Civilized society 2117, Part 11:
Cátia Suomalainen Pedrosa: Multicultural art changes attitudes
Cátia Suomalainen Pedrosa, originally from Portugal, is now the Director of Caisa Cultural Center in Helsinki and carries the hope that, in the future, this type of centre will no longer be necessary.
It’s another story in which one’s rose-tinted glasses came off abruptly and harshly. In 1998, 18-year-old Cátia Suomalainen Pedrosa was enjoying an evening out in the local pub with fellow students in Orivesi, Finland. The young high school graduate had arrived in Finland to spend her gap year studying music at Orivesi folk high school. When living in Portugal, she had been told glowing things about Finland, which was the birthland of her journalist mother.
The beautiful illusion of an ideal land of a thousand lakes collapsed instantly when a group of Finnish Neo-Nazis surrounded the international students and began to harass them. The aggressive men dressed in vests threatened to remove the students violently if they didn’t leave the country on their own.
“I had only been in Finland for a few weeks, when I found myself crying into the phone to my mother and telling her that there is definitely real racism here in Finland. The fear didn’t end there either, since the same group followed us everywhere we went outside of the school.”
Now, nearly 20 years later, Suomalainen Pedrosa states that this harsh reality check also affected her decision not to return to Portugal after her gap year.
My life’s mission
Even though studies in politics and international relations were waiting at the University of Lisbon, this socially-oriented music enthusiast decided to extend her stay and to move from Orivesi to Helsinki.
In 2000, after an official period of integration, Suomalainen Pedrosa began studying musicology at the University of Helsinki, from which she graduated with a Master’s degree eight years later.
Alongside her studies, this active young woman enriched the international cultural scene in Helsinki through, for example, the Cinemaissí association, which organises a Latin American Film Festival.
She also joined the Helsinki Balalaika Orchestra, founded by Russian emigrants, and before long, this player of the massive contra-bass balalaika was chosen to chair the association that oversees the activities of this 100 year-old orchestra.
“Finland has proven to be the right choice, primarily because it provided me with a world-class education and, secondly, because I found my life’s mission here, which is to promote the internationalisation of Finnish society,” explains Suomalainen Pedrosa.
“I suppose I owe some credit for the latter to the racism I experienced in Orivesi, which showed me that Finland was not nearly as tolerant as I had earlier believed.”
Immigrants are a diverse group
The front page of Caisa’s website shows a red-nosed clown with thick coke-bottle glasses and a startled look. A hand dressed in a pink glove with fingers like octopus tentacles is perched against the clown’s left cheek.
Or is this character with a turquoise turban even a clown after all? The facial features remind one of a well-fed truck driver and the floral and lacy collar below the chin is similar to the housecoat of a grandmother in decades gone by.
The caption under the photo reads: Binge on Culture! Enjoy our treats this autumn.
The programme includes, among other events, the exhibition ‘Minun Helsinkini’ (My Helsinki) by Kurdish artist Dana Danishmand, three New Spanish Cinema events, a Latin American guitar concert series entitled Voz de profunda madera, as well as many types of performances and workshops for children.
“Caisa provides a venue for artists who settle to live in Finland, and we hope that it provides a path to other work opportunities for these artists as well. At the same time, the centre endeavours to show that immigrants are capable of more than just cleaning, driving buses, caring for the elderly or scanning product codes as a market cashier.”
Suomalainen Pedrosa emphasises, however, that her comments are not meant to rank one type of work as more or less valuable than any other. She is simply worried that the rapid internationalisation of Finland’s population is not accurately reflected in Finland’s society or working life.
“At Caisa, immigrants and native Finnish residents work together to create innovative cultural productions. Eyes are opened and attitudes change when we hand the authority and responsibility over to an artist with a different ethnic background. We begin to understand how limited it is to view those of other cultural backgrounds as being suitable only for very specific professions.”
The need for Suomalainen Pedrosa’s work is supported by population statistics for the City of Helsinki:
At the end of 2016, there were 635,000 people residing in Helsinki. Altogether 15 per cent of those people were of foreign origin. A total of 14 percent, 88,132 residents of Helsinki, speak a language other than Finland’s official languages (Finnish and Swedish).
Children who speak a foreign language as their first language comprise nearly 19 per cent of all children in early childhood education and comprehensive schooling in Helsinki and 17 per cent of all pupils in secondary level education.
Population projections show that Helsinki may grow to have up to 866,000 residents by 2050. A staggering 70 per cent of that growth will come from immigration.
Suomalainen Pedrosa would like to send a message to all Helsinki theatres, concert halls and other artistic outlets. She expresses her wish that they all would begin to consider strategies that would better serve the internationalising population.
“Traditionally, cultural consumers are highly-educated, middle-aged women, who were born in Finland. When the proportional numbers of this limited group start declining, where will we go to find new audiences and ticket purchasers?
If we want to find these new cultural consumers among our immigrant population, we need for art and performers to begin to reflect the perspectives and reality of that population,” Suomalainen Pedrosa emphasises.Suomalainen Pedrosa states that cultural consumers are generally well-educated, middle-aged women, and she wonders what will happen when their numbers decline. She questions where we will find new audiences and ticket purchasers.
Opening new paths to art institutions
Suomalainen Pedrosa’s holiday in Canada during the summer of 2017 cemented the objective that drives her daily work.
The presentation of William Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, put on by the non-profit Canadian Stage performing arts company, was a modern interpretation in which the roles were played by at least as many actors of Asian and African American descent as those of light-skinned European descent.
“While watching the play, I realised that, in Finland, we don’t ever see actors that represent anything other than the native population.”
Suomalainen Pedrosa adds that it is not Caisa’s intention to simply present and preserve the ethnical diversity of Helsinki’s artistic life within its own walls, but rather to serve as a diving board for artists of all backgrounds to gain employment within other Finnish art institutions.
“I hope to see the day when the Caisa Cultural Center is no longer necessary. That is the day on which, for example, the composition of the artistic personnel at the Helsinki City Theatre will reflect the city’s actual population structure.”
A new dawn for Caisa on Kaikukatu in Helsinki
Suomalainen Pedrosa feels that the task of bringing diversity to Helsinki’s cultural life is an inspiring mission that requires her to patiently tolerate long-term routines and to engage in active interaction with interest groups.
“Just yesterday I was talking about my work as Director with a group of students at a university of applied sciences. I told them that it’s not all glitz and glamour, but rather a normal daily grind.”
The Director of the Cultural Center spends a lot of time sitting behind a desk fulfilling different administrative obligations and writing reports, as well as meeting the needs of an organisation that employs ten people.
The personnel at Caisa, which will move in autumn 2018 from Kaisaniemi to Kallio, have roots in Finland, Portugal, Algeria, the Congo, Nigeria, Vietnam and Bosnia-Herzegovina.
“This upcoming move will be a shared, wonderful challenge for us. We get to renovate the facilities of Elanto’s former bread factory on Kaikukatu to specifically suit our needs and wishes and, at the same time, it provides us with an opportunity to consider ways to renew the activities of Caisa, which has been in operation for 21 years.”
Learning from Portugal’s example
When considering her own situation as an immigrant, Suomalainen Pedrosa believes that she had a far smoother integration into Finnish society than many other foreigners.
The path was made easier by her mother’s surname, her pale skin and good Finnish language skills.
And is there something that this Portuguese-Finnish cultural actor would like to bring to Helsinki from her childhood environment in the city of Barreiro, located near Lisbon?
What can we, here in the North, learn from life in Southern Europe?
“My childhood home was located in a ten-storey building, where I was surrounded by neighbours from China, Brazil, India, Angola, Guinea-Bissau and Cape Verde. I would like for this type of diversity to be a self-evident part of Finnish society as well.”
In preparation for this interview, Suomalainen Pedrosa also asked her Portuguese spouse, who works in the Institute of Biotechinology at the University of Helsinki, what he would wish to bring to Finland from his homeland.
“He misses spontaneous social interactions. He feels that it's difficult here to make a connection with others, even though he also concedes that once the ice has been broken, friendships here are generally deeper and longer lasting that those in Portugal.”
No more cheek kisses
Suomalainen Pedrosa, who regularly travels to Portugal to visit with her parents, sometimes laughs at the changes she has noticed in her own behaviours and habits.
In accordance with local tradition, mother and daughter have a habit of sitting for hours in a local café talking over a 50 cent cup of coffee.
Familiar faces pass by all the time, some of whom continue on their way, while others stop to chat. It’s considered proper behaviour to greet everyone who passes.
“Often my mother reprimands me for not greeting people, and I assure her that I am, of course, greeting people.
But in these situations, I have come to understand how much living in Finland has affected my behaviour. My mother feels that I haven't greeted someone if I haven’t kissed them on the cheek. I have obviously become so Finnish that giving cheek kisses seems odd to me now.”
- Text: Paula Launonen
- Photo: Liisa Takala