Satakielikuukausi artikkelikuva

Performance artist Willem Wilhelmus describes the experience of curating and directing a multidisciplinary performance art based project that investigates the effect of not speaking one’s mother tongue. The festival took place in October 2014 in Helsinki.


Willem Wilhelmus

Mother’s tongue

Mother's tongue. poster picture by Egle OddoIn October the Mother’s Tongue project took place in Helsinki. Thirty artists were invited to present their contribution to the question: is there any correlation between the lack of using your mother tongue and your creative activity? We tried to find answers via a five day festival of art actions and via round table discussions on the theme.

What started as a nice idea gathered momentum in the course of time. We got funding and we found the right partners in Universum Theater as an outstanding venue for the festival and the Finnish Museum of Photography for the discussions and as venue for a collective language cacophony performance.

My partner in this adventure, Egle Oddo, got her father Franco so crazy to drive all the way from Sicily to bring delicious food and come to prepare it, seven days long, together with his wife Chaibia. They were the first to come and transform the backstage of Universum in a grand cuisine.

Then finally came the day of arrival of the artists. Twenty artists from abroad and ten from around Finland, all of them originally from another country, another culture, another language as where they are living now. The highly energetic meeting could start.

So how about it?

Did the 30 artists indeed add something special to this mother tongue question? We did see art, live art actions, performance art in many variations, highlights and lowlights, but that is nothing new for a festival, we’ve seen that before. But here something else was going on, something more.

For one thing: just the fact of sharing the same experience – living abroad, dealing with the language barrier – created an immediate communal feeling, the feeling that is so much missing in the personal experience of the émigré.

Two was: eating together on a long table, long enough to accommodate up to 70 people. Just shouting out the toast was already an experience in itself. So, had eating together anything to do with the theme: mother’s tongue? You bet it had. Not just because of the delicious taste or because of the obvious association with, well, mother’s tongue, but also because of the sharing of ideas and insights that come so much easier with a good taste in the mouth, even as all is told in broken English, aided by translations from Spanish or German or French…

The outcome was a strong communal experience that sparked over to an audience that grew by the day. From 50 to 200 guests on the final day, people came to share this special event. I have to say I was surprised by the well willing open attitude of all these guests who came to give their contribution in terms of attendance and attention. There was some magic in the air.

But three is of course the most important: was there anything special to see in the art actions itself – in other words: did the lack of mother tongue indeed lead to specific performances?

First let me tell that all artists took the bait of dealing with this overall theme of a lack of mothers tongue. They sharpened their thinking about this theme in the roundtable discussions and by being interviewed by the researchers Anu Lounela and Pekka Tuominen. Thirty artists, too many names to mention here – but have a look at – all geared up to give their best.

Mother's tongueAn example. I like to describe the action of the Finland based Mexican artist Diana Soria. She brought in a stack of birch wood branches and started to peel the bark off – an elaborate action that took its time. The bark pieces she nailed on a wooden pellet and, when all was done, she covered the pellet with white paper. She then took pieces of charcoal and rubbed it over the surface of the paper. A wild pattern of black on white came to the fore. To our amazement we saw these emerging patterns resemble the same birch wood she had brought in before. She finished her action by cutting the paper and gluing the paper pieces back on the peeled off branches. The visual poetry of this art action was striking.

It’s not fair towards the other artists, I know. So many very personal interpretations of not speaking your mothers tongue were presented. Right now we are in the process of producing a catalogue/book of this project. Stories of the interviews by the researchers intermingled with critiques, descriptions and photo documentation of the art actions. Keep your eyes open!


Willem Wilhelmus is a performance artist and curator who lives in Finland and was born in the Netherlands. He has worked with themes of cultural encounters and transcultural identities eg. in projects like the Fake Finn Festival, New Art Contact and Mother’s Tongue. He is also one of the founding members of Catalysti Association.

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