“I knew, already as a child, that language itself is used as a barrier to keep people outside of Swedishness.”
Meira Ahmemulic grew up in the million program*. Her artistic practice mostly deals with the issues around language and how much it matters in relation to class, race and immigration. For the project Legacy the artist started to work with Stoeryd, a Tranås neighborhood which was created for the Million program.
Can you explain a bit about your interest in languages in general?
If I can start from very early ages I can say I grew up in a multilingual family in which people mostly had Swedish as a second language. My parents were very strict about not speaking Swedish at home. My father always says I learnt speaking Swedish with the help of television. My father never really spoke Swedish with us. When I tried speaking Swedish he often pretended he didn’t understand what I was saying. I guess he thought that if I spoke Swedish I’d forget my mother tongue.
I am born in Sweden, but when I started school I had to go to classes with children who have Swedish as a second language. I was there for some time before they moved me to a Swedish speaking class - since Swedish is my first language.
Later there was the war in ex-Yugoslavia and lots of members of my family fled and came to Sweden. Soon they started learning Swedish. I think I was aware very early, all kids are aware very early I think, how our family was treated by Swedish society because they have a different accent or they make a few grammatical mistakes. I knew, already as a kid, that language itself is used as a barrier to keep people outside of Swedish-ness. I think that’s where the awareness started.
So how did you start to use language issue in your work?
Actually that happened very late. And there are many reasons for that, one has to do with the art academy (I studied before when the Swedish Democrats were in government), at that time “we didn’t have any racism in Sweden” (smiles). We couldn’t talk about these issues, it was not possible for me to do in that environment. It took long before I addressed these problems in my work. Of course I was still exploring languages but through different formats like graffiti writing for example.
So it started with you being interested in text?
Yes, it definitely started with writing. I think the theme was always there but not as clear as it is now. When I think about language I also think about how it relates to class, racism etc. My work often starts with personal experience, but I don’t think of it as autobiographical.
Was it because you are discussing such topics as segregation, class, racism in your work that made you explore the Million program?
I grew up in the Million program. First in Halmstad which is a bit bigger than Stoeryd in Tranås. But not that big when compared to the neighborhoods in Gothenburg where we moved when I was six years old. We lived in different million programs, Angered, Biskopsgården, Bergsjön and Andersberg. I grew up mainly in Gårdsten in Angered. Most people living in Gothenburg have never been there but there’s this idea that it is a suburb consisting of concrete, when in fact most of these areas, just like Stoeryd in Tranås, are planned in relation to nature, forests and lakes. I mean, Stoeryd is a fantastic neighborhood to grow up in. In between buildings there are huge spaces where children can play, there are parks, here there is even a swimming pool and no cars are allowed. Even so the architecture is very often described as a failure. It seems as if there is no alternative way to talk about these neighborhoods. But it’s a big misconception that includes a lot of things.
I was researching about Stoeryd in Tranas, the only thing that is written about it, is written by someone from Stockholm who lived here for a few years and then moved back. A person that obviously carries with her a vocabulary from a big city. There is this generalization about such neighbourhoods when people often discuss it as if it can’t have its own specific qualities.
* The Million programme (Swedish: Miljonprogrammet) is the common name for an ambitious public housing programme implemented in Sweden between 1965 and 1974 by the governing Swedish Social Democratic Party to make sure everyone could have a home at a reasonable price. The aim was to construct a million new dwellings during the programme's ten-year period. At the time, the Million Programme was the most ambitious building programme in the world to build one million new homes in a nation with a population of eight million. Wikipedia "