Collage of a street in Ii and a ceramics by Rut Bryk. Photo by Ruth Timmermans
Collage of a street in Ii and a ceramics by Rut Bryk. Photo by Ruth Timmermans

Gender Equality in Music: a Journey to Finland brings Hope

Tandem Turkey participant Ruth Timmermans is a historian and researcher on gender, trade-unions and (pre-)colonialism, with a passion for music, art, literature and film. She writes for Gonzo (circus), an independent magazine on music and culture. Recently Ruth has been researching the underrepresentation of women in electronic music and arts. Part of her endeavour took her to Finland where she combined her work in the cultural field and her research background. In this essay, she shares her experience in residency in Finland, discussing major issues around gender equality in the music industry and in the cultural field in general.

A room with a view: the River Ii, Finland. Photo by Ruth Timmermans
A room with a view: the River Ii, Finland. Photo by Ruth Timmermans

Music is essential in most people’s lives. But the music business is a white heterosexual world where sexism and racism are prevalent, both in the commercial music business and in the underground. As a female managing director of an independent magazine on music and arts, I have experienced sexism on many levels over the last 15 years. Despite growing awareness about gender disparity in the music world, there’s still a lot to be researched and to be done.

In Belgium, only recently the underrepresentation of women became visible. And strangely, some programmers and radio makers still dismissed the whole issue of ‘women in music’. In The Netherlands, the discussion hasn’t even started. In the Anglo-Saxon world, it has already been going on for a longer period of time.

As a managing director of a music and arts magazine, my time to reflect is sparse. Let alone, to research, to contemplate and to write about a broad and complex issue as gender disparity. Like Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie confessed in ‘We Should All Be Feminists’, I got also easily tired reading the classic feminists. And just like her, I recently immersed myself in it. Something triggered me. Late and unexpected, but suddenly I realised that in my professional career, my work and my talents have not always been valued, just because of my gender and qualities attributed to my gender, totally ignoring the person I am. The most puzzling part was that this happened in the field of culture.

On our way to Hailuoto (no filter!). Photo by Ruth Timmermans
On our way to Hailuoto (no filter!). Photo by Ruth Timmermans

Hesitatingly, I started writing about this issue and – together with our female editor – initiated a special section in the March 2015 edition of our magazine on upcoming female artists. We interviewed e.g. Holly Herndon and Søs Gunver Ryberg. The issue was greeted with much enthusiasm, both from men and women. But it also sparked questions: is a special female section – even if it was only once – (still) necessary? If more girls than boys attend music school, why are there almost only men represented in music magazines and performing on stages? Why are there so little female booking agents, music curators and journalists? And will this binary opposition (male-female) help us to move forward?

After I wrote an article about the way Taylor Swift was represented in Dutch media (‘from girl-next-door to vixen’) and the mechanisms about it during the Kanye West controversy, I was asked by the New Emergences series – led by Anne Wellmer, Mariette Groot and Semay Wu, to present a keynote on the underrepresentation of women in electronic music and arts.

Inspired by Vidaweb.org and Dutch Website De Lezeres des Vaderlands, I started counting: e.g. how many women were on the stages of the most important electronic music and arts festivals in the Low Countries. While in The Netherlands 30% of (self-identified) female artists seem to be the threshold, in Belgium the outcome was very sad, with often less than 10%.

After the lecture, I decided I needed more time and space to research this issue. At that moment Merja Briñón, director of Kulttuurikauppila in Ii, offered me a month long residency in Northern Ostrobothnia, a beautiful region in Finland just south of Lapland. For them it was also an experiment: they used to only have visual artists but in the future want to open up their amazing residency to curators and writers.

IMG_0609-e1488207337776
IMG_0609-e1488207337776

During this month I got the opportunity to finally catch up with my reading on feminist theory – which I believe is crucial in order to get away from a lot of bias – and especially on inclusive feminism, which is turning into a (political) movement and might be a driving force in change. Also, I started collecting a lot of data, from Dutch-speaking organisations, and I also got some help from other Tandem alumni, namely Emőke Bada and Kasia Sobucka.

It was particularly interesting to discuss this topic with Merja and the two male board members of Kulttuurikauppila. On the one hand, Fins are surprised by the gender disparity on different levels in Western Europe, on the other hand, they feel that the debate is maybe to easily dismissed in Scandinavia. Especially in a region where the very conservative – including their views on women – Laestadians make up a large number of the population.

One of my main goals was to visit Antye Greie-Ripatti on the island Hailuoto, some 90 km south of Ii. Antye Greie is a renowned music producer, composer and one of the driving forces behind Female Pressure, a platform for female electronic musicians worldwide that exists since ten years. I had a long interview with her which will be published soon, along with my research results, on gonzocircus.com.

Not only did Kulttuurikauppila offer me a great distraction-free space and time to work, but I could also enjoy the surroundings. For a long time, I have been interested in the anthropology of the landscape. In our discussions, Merja argued that the usual approach to the Finnish landscape has become very tiring, even though this proves to be successful for both artists – as seen on the bookshelves of Kulttuurikauppila – and the tourism industry. Part of the Kulttuurrikaupila is the biennial about environmental art. We discussed ways of expanding the scope, e.g. through sound which is closely related to my daily work.

And it is easy to get trapped in a romantic ideal of the Finnish landscape, even though it is dark for 17 hours a day in Ii during January. When the sun is shining, the light reflecting on the snow and the pine tree forests soon drag you into a mystical and fairytale-like country. Someone who was able to catch the Finnish light and landscape and at the same time avoiding the cliches was ceramic artist Rut Bryk (1916-1999). Not only do we share the same name, but also our love for the small elements in nature.

A visit to an artist space on Pikisaari. Photo by Ruth Timmermans
A visit to an artist space on Pikisaari. Photo by Ruth Timmermans

My second goal was to visit the exhibition on her work in nearby Oulu. Years ago I saw a large mural of her in Arabia (Helsinki) and I was immediately impressed by how she represents nature in her work – using texture, light and forms. And how innovative she used ceramics, which can be seen in ‘The City’ – a piece she made for the Brussels World Expo’58. And I learned more about her life. She was not just the wife of famous designer Tapio Wirkkala, she was a major artist in her own right. This is also something I researched and the material is there for another article.

Rut Bryk, "The City" (1958). Photo by Ruth Timmermans
Rut Bryk, "The City" (1958). Photo by Ruth Timmermans

My travels ended at the CTM-festival in Berlin where I not only attended a new instalment of the New Emergences series but also a very inspiring talk by Afrofuturist Affair-founder and human rights advocate Rasheeda Philips and musician Moor Mother on inclusive feminism and the need for sharing emotions and fostering solidarity.

New Emergences @CTM-Festival 2017. Photo by Ruth Timmermans
New Emergences @CTM-Festival 2017. Photo by Ruth Timmermans

The most important and hopeful part of this trip – thanks to Tandem – was to meet people in Finland, from the very welcoming team at Kulttuurikauppila to people in Ii, Oulu and Helsinki from very different backgrounds – and experience how more and more women and men during this turbulent start of 2017 are becoming sincere fellows, supporting the inclusive change this world needs.