Six white children washing a black child. When Salad Hilowle saw the painting Vanus Labor, something happened to him. He stood for a long time, taking it in. The traditional interpretation of the work, painted in 1690 by the artist David Klöcker Ehrenstrahl, has been that the white children are trying to wash the colour from the black boy. But Salad Hilowle saw something different. Photo credit Thor Balkhed
“I had seen lots of paintings with black bodies in Swedish contexts, and they are often exotifying, with features and colours enhanced. But what I saw here was a real child – not an idea of a black person.”
Despite more than five years of art studies, Salad Hilowle had never seen the painting before. He found this odd, and asked: in Swedish art history, who is foregrounded and who is not?
Afro-Swedes in Swedish cultural history
Then he had the idea for his debut exhibition. He wanted to foreground Afro-Swedes in cultural history, so he began to search through archives to find works where black people are presented. Some of what he found became part of his sculpture and film installation Vanus Labor [Vain Labour], which was exhibited at the Photo credit Thor Balkhed Royal Swedish Academy of Fine Arts in 2021. The exhibition presented sculpture by Afro-Swedes in the grounds of Ulriksdal Palace, and the first black students at the Royal Swedish Academy of Fine Arts.
“I started to think about who is made visible and who isn’t. Inclusion requires that all types of bodies are represented. It’s not about removing anything from history, it’s about adding perspectives”, says Salad Hilowle.
Vanus Labor proved Salad Hilowle’s breakthrough with the public, and he has subsequently had numerous exhibitions, including Publikt at the Stockholm House of Culture, which had an Afro-Swede perspective, with clips from Swedish television history. But Salad Hilowle has long been creative. He has produced several short films that received critical acclaim at film festivals, got him nominations for the Guldbagge Award, and millions of views on SVT Play. Even in his previous works, he has explored issues pertaining to visibility, home, identity and place.
New ways to see
I want to tell about the people behind the prejudices, and say that we should remember the forgotten people and their stories.
Starting out from his own experiences
From film and photography to painting and sculpture
"It always starts with me reacting to something. And then I twist and turn it, process the images in my head. Finally, I get to a point where I decide to make something out of it," says Salad Hilowle about his creative process. Photo credit Thor Balkhed
Art’s power to bring change
The teachers in Culture, Society and Media Production and Norrköping were inspirational, says Salad Hilowle. But initially, he struggled with performance anxiety, and it still appears occasionally. However now he has found a way to manage it. His compass has been to focus on creating, and daring to explore, experiment, and try new things.
And this, he says, is the potential of art.
“That’s what’s so exciting about art: it can tackle issues in a different way. My dream is that art will save the world, but it can’t. It can’t give everyone food on the table, but at least it can get us to think in different and new ways. This is why I believe in the power of art.”
Translation by Martin Mirko.