. In arts we can observe both representations which strengthen the othering or weaken it.
Otherness has been talked about in many branches of science, but the term has also spilled over to the everyday language. Maybe the word also has an intriguing poetic resonance; everyone feels like an outsider in some situations.
The tool of self-definition
From psychoanalysis comes this theoretical notion where concept of otherness is used when describing for example this figure, which the child recognises looking in the mirror and thus becomes aware of themself as another being. Having the first letter in capital, the Other, refers then to the person, from whose lookthe subject gets its identity from. Thus, otherness is understood as vital in the shaping and limiting of an individual identity.
In a broader sense otherness can also imply to cultural and social groups, which have their own otherness objects, towards and against which they define their own nature and limit their own living space.
The sketchiness as the problem
When reflecting on structures and mechanisms on macrolevel, the problem of the term itself is revealed: otherness as a tool for analysis is not very tactful. It reduces and simplifies the world into two mutually exclusive entities. Thus, it doesn’t recognise the common traits of groups or cultures, and what’s left in between, on the no-man’s-land.
Reality is not a playing field which easily divides into two halves. Otherness acts simultaneously as a vertical, parallel, and contrastive weave, higgledy-piggledy, and its parts resist and confirm each other. Besides forming between humans, it forms even inside them.
Reality is messy
The Swedish Makode Linde has in his work touched on both ethnical and sexual otherness. His installation Painful Cake addressed the complexity of different types of otherness. The work was a marzipan cake formed as a torso of a woman of colour and as an addition to it, the head of the artist himself lying under the table [functioning as the cake’s head]. The artist had a make-up making him look like stereotypical African character, familiar from candy wrappings.
The actual scandal started with a video clip, which shows the Swedish minister of culture cutting a piece from the intimate area of the torso cake while the head is screaming loudly. Around them people are laughing and taking pictures.
The work mixes different art motives from the dismemberment of women’s reproductive organs to cannibalism. The messy result forces us to ponder different types of otherness and how they interweave; the power relations between genders and ethnical groups and maybe even how power is used in cultural policy.
Olli Löytty 2012
English translation by Nardin Crisbi
[note] = notes by translator are marked in square brackets