Long reads


Finnish Young Artist of the Year explores queer identity and its politics

Humour is J. A. Juvani’s favourite instrument.

Recently elected Finnish Young Artist of the Year for 2018, J. A. Juvani (b. 1988) is currently at Kone Foundation as a grant recipient. The project ”Drag is my fucking gender, queer is my fucking sexuality” discusses gender roles and norms. In the project, the artist explores queer identity and the norm-crossing phenomena connected to it. The subjects explored are gendered bodies and the myths and performativity related to them.

Originally from Northern Finland, the artist is currently working on a trilogy; its three parts ”WITH ALL MY LOVE”, ”ONE-MAN SHOW”, and ”BEYOND DRAG” explore the topic from different viewpoints. The trilogy will be published in the future as collections of essays that combine image and text. In Juvani’s work, the concept of an essay refers to a subjective study in which the artist approaches the topic from their personal experience by means of either text or image.

Juvani says he discovered text as a form of expression while completing his Master’s degree.

”Text emerged as an important tool as I prepared my diploma project at the Helsinki Academy of Fine Arts. Some of texts in the trilogy’s publications are short, to the point, and in prose, while others are aphorisms. Expository texts are also included”.

As sources, Juvani uses, for example, discussions found online. They provide the artist with an efficient way of grasping the myths that are linked to sexuality and its performative nature. 

Wonderful man boobs

Juvani identifies strongly as a political artist. The artist talks of queer identity as ”political sexuality”, ”political body”, and ”political gender”.

Queer studies may explore, for example, fat and its beauty. Potential subjects for analysis through body image include desire and the process of growing into it as well as the types of desire to which a body may be the object.

Juvani has discovered a love for man boobs. Man boobs and the softness and fullness of a body are connected to a fetishist culture of its own that runs counter to established norms and conventional beauty ideals.

An essential tool in Juvani’s work is humour.

”Humour is my favourite instrument. It is also a method that helps us survive in the world. Humour can be critical, and it can create contrast. It exposes dynamics. It can also be used constructively, although humour per se does not necessarily even need to be constructive”.

In Juvani’s pieces, humour often takes the form of drag. As an act, drag is characteristically humorous. Its key elements are irony and carnivalism. For example, a piece in which Juvani performs drag in the dipper of a tractor comments on various myths related to the role and identity of men.

Trans woman and feminist  

Juvani graduated with a B.F.A. from Tampere University of Applied Sciences in 2013, and with an M.F.A two years later from the Helsinki Academy of Fine Arts. Despite their humorous approaches, both diploma projects deal with the hard topics of death and depression. The Bachelor’s exhibition displayed, for example, shoes that could not be walked in, a t-shirt bearing a broken heart, antidepressants, and unused condoms.

Through the depiction of depression and death, it can be seen how the study of sexuality and identity inevitably approaches the unclean and abject, i.e. that which has been cast out and rejected. Feminist and queer communities are also not free of shame.

”I identify as a feminist. However, there are some movements in the field of feminism that limit womanhood and feminism to extend only to certain kinds of women. Trans women, for example, do not always fit within the boundaries set by mainstream feminism”.

Many of the themes explored by Juvani are well-known from art history. Especially the themes of uncleanness, sexuality, performativity, and the political nature of everyday life have a long shared history in the various discourses of art. Examining taboos and approaching normative boundaries are traditional objects of study in art in their own right.

”Art does not set up boundaries. It is intrinsically problematic. It must also be given the freedom to be problematic and to expose the true nature of things. The process may even be violent”.

It is often helpful to challenge boundaries. Through work, we come to understand ourselves and our cultural environment. Norms impose restrictions, but they also bestow privileges.

”The heterosexual white man is privileged, but there is a price to be paid in our culture for that position. In my work, I ask whether it is worth that price”.

The Young Artist of the Year award includes a grant of 20,000 euros, as well as exhibitions at the Tampere Art Museum and the Aboa Vetus & Ars Nova museum in Turku. Opening next summer in Tampere, the Young Artist of the Year solo exhibition will be Juvani’s second.

Sini Mononen