Marja Helander

Artist Spotlight: One of Finland’s leading artists explores environment, extraction, and the power of storytelling.

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Two ballerinas in white tutus cast red and yellow rope into the air, in a snow-covered landscape with a white sky.

Marja Helander (b.1965) is a Finnish photographic and video artist. She graduated as a painter at the Lahti Institute of Fine Arts in 1992. After that Helander pursued her interest in photography and graduated from the University of Art and Design in Helsinki in 1999.

Earlier works by Helander explore her own identity between the Finnish and the Sámi culture, the Sámi being the Indigenous people from the northern parts of Fennoscandia. 

Two ballerinas in white tutus cast red and yellow rope into the air, in a snow-covered landscape with a white sky.
Marja Helander, Birds in the Earth (video still) (2018).

Helander´s recent photographic work has focused on the northern landscape, portraying dark  views without people. For several years, Marja Helander has been taking photographs in Sápmi, exploring the link between the mining industry and today’s standard of living and culture of consumption, and in particular, the impact of mining on the sensitive northern environment. Subjects include the nickel mine in the Kola Peninsula  which manufactures stainless steel, computer hard drives, and mobile phone batteries. Similarly, apatite mined in the Khibiny Mountains is processed to produce phosphate fertilizers for farmers. In her art, Helander emphasizes the dependence between people and nature.

A photograph of a nude person, crouched in a snowy landscape, wearing a headband with white bunny ears.
Marja Helander, Looking into Nightfall, from the series Davvi (North), 2018.

In her series Davvi (North), showcased in the Northern Photographic Centre, Helander visualizes the problems that emerge between Sámi traditions and modern society.

A photograph of a nude person kneeling in a grassy area amidst trees and bushes. Around them are scattered white feathers, which also cover their head and fingers.
Marja Helander, Hidden from the Day, from the series Davvi (North), 2018.
A photograph of a nude person from behind, standing at the edge of a lake in a northern environment, with mountains in the distance. The person wears a tail with black, brown, and white stripes and has their arms curled up near their chest like paws.
Marja Helander, Waiting for the morning, from the series Davvi (North), 2018.

In addition to landscapes, Helander’s work also includes images of humans who take the form of animals, thus identifying with old Sámi beliefs and world views: “I want to highlight the corporeality of people and how humans are just one animal species among many, dependent on nature, ecosystems, and land. We are part of the cyclicity of nature; a pile of particles and molecules.”

A diptych of photographs shows an open pit mine covered in snow at nighttime (at left), and a nude person wandering through knee-deep snow in a forest at daytime (right).
Marja Helander, The Secrets of Dusk, from the series Davvi (North), 2018.
Two ballerinas in white tutus are shown mid-dance in a northern landscape, with a lake and forest behind them. They stand upright on slightly crossed legs and raise both arms to their sides with a gentle bend.
Marja Helander, Birds in the Earth (video still) (2018).

On the other hand, video artworks by Helander are playful, exploring the contradiction between the traditional Sámi way of life and modern society, and focusing on old stories from her Sámi relatives. Her recent short film Birds in the Earth won the Risto Jarva Prize in Tampere Film Festival 2018 and the Kent Monkman Award for Best Experimental Work at ImagineNative Film + Media Arts Festival in Toronto, 2018. It was also part of the Sundance Film Festival 2019 short film competition.

Marja Helander has presented works in solo and group exhibitions both in Finland and abroad, with many shows in Scandinavia. Various public art collections in Finland and abroad have acquired her artworks, for example Kiasma, The State of Finland, Finnish Museum of Photography, National Gallery of Canada, Public Art Norway (KORO), Nordiska Museet in Stockholm, Nordnorsk Kunstmuseumi in Tromsø, Sámi Museum Siida, De Samiske Samlinger and Stadtgalerie Kiel.

Helander has also made a public artwork So Everything Flourishes for the Sámi Cultural Centre Sajos, in Inari, Finland. Her new public video work with Mauri Lähdesmäki will be part of the permanent exhibition shown in the Sámi Museum Siida in Inari.

Helander is considered as one the leading artists in Finland. She has won the Artists’ Association of Finland ́s Fine Art Prize (2018) and was awarded the Finland Prize by The Ministry of Education and Culture (2019). She was also awarded the Pro Finlandia medal in 2021.

Watch the trailer for Birds in the Earth here.

Credit: This video trailer was originally published by AV-arkki, the Centre for Finnish Media Art in 2018. COURTESY AV-ARKKI.

This story is part of the Finland Spotlight. View more content from the Spotlight here.