The opening of the exhibition Embrace! was a great success with hundreds of school children, Somalis, Swedes, Swedish-Americans, folkdancers, politicians, priests and many others participating in a parade through the city of Växjö. We met with Erica Månsson, managing director of Kulturparken Småland (which at the end of 2010 took over the official part of Utvandrarnas Hus (the Swedish Emigrant Institute) where the majority of the exhibition takes place), artist Pia Sjölin, herself a Swedish immigrant to the U.S., and curator Lixuan An, a Chinese-born woman who has emigrated twice in her life: first to the U.S. and then to Sweden, where she now lives in Växjö. The three women were tired yet excited and happy the day after the amazing opening.

“We used to say that if we could just influence five people toward greater tolerance then we’d be happy, and we had 600 people coming here yesterday!” exclaims Lixuan. “This has been an exercise in ‘can-do’ without much resources, but with the right commitment and spirit.”
“Everybody’s been very, very positive,” Pia adds.


It all began a year ago, when Erica at Kulturparken Småland felt she wanted to connect an old art collection, made by Swedish-American painters and contemporary Swedish-American artists with the theme of migration to and from Sweden. She felt such an exhibition would also reverberate in today’s Swedish society, with its many immigration issues. She asked Pia and Lixuan to curate the exhibition.

“I’d been pondering these issues myself for a long time,” explains Lixuan. “I’ve had to find acceptance for myself as an immigrant and I’ve experienced segregation in this town (Växjö) and a general big disconnect as an immigrant. I know Swedes to be loving and warm, so why this segregation, I have wondered. Now I know it is more often a cultural difference. Swedes aren’t cold, they are just respectful, which might seem like unfriendliness.”
Lixuan points to the big sculpture featuring Karl-Oskar and Kristina, the very symbol of 19th century Swedish immigration to the U.S.—they have been dressed up in modern Moslem garb for the exhibition.
“Watching ‘Utvandrarna’ (‘The Immigrants’—based on the book with the same name by Vilhelm Moberg), was an eye-opener for me and is for many other modern immigrants to Sweden as well,” she continues. “Most of us don’t know that Swedes too have had to leave their country. That Sweden was ever poor.”
Says Pia, who is re-reading Vilhelm Moberg’s book:
“If you see the history in migration, you can connect to what’s happening today.”

The Swedish artists who are featured in Embrace are all immigrants, but a key difference between them and “Utvandrarna” or the migration to Sweden today is of course that they all chose to come to America.
“When Somalis come to Växjö, they don’t have any SWEA networks to aid them,” says Erica. “The Swedish-American network is very special, Somalis don’t have that.”
A Somali man at the opening of Embrace, pointed to Kristina as his own, personal symbol for immigration. “She too was poor,” he exclaimed, somewhat astounded.
Lixuan mentions the importance of exchanging judgment for compassion.
“It’s so easy for us to be judgmental,” she says. “And being judgmental is natural, it’s hard for us all to go against that.”

We talk about the fact that the perception of Sweden in the U.S. is mostly good, even romantic. Swedes are generally well-liked.
“Being an immigrant in the U.S. has never been difficult,” I say. After all, I am an immigrant too, though I, like the Swedish artists, have chosen to come to the U.S. I have never received any help from my adopted country in any way in setting up my home, but I have certainly felt the embrace of the American people.
“It’s the reverse here,” says Lixuan. “Sweden is open and its politics generous but there’s no embrace from the people. It’s hard to engage the single Swede.”
When I use the pronoun “we” to describe Swedes, Erica corrects me.
“The collective ‘we’ in Sweden is different today. ‘We’ aren’t blue-eyed, blond and Christian anymore,” she says. “We have to be open enough to have conversations about burkhas (the long garment covering the whole body, worn by many Moslem women in public), for instance.”
The women agree that generalizing gives way to prejudice. Saying that “Swedes are this way or that way, and Somalis are this way or that way,” won’t lead anywhere. They also agree that there needs to be more sustainable changes in the Swedish society, for immigrants to properly integrate.

But Embrace is a big step. It’s more than an art exhibition. Embrace also features workshops, films, discussions and much more. It will also extend beyond Utvandrarnas Hus in Växjö and open in Alvesta (on September 22) and in Ljungby (on October 1).
“Last night at the opening, we saw a lot of hope,” says Lixuan. “Embrace is a dream of a future society filled with tolerance and love.”
Erica, Lixuan and Pia hope to take Embrace on the road, first to other places in Sweden, but also, eventually, to the U.S. In order to do so, however, they need more funding. The exhibition in Småland will run through January 2012.
Eva Stenskär

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