In conversation with Markus Öhrn

Your work with the Azdoras, the Italian housewives, is a kind of ongoing enactment of your grandmother’s desire to have had a chance to embrace her more destructive inclinations during her life. The collaboration with them started in 2015, how was your first meeting?

Markus Öhrn: Just before my grandmother passed away in August 2011, I asked her: “What would you do if you could relive your life?”. She was born in Niskanpää and then lived the rest of her life in Soukolojärvi with my grandfather, and I thought she might say that she would have wanted an education, or to have travelled more. But she replied that she would have wanted to do something she would have regretted, to sort of follow her own desires instead of just being a good mother and grandmother. Something in her identity was missing, and it stayed with me.

A few years later, in 2015, I was invited by curator Silvia Bottiroli from the Santarcangelo Festival, in a small town near Rimini, Italy. There, I suddenly saw my own grandmother everywhere, ladies with kerchiefs and rolling shopping bags buying food for their families. In the Emilia-Romagna region where I was, these housewives are called azdora. They have power over the household, the children and the family sphere. I started to secretly photograph them and paint their faces in corpse paint, like a black metal band, with the idea of highlighting my grandmother’s wish.

Before the festival, we advertised for these ladies at retirement dances and markets. The response was much greater than I expected and nearly 60 people came to the first meeting. They had become interested in my invitation because many share a sense of being taken for granted. When I told them about my grandmother and her wish, they understood exactly what I meant, and during the ten days of the festival, the core of the group performed various rituals. Working out of a workshop that we were given access to, they smashed cars, tattooed the audience and held noise concerts, and whatever else they wanted to do. In between, they just walked around the city and claimed public space, like a bunch of hooligans you have to get out of the way for.

Eva-Britt passed away a couple of years before the work began, but how would you say she has been present in your artistic work with the Azdoras?

MÖ: After our first collaboration, I invited them to the Torne Valley, where my grandmother lived. After that visit, our relation became even more special, moving from a more aggressive outward movement to an inward journey. The Azdoras themselves told me how they had been warned by people around them to participate in our collaboration; that they would embarrass themselves. But as the project became a success, young people were drawn to them and they made the front pages of newspapers. The recognition of them also shifted the power dynamics in their private family spheres.

Eva-Britt has always been the underlying energy, but when it became such an instant success, the Azdoras were almost objectified. TV called and wanted the “crazy aunts,” but they said no, saying this was being done for other purposes. So, Eva-Britt continues to be extremely central to the project, but there is also a risk to its success.

The work contrasts symbols of a traditional culture of care, such as senior women in kerchiefs, with bold face paintings, tattoos and metal music. What has been important to you in reflecting these aesthetics in each other?

MÖ: A Tornedalian elderly woman and an Italian housewife from the Emilia-Romagna region are actually extremely similar. They are full of drive and never complain, they do things and move on. My relatives in the Torne Valley were shocked by the fact that they have so much in common: the Torne Valley grandmother takes the same kind of responsibility for her children and grandchildren, especially her sons. They control everything, but don’t have that final financial power.

The Azdoras embraced the black metal identity very easily, I think it was a liberation for them to take on a given role. The black metal thing was a simple gesture to get them to step outside their own identities and let them take their place. I see it as giving them a tool that they made their own, and that seems to have rubbed off on their civilian persona.

You have performed your rituals in churches, and the black metal references associate with the darker counterparts of Christianity. What role does religion play in the collaboration?

MÖ: My grandmother went to church and was a good person all her life. She never got to express her more destructive side because of the religion that shaped her. The whole project is based on some kind of rebellion against the consequences of narrow-minded Christianity, especially for women. In a biblical tradition, it is women who do not have the same opportunity to be all forms of human beings. In this way, it is also a rebellion against the structure of the nuclear family, which stems from a religious ideology.

The Azdoras also have a close relationship with faith through Catholicism. But attending a Sunday mass in Italy and the Torne Valley is like being in completely different worlds. Catholics can indulge and then confess, it’s a more life-affirming force, but of course it’s also embedded in a patriarchal system. The Azdoras had no problem making the devil’s sign with their hands, but I can’t imagine my grandmother doing it.

When they arrived in the Torne Valley, it became clear how incredibly respectful they are of the church and the grave. I picked them up at the airport and they put on their makeup on the bus and we drove straight to the cemetery. Then, in the rain, they went up, one by one, to leave their personal greetings in front of my grandmother’s grave. When you work this directly with people in intellectual and emotional harmony, these unique situations arise that are impossible to predict. I’m not religious. But it’s almost like I get a little religious when it rains on the camera the way it does and everything suddenly looks like a watercolor painting.

Eva-Britt lived her entire life in the Torne Valley, where you are also active as an artist. How would you say the Torne Valley is present in the project?

MÖ: It is in the Torne Valley, and partly in relation to my grandmother, that I was formed as a human being. From my teens to my thirties I didn’t think much about the place, but as I got older I realized that all this is me. I haven’t quite fit in there, I thought I had left it. The only person who has been close to me there is my grandmother, she has filled the role she is so good at filling.

When we were in the Torne Valley, we held a death mass for Eva-Britt in the church, which was full of people, the Azdoras had a pasta course for the women in the village, and outside my grandmother’s cottage on a cliff next to the Torne River, a farewell ritual was performed in the form of a choral work. Now they carry my grandmother with them in a completely different way after having been there and met my family. That meeting brought me closer to my family. My relatives respect me in a different way now that they understand what I have been working on as an artist.

As an artist and theater director, you work mainly with live performances. What is important now that the project is taking on the form of an exhibition?

MÖ: Working on a live performance gives you experience in dramaturgy, i.e. how to distribute energy to create interest. Unlike classical dramaturgy, I don’t work so much with text, more with energy as in bodies and activities.

I want my grandmother’s wish to take place, and in the exhibition space there is a greater opportunity to let it resonate with a larger audience. I try to share the energy of the Azdora by using images that contrast with what one might expect from women of their age. I want to do this with sincerity, and with a spirituality dimension. I’ve had a bell tower built in the main exhibition space, where I cast a bell with my grandmother’s name on it, at which my brother and I hold death masses in her memory. So I’m taking my experience with live performance and trying to concentrate that energy and convey a message that the audience can take home with them. It’s not just about my grandmother, it’s about all of our grandmothers and other older people around us.

It may be contradictory, that I as an artist take up quite a lot of space in the exhibition format, but I hope that people will feel that it is my grandmother I am giving that space to. She is the initiator and I am the executor.

The Azdoras themselves have expressed how the rituals have been almost therapeutic, helping them to release some frustration. How would you say working with them has changed you?

MÖ: This work has fundamentally changed me and what my artistic practice is. Sure, I can experience euphoria in other projects, a kick in the moment, but this work is a building block in the foundation that no one can take away. It is the most important work I have done and will ever do.

When artists work with local participants, it is common for the artist to fly in, do their thing and leave a void as they quickly move on. For me, it was important to establish an independent group that could live on. Now they meet regularly.

In the exhibition, it is clear that the Azdoras and I are exhibiting together, in memory of Eva-Britt. I think that sums up everything. I am a different artist now than before I started working with them.

Interview by Caroline Malmström, writer and curator.

Image: Markus Öhrn. Photo: Bonniers Konsthall (Samuel Lind)