Meredith Holt, Published February 10 2014
Moorhead artist explores culture, heritage in new exhibit
It came from someone who saw the note Moorhead installation artist Jill Johnson left at a church in Sweden asking for information about the woman in the photo she had labeled “Johanna’s mother.”
“Johanna’s mother” is Johnson’s great-great-grandmother, Inger Borjesdotter, a “piga,” or farm maid, from Lingome, Sweden, featured in Johnson’s new exhibit “The Piga Project: Women, Immigration, and Resilience,” on display now through March 1 in the lower level of the Hjemkomst Center in Moorhead.
The exhibit uses poetry, folk dress, photos, video and lighting effects to explore the lives of Inger, Johanna and other Swedish women from the Great Migration of the 1800s to the present day, as well as recurring themes in their immigrant stories.
Maureen Kelly Jonason, director of the Historical and Cultural Society of Clay County, says Johnson’s been passionate about her Swedish heritage for the past few years and that passion shows in “The Piga Project.”
Johnson first studied Swedish at Concordia College’s Language Villages in Bemidji, Minn. She later attended the Uppsala International Summer Session in Sweden under scholarship in 2010, 2011 and 2012.
“The Piga Project,” which opened Jan. 12, was made possible by a grant from the Minnesota State Arts Board, thanks to a legislative appropriation from the arts and cultural heritage fund, and an individual artist grant from The Arts Partnership in Fargo.
Jonason says over the past 15 years they’ve known each other, Johnson has matured and developed as an artist and “has a fantastic creative streak for turning tradition on its ear.”
Starting on the right side of the room with the piece Johnson calls “Cousins” and moving counterclockwise, the exhibit goes from themes of community to family to the individual.
The “folkdräkt” (folk dress), is used as a symbol throughout the exhibit to explore change – in women’s lives, cultures and how they relate to their cultures. Different styles, colors and patterns represent different areas of Sweden and eras of its history.
Johnson explains, for example, that the two Swedish national dresses of “Cousins” represent early-1900s immigrants and modern immigrants.
“Both groups worked hard, but the second group are what’s called ‘technology immigrants,’ ” she says.
Though there’s a communication gap between the two groups, she says “they have much more in common than people think.”
Behind and to the side of the hand-stitched, hand-decorated dresses are dramatically backlit photos of Inger and Johanna, the women Johnson sought answers about during her time in Sweden.
A series of photos of Inger hang at eye level, forcing the viewer to look her in the face. As a piga, she was most likely ignored her whole life.
“I really wanted people to stand and see her face,” Johnson says.
She compares the life of a piga to that of an indentured servant.
“They could be thrown out at will,” she says. “They were extremely vulnerable to homelessness, exploitation, starvation, and I think it’s really a part of why so many of them came to the U.S.”
Johnson photographed the same photo at locations in Sweden she knew Inger had been, and although it’s the same image, the weather, angle of the photo and exposure appear to change Inger’s expression, making her look younger or older.
“I think there’s a place for art that moves and changes,” she says.
Johnson says her questions about immigration, like, “Even if you adjust to the new place, does it ever really become home?” or, “What happens when you run out of the last remnant of home?” can be applied to any culture, not just Swedish.
Jonason, the historical society director, says viewers will leave the exhibit with questions of their own.
“I think they’ll discover a fascinating story and an interesting perspective on heritage,” she says.
If you go
What: “The Piga Project: Women, Immigration, and Resilience”
When: Through March 1
Where: Lower level of the Hjemkomst Center, 202 1st Ave. N., Moorhead
Info: The artist asks visitors to bring a non-perishable organic food item to be donated to YWCA Cass Clay.
Readers can reach Forum reporter Meredith Holt at (701) 241-5590