Roxy Farhat and Kakan Hermansson

A space for the neglected stories of women. That’s how you can describe Roxy Farhat’s and Kakan Hermansson’s joint exhibition I Just Never Talk to People About Things Like That / Hellre Trillar Jag och Slår Ihjäl Mig, now on display at Stockholm NAU Gallery. We met with the two artists to talk about sexual violence, handicraft, and muses.

Roxy Farhat and Kakan Hermansson met six years ago, at the Stockholm art school Konstfack, bonding both as friends and as feminists. Since then, they have worked together, travelled together, and lived together. With I Just Never Talk to People About Things Like That / Hellre Trillar Jag och Slår Ihjäl Mig, now on display at Stockholm NAU Gallery, the two artists are also exhibiting together.

– The gallery contacted me and asked if I wanted to do something there, and I told them I wanted to do something together with Roxy, Kakan says when we meet with the two artists at NAU gallery, just a few days before the opening.

– We’ve been working a lot together, travelling together, and living together. I think I might be Roxy’s biggest fan as well, she laughs.

Even though the two artists have quite different artistic backgrounds – Roxy Farhat holds a Bachelor’s degree in Fine Arts from Konstfack and a Master’s degree in New Genres from University of California in Los Angeles, and Kakan Hermansson a Master’s degree in Ceramic and Glass from Konstfack – they share the same political point of view, and work with similar themes and ideas.

– We’re both dealing with feminism, working with the same themes of sexual assault against women and children, and how you can talk about it, Kakan says.

– Or not talk about it, Roxy adds.

This is a huge problem in society,
a problem that we have to face.
It’s not just a ’sob story’

– The work that I will show here, I Just Never Talk to People About Things Like That, is a video installation where three women talk about their experiences of being subjected to sexual assault by men, Roxy continues. When I first started working with it, one of my professors said that she thought it sounded like a ’sob story’. She questioned whether it was an interesting theme, and suggested that I changed the direction of my work.

– To me, the core of this piece is to give these women the opportunity to tell their stories, but also to direct the difficulties of talking about these things. Sexual violence is such a common phenomenon, and still the public treats it with silence, blaming the victims. I wanted that feeling to be imbued in the experience of this piece. This is a huge problem in society, a problem that we have to face. It’s not just a ’sob story’.

– That’s usually how feminism is treated, whether it’s art or not, Kakan says. The feministic analysis is often reduced to the role of the victim. As soon as you try to draw attention to a problem, you become the problem yourself.

– To me, it was super important not to depict these women as victims. For instance, you don’t see any people in the videos; you just hear their voices while the projections show entirely different things, like a cat sleeping on a bed. I didn’t want this piece to be about these specific women, but rather shed some light on a common phenomenon, and show what an antipathy there is towards discussing it.

– The stories can only be heard in headphones, and in the surrounding room there will be elevator music playing, Roxy continues. That means that the spectator is confronted with the choice to either stay in this interspace of elevator music or take part in these serious stories.

– There is a strong antipathy towards acknowledging problems of sexual violence, because if we acknowledge them, people have to become feminists, Kakan says. And that’s no good, since it threatens the patriarchy, and the patriarchy is the best thing people know.

Kakan Hermansson and Roxy Farhat. Photograohy by Victoria Stillwell.
Kakan Hermansson and Roxy Farhat. Photograohy by Victoria Stillwell.

Kakan’s piece, Hellre Trillar Jag och Slår Ihjäl Mig is also a video installation, where a short movie is shown on a television surrounded by sculptures, vases, and candlesticks in gleaming, greyscale ceramics. Complete with flowers and lit candles, the whole installations is reminiscent of an altar, but where the story of Jesus is replaced by the story of a depressed, elderly woman in a three room flat in a small Swedish suburb, a story that is seldom told in the public sphere.

– This piece is about my aunt, and her and her family’s experience of sexual assault, Kakan says. The video shows me helping my aunt to shower. She’s 70 years old, and has been retired half of her life due to illness. She’s depressed and physically broken down. Basically, the video shows us talking for 14 minutes, with references to some truly difficult events in her life, references that you won’t understand if you don’t know the whole story. She has a son that passed away in cancer and a daughter that was raped by her father for five years. It has left some deep marks on her.

– I really wanted to tell her story, since it’s a story that is never told. In media, there is no space for women who aren’t thin, heterosexual, and happy. There is no space for lower class women with a story like hers. I wanted to give her that space.

– When I was working with the video, I went from crying to choking with laughter. It’s a humorous video, too, even if it’s filled with anguish.

To us, art is not something decorative, like a sunset to rest your eyes on

Why did you choose to mix video with ceramics?
– I started working with video early on in my career, and I didn’t want to let go of that just because I began working with ceramics. I think they complement each other well, ceramics and video. My work deals to a large extent with aesthetic value, how handicraft has a low status, since it’s seen as female paraphernalia.

– My aunt lives in a three room flat, filled with antiquities, ceramics, and porcelain. She knows a lot about handicraft, and she used to share her knowledge with me when I was younger. We always attended fairs and flea markets together, so she was the one who awoke my interest in handicraft. It came natural that she would be at the core of my artistic practice. Some artists have muses, I have my depressed aunt. She is my muse.

– I wanted this piece to somehow give the impression of being in her flat. I wanted the spectator to take part in her reality. Which isn’t particularly funny.

Why do you think these stories are best told in art?
– Art has the ability to evoke emotions and experiences in a way that an article lacks, for example, Roxy says. It’s an experience that is physical and psychological, as well as emotional, something that I think is hard to bring about through some other medium than art.

– To us, art is not something decorative, like a sunset to rest your eyes on, Kakan says. Art is reality, and it’s important that it is democratic. I’m not that interested in making objects, I’m interested in making objects that tell stories, preferably stories that are usually neglected. I’m not interested in another graphic font by a white, heterosexual, middle class man with a nice house, since that doesn’t say anything that hasn’t been said already. That just conforms to the norm.

Kakan Hermansson and Roxy Farhat. Photograohy by Victoria Stillwell.

– In art, you can be uncompromising, and tell stories in the way that you think they should be told, Roxy says. You can create your own space and your own conditions in a way that isn’t possible with other kinds of expressions.

– I could’ve become a politician, but I became an artist instead. A political artist, Kakan adds.

– That also gives us so much more freedom, Roxy continues. If we were politicians working in parliament, there would have been so much bureaucracy to go by. As an artist, you don’t have that, but you can still make a political statement.

– Exactly. We can be political without being politicians.

What do you want people to take with them when they leave the exhibition?
– My work isn’t didactic, Roxy says. It doesn’t tell you what to think or what to feel. The spectators are invited to step in and do what they want with what’s offered. Whether you’re a feminist or not, I think it’s hard to hear these women’s stories without feeling something. These three women are all very close to me, so they are sharing their experiences in a way you do when talking to a close friend. Even if the spectators are strangers, they are told these stories as if the women trusted them. That makes it harder to defend yourself against them. To me, it’s not important that you become a feminist after having seen this exhibition, but I hope that it will make you think.

– You don’t even need to think, you can just walk away from here with some kind of feeling, Kakan says. And trust me, you cannot experience this exhibition without feeling something.

I could’ve become a politician,
but I became an artist instead.
A political artist

When I’ve read about this exhibition in the media, many articles have tried to emphasize how you supposedly say farewell to men.
– Well, naturally we welcome the absence of men, but we much rather welcome the presence of women, Kakan says. We welcome female experiences and female truths, since they are so seldom given space in society.

– It is such an easy reading of what we want to say, that we are angry, man-hating feminists bidding farewell to men, Roxy says. That’s the picture media tend to point out. They don’t see that we’re actually trying to problematise these matters.

– What do people think that feminists are doing? That we’re just sitting at home, sharpening our knives?

– Isn’t that exactly what you do?

– Well, I guess we do that too, but mostly we just talk. We’re constantly talking.     

Pieces from Kakan Hermansson's installation at NAU Gallery. Photography by Victoria Stillwell.
Pieces from Kakan Hermansson’s installation at NAU Gallery. Photography by Victoria Stillwell.

You are kind of like journalists, trying to bring out these neglected stories.
– I think we work a bit like journalists, yes. It’s rather similar, Kakan says.

– It’s true that we’re doing a lot of research, Roxy says. We’re both working with documentary elements, trying to depict reality.

– That’s also inevitable, Kakan continues. We cannot have art that does nothing but decorate the walls of the bourgeois. It has to be earnest. Since we’re not living in a beautiful world, we cannot have art that is merely beautiful. There’s no time for that.

– That’s how I feel, too. I don’t have time for that.

Roxy Farhat’s and Kakan Hermansson’s exhibition I Just Never Talk to People About Things Like That / Hellre Trillar Jag och Slår Ihjäl Mig will be on display at NAU Gallery until February 8.

Photography by Victoria Stillwell.