Academic year 2022–2023: Speech by special guest Auli Leskinen  

Leskinen held her speech at the opening of academic year on 15 September 2022.

photographer: Riikka Hänninen, personsinpicture: Auli Leskinen

Dear rector of Uniarts Helsinki, dear university community and dear guests,

Ukrainian poet Irina Ratushinskaya released an autobiographical novel Grey is the Colour of Hope in 1987. It describes her life as a political prisoner in a Soviet prison camp in the 1980s. She had expressed her resistance by writing poems. Her sentence: seven years in a prison camp and five years of internal exile. The husband of this political prisoner got fired from his job, not surprisingly. Otava published Olli Kuukasjärvi’s Finnish translation of the book. I read the book when I was very young, and it left a permanent mark on me. Those were dramatic times. The Berlin Wall came down. The Soviet Union collapsed. It was a time of hope, power and joy. When the wall broke down, I sat at home, watched the news and breastfed my baby. My son had just been born in free Europe. I never forgot the name of Ratushinskaya’s novel.

Why is grey the colour of hope for her? That mousy colour of concrete, drizzle and zinc coffins. The writer describes the moment when the Soviet intelligence agency KGB arrested her:

“Civilian clothes are taken away, everything except for pantyhose and a woollen scarf (…) Technically, the scarf should be taken away because it’s plaid (…) Socks aren’t taken away even when they’re of a bright colour. Ljuba gives me two linen dresses. (Ratushinskaya 1988: 40).

What follows is camp transportations, forced labour, freezing winters, diseases, assaults, psychological violence. Books, pens and paper are taken away. The poet isn’t allowed to read or write. But there’s one thing that KGB doesn’t notice – the grey prison uniform is constantly close to Ratushinskaya’s skin. It’s her body’s closest ally. The grey piece of clothing touches her all those years. So grey is the colour of hope.

Irina Ratushinskaya was born in Odessa in 1954, and she died five years ago in Moscow at 63 years of age.

Dear audience,

I’m holding this speech at a peculiar moment in time, when Finnish universities are preparing for a new academic year at the same time as Russia is engaging in a war of aggression, at a time when we’re dealing with major issues such as a refugee crisis, an environmental disaster and political polarisation.

But artists can do vocal exercises to foster hope and freedom. I will give you examples on how hope can burn stronger than all flames that I’ve seen blaze amid wars and crises in countries that I’ve visited due to my job as a reporter and researcher.

Chile, a military dictatorship from 1973 to 1990, for 17 years.

There were about 1,300 clandestine detention centres across the country, and people were banished to remote regions in Chile and banned from leaving there. Torture and arbitrary house searches were nothing out of the ordinary. Mass gatherings, trade unions and freedom of speech were all banned.

How can hope live in such horrifying circumstances?

I lived in Chile with my child for over ten years while working as a reporter for Yle and as a researcher for the Academy of Finland. I studied the arts, literature of the countries in the region and art history at one of the state universities of Chile. It wasn’t rare to see balls of fire ablaze in the streets right in front of the main entrance to my faculty. Our arts teachers came to class with their eyes red from tear gas. We students carried thin scarves with us that we could use to cover up our nostrils and mouths to protect us from the burning and stinging tear gas.

In my role as a reporter, I was often present for the opening of mass graves. Thanks to the dry climate of the Atacama Desert, the earthly remains and clothes of the tortured and murdered prisoners were well-preserved deep in the ground. The victims were identified, and their loved ones were able to bury them.

The coup had started in the city of Valparaiso on the Pacific coast at 6 in the morning on a Tuesday. Within 24 hours, the army took over the entire long and narrow sabre-shaped land of copper. For years, people had lived in fear because of the conservation camps in the country and because of some dissidents’ fate of being dropped down from a military airplane over the Andes mountains and the Pacific Ocean.

Then something happened. Civic organisations, including artists, no longer had the energy to be afraid, so they collectively got out to the streets and founded artist activist groups. The most known activist group was CADA, or Colectivo de Acciones de Arte. The art collective, founded by a few young visual artists and poets, was inventive, bold and clever. All of a sudden, they took over the public space in various parts of the country with their astonishingly large-scale performances, which later became milestones of conceptual art in the history of contemporary Latin American art.

July 1981: A performance by the CADA collective – Ay Sudamérica! (Oh, Southern America) –had just begun. Six military aircrafts flying in a squadron over the city of Santiago suddenly drop masses of leaflets with poems that urged people to join the resistance. CADA had been able to convince the Chilean army to let them use their planes. Why? Because art had become so metaphorical, just one big allegory. The soldiers hadn’t understood what the poems were about. They thought they were cleansing their image by supporting art, but what they didn’t understand was that art is creative, it can manoeuvre its way around obstacles.

CADA dropped 400,000 leaflets over the capital. Besides the poems, they also included the following quote: “Everyone who takes their fate in their own hands and doesn’t submit is an artist”.

Visual artist Lotty Rosenfeld made her way in front of the Presidential Palace of dictator Augusto Pinochet in Santiago, carrying her cans of paint and tape, and then quickly drew perpendicular white lines with paint and tape over the centre-line markings. The asphalt was now the backdrop for a row of white crosses. Rosenfeld poured petrol on the crosses and set them on fire. Nobody knew the reason why the streets of Santiago were suddenly filled with cross-shaped markings that brought traffic to a halt.

Usually, traffic lane markings show people the way: go to that direction! Through her conceptual art piece, Rosenfeld bisected the centre-line markings and objected: No. I will go the other way. I will not obey, I will not give in.

The CADA collective demonstrated that the public can adopt a totally new understanding on art; the kind of understanding that can extend beyond the limits of conventional art that prevailed at the time and that can become a part of the public life and urban space, even in a dictatorship. CADA built hope.

A man that had been a prisoner at a Chilean concentration camp told me that when he later came to Finland as a refugee, he used to count the number of steps when he walked from one floor to another at his job at the University of Helsinki. That’s something that he learned as a political prisoner walking through a Chilean prison, blindfolded, so that if he survived, he could tell people what kind of a place he had been captured in. That piece of information would be useful later for investigators of human rights violations. Counting the number of steps sparked hope in the darkness that he had to wander through, blindfolded.

Novelist Diamela Eltit (1948-), a reformer of the language in contemporary Chilean literature, has said that the dictatorship took everything away from her except for her native language. Eltit started writing non-fiction with the aim of a literary renewal –a goal which she certainly accomplished. She broke down the narrative structures of Spanish and created a whole new narrative method. My dissertation covered this very topic: how art can be revolutionary through its ability to weave rebellion into the internal quality of art itself instead of making it pamphlet-like propaganda.

Dear audience,

I want to highlight the importance of tension between society and art as a generator of meanings. In times of war and crises, the tension between society and art as well as politics and art is the force that evokes new art. When nations face states of emergency, like Ukraine, Russia and Europe right now due to Russia’s war of aggression, art gets power and hope from dissidence.

However, because the fundamental essence of art is free, even when tyrannical governments try to strip that freedom, art always finds its way to self-expression.

One form of expression is metaphors, and allegories, in particular. Art has a habit of becoming more allegorical in times when freedom of expression is restricted or taken away completely.

What is an allegory? It’s a collective condensation of meanings. It summarises the state of a nation. One example of an allegory is Edvard Isto’s painting The Attack (1899) depicting the Finnish Maiden holding a book of laws that the Russian eagle is trying to rob.

In a way, an allegory is a form of secret language that an oppressed nation knows how to decipher.

Haiti. The earthquake in 2010. Up to 300,000 people died and 1.5 million people left their homes.

I went to Haiti for work. The Presidential Palace had collapsed, like a trampled cake. The capital of Port-au-Prince was filled with shattered concrete, wire cables hanging loose, and tents providing shelter for people that had lost their homes.

I wrote a newspaper article on the babies born at the time of the earthquake. A twenty-something Norma started experiencing labour pains in Port-au-Prince just when animals started acting strangely, sensing the imminent catastrophe. While tectonic plates were grinding against each other and the earth was shaking, Norma dragged herself on the street and gave birth to the sounds of houses collapsing. Her daughter was named Goudou-Goudou, which means Earthquake in Haitian Creole. I met Norma when she was walking with her head held high and with determined steps in her destroyed home city. She said she was looking for food, and she didn’t lower her gaze. Why? Maybe she would find eggs, maybe bananas…definitely bananas, she said, and called herself fortunate, because there was still hope; after all, she had a healthy baby, and even though her spouse had died, her own parents were still alive and able to support her and her new-born child.

Haiti is the poorest country in the Western hemisphere. In Haiti, it became clear to me that the nation founded by enslaved Africans has not been demoralised. Hope runs through people’s blood there. I couldn’t help but marvel at their dignified air. The slaves shipped in from Africa were the first to liberate their country from European colonial rule in Latin America. The Haitian revolution against France may be the only black-led revolution from white colonial oppressors.

The Finnish wars (1939–1944) and evacuees. Now some thoughts about the ways that the evacuees sustained hope and about their endless yearning for home. My own ancestors escaped from the shores of Lake Ladoga, becoming evacuees, so-called displaced persons.They lost their homes, their country, their spiritual and religious community, tombs of their ancestors and their native tongue Livvi-Karelian, which was the language of my father’s Karelian family. The home village of that family stopped existing on 6 July 1944. The name of the village was Purovaara. Everyone escaped.

I have done vocal exercises for the sake of hope. I have learned to sing songs in Livvi-Karelian so that I wouldn’t forget the language of my ancestors. In my childhood home, my father spoke Finnish, but when he was with his friends from his teenage years in his home village by Lake Ladoga, he spoke Livvi-Karelian.

One frosty morning after the Winter War had broken out, the Soviet Union opened the eyes of my 16-year-old father Eino to the cruelty of war. On that day, my grandmother Elisa walked to the snowy river to wash clothes, when Eino, the oldest son of the family, took on the task of driving seven children to the grandparents’ house on a horse-drawn carriage. His own father, my grandfather, was at the front lines. Suddenly, a Soviet ground-attack aircraft appeared from the forest. It flew towards the horse-drawn carriage driven by my father and fired at the children and the horse. My grandmother looked over the river, horrified. The horse bolted and started running down the snowy road, but the carriage didn’t flip over and nobody was hit.

My father’s story gives hope: bullets don’t always hit their target, sometimes none of them do and all children survive.

A person can be saved.

Evacuees, refugees and their children are different from the outside, you can’t identify them, but from the inside, they’re the same. Even when they’re old, they’ll have the same dreams of the country where they once lived together, even if the war has flown them over to different parts of the world, blown away like chaff in the wind. By the mighty gust of war.

When I was little, my older cousins laughed at the funny way our Karelian grandparents spoke. Oh, how funny they thought it was! It took me decades to realise what the reason for their laughter was: we children didn’t understand that we were about to lose the native tongue of our family. But now we can work together so that refugee children from Ukraine won’t lose their own language, as language is the heart of the culture, its interpreter.

Now, I could sing to you all –I have done vocal exercises in Livvi-Karelian for the sake of hope –but I won’t, because I get shy and embarrassed. So diligent are the shadows of wars in their destructive patterns in our souls that the daughter of an evacuee gets shy about the old language of her family. I dare to sing only when I’m alone.

All art that pursues to express things that we no longer have the words for, things that we lost or are at risk of losing – is a tool and a building block for hope. You can feel it in your body.

I ask you, dear audience, where in your body can you feel hope? In your heart, stomach, sexual organs, soles of your feet… or everywhere?

In a moment, I’d like to quote a collection of essays titled 2222 written by my spouse, artist Timo Kelaranta. When two hundred years have passed from this day of celebrations and from this year, we will no longer be here. Mugs and cups are lost, but maybe a few digital recordings and a piece of art remain for the future generations. My father-in-law Kalervo Kelaranta, who lived through war, wrote: “Everything ends at some point, including war”.

What a peculiar sentence!

Here’s the quote from the year 2222: “And so another season of summer arrives in that land of future after a mild winter. The ancient ash tree watches from the top of the hill as children run towards the shore, just like always. They dip their toes in the water, balance on the rocks smoothened out by waves, and then hurry over to the beach. When they are almost there, one of them, a small boy, stops in his steps. What is this slightly melancholic thought that always captures the mind at this same spot?

When he carefully listens to how loyally the waves are lapping against the cliffs of the shore and how the light breeze is making the reeds sigh, as if whispering something, he is sure that nature consists of living creatures, the kinds of creatures that recollect things from generations past but that cannot talk.” (Timo Kelaranta: 2222. Bokeh, 2022).

This was my attempt at tying different examples of hope into a bundle, a bouquet of hope that I pass on to You.

I will now end my speech with thoughts on hope by the Greek philosopher Plutarch (45-125), shared by him in his book Tranquillity of Mind. The English translation is by W. C. Helmbold.

“Fortune, in fact, can encompass us with sickness, take away our possessions, slander us to people or despot; but she cannot make the good and valiant and high-souled man base or cowardly, mean, ignoble, or envious, nor can she deprive us of that disposition, the constant presence of which is of more help in facing life than is a pilot in facing the sea.”

I sincerely wish you all a good and safe start for the academic year!