Sculptures which relieve a back-pack

Sculptures which relieve a back-pack
Kaspars Garda, Riga 2014 . Knutte Wester
Kaspars Zaviļeiskis
22-05-2013 Latviski A+ A-
Umea artist Knutte Wester, sculptor and documentalist, known to address the socially acute themes and to focus on the downtrodden, will work in the legendary Astra street studio in Riga till June 15. In his Riga-related project, he will work with orphans and orphanages. As we came to conclude in conversation, as an artist, he is able to relieve at least some of the burden these children must carry and poke the complacent consumer of art, at the same time.

You were in Latvia six years ago to work on project about orphans. Now, you have returned to develop this theme. Is it part II or there is another idea behind this move?

It is part II, in a way. Project I undertook six years ago came to mean a lot to me. I have been thinking of returning to it since then. The problem was that I had only established contact with one staff member of the orphanage (“Ziemeļi”) and it was lost as she left the work. So I was left without contact in Sweden and could not follow the fate of those six children with whom I had worked. But I felt that I had to return. Therefore I am here! I have not arrived with any particular agenda. I wanted to keep an open mind although it was pretty clear that we were talking about a part II in this case. They were 7-year-olds six years ago; now, they are teenagers. I hoped to develop a project with them.



And could you establish contact anew and learn more about the situation?

I did – with two kids who still live in the orphanage. Others have been adopted abroad and it looks like they will be difficult to contact. I am the only one to remember one of the adopted girls since the staff of the orphanage is already completely changed. Her name was Alesha. She got adopted to Italy around when I was working here first. That’s why I remember her best – she had to leave for Italy, but was very keen to be part of the sculpture we built. So I took a copy of her palm, which became part of the sculpture, before she left.

It is moving indeed. 

It was. It became the story of that sculpture. A week later I made a sculpture of a child with a back-pack, which told that this little human was in process of passage where it is still unclear whether or not he is leaving for somewhere. The heavy back-pack is metaphoric of all the trouble he has already seen before he came to the orphanage. The stories are different, but this is a unifying element.

It sounds like you work like a storyteller in sculpture.

You could say so, yes. My parents worked a lot when I was little, and I spent my time with my grandmother. She told me stories every day about her childhood and her life later on, which had not been easy one. She was born out of the marriage, in 1901, when, in Sweden, such kids were called children of whores. Her mother was a young girl who fell in love with a man who promised to marry her, but she got pregnant, and he ran away. She found herself out on the street and pushed out of the society. So, my grandmother’s stories were not fairy-tales, but facts of her life as a child and young girl. Later she dedicated her life to social issues. So I grew up convinced that it is within our powers to make this world a better place to live in.

So, you became a ‘social artist.’ It seems logical.

Yes, as these stories really affected me. And I knew already when I was eight that I would be an artist. It was not a choice, but something self-evident.



How did you find yourself in Riga in 2007 and start to work with orphans?

It was pure coincidence at that moment. A Swedish curator was engaged in a project selecting six young artists at the start of their career who were sent to different cities around the world. It was like a blind date of artist and city. She called me and asked whether I wanted to go to Riga for two months.

But it was not quite to orphanage? That was your own choice.

That was my choice. Before that, I had been in South Africa soon after collapse of apartheid and in Albania right after the end of its dictator regime. This curator knew about my interest in the societies after historical changes. In 2007, it was already some time since the Soviet occupation, but a sense of these changes were very much in the air in Latvia. Sweden changes more slowly, so it still seemed interesting. I had become a father before going to Riga. I had a year old son who traveled with me. So I thought a lot about being a father.

My wife entered ‘Riga’ and ‘child’ in Google by coincidence to find out what it would be like to come here with a very young child. Google offered her pages of orphanages where you could apply for adoption. This was how I came to this project.

Then, you kind of have Google as well to thank, which already sounds amusing!

I agree. Theme seemed very interesting. It was time when society had began to flourish and people obviously were not prepared to think about problems of orphans, they wanted to turn away from them. They avoided these themes. People in Sweden were turning away from uncomfortable themes as well – like the treatment of political refugees by the state, for example, including the question of children who have grown up in Sweden and do not understand why they are suddenly sent somewhere else.

You made a very moving documentary ‘Gzim Rewind’ about a Kosovo boy Gzim.

Yes, it was my tribute to this theme. All societies share in such matters, and the theme of orphans in Latvia is one of such.

Will you make documentary in Riga as well, or you will make sculptures?

Primarily, I will make sculptures. Maybe, I will also document this process and record some stories, but there will be no film.

Will this be a project for Umea as European Capital of Culture in 2014 or it could be such a project?

It could be such a project. I wrote to organizers that I wanted to come here, but, as I said – with an open mind, without a concrete idea. I can plan what I could do here, but I cannot say what exactly as it is related to children whom I may no longer find here. They supported me, but on condition that it is out of the ordinary as the possible outcome is still unclear. It looks like we are talking of two projects, which are, of course, related. The first will involve children with whom I worked here already six years ago, and the other one will address 7-year-olds living in the orphanage now.

Why 7-eay-olds exactly? Are they more open in at that age?

It was coincidence six years ago. I found this orphanage and I had to choose five to seven kids to collaborate with them closely in creation of sculpture. I had to get to know them, to learn their names and stories of their lives. Larger group would be something like a football team. I had to think of something, so I said I would like to work with seven-year-olds, which I did. It seems to be easier to work with older children as they can concentrate better and understand what you want, but younger kids are much more open. I see it in my children as well when they draw.

Many thinkers and writers repeat that as grown-ups we lose the sense of wonder while, for children, the world is full of surprise.

Yes, we have lost the magic of imagination. I remember that my son when he was four, three years ago, stopped suddenly in our walk in the forest and asked – what if we there will be dinosaur after that turn, dad?

Good question immediately answered by the adults with – dinosaurs are long dead!

Exactly! But what if he is there? So I have decided to work with 7-year-olds again. We will cast their hands, feet or faces and I will create a collective sculpture. We will work together. We already created faces last week. Everyone wanted to participate, so I imagine there could be several sculptures as I see no reason to reject someone.

That is a way to keep an open mind while also relieving their back-packs of their weight.

Well said. They will not become too weightless, but – certainly, lighter a bit.


And what will you do with your collaborators from last time who are now 13-year-olds?

I have planned to create little whistle-birds with them and, next, I will search a Latvian composer ready to write a piece of music for these instruments. Each of the kids will build such a whistle-bird. And friends back in orphanage will make them for those who have been adopted, but Alesha’s bird I already began to make myself, today.


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