Finnish religious group shuns youth arts program due to convictions

Eighth graders from Hämeenlinna, southern Finland, take part in a theatre performance as part of the cultural appreciation program. (Tiina Kokko/Yle)
Pupils in northern Finland are choosing not to attend cultural performances that they find disturbing on religious grounds.

The events are part of a national enrichment project launched in late 2017 that introduces year eight pupils to different cultural offerings like art exhibitions, plays, concerts and opera – one close to home and another in the capital city area.

In some cases, students’ parents are the ones who feel that the cultural experience in question is inappropriate, and they forbid their children from participating.

The Art Testers (Taidetestaajat) project is the largest cultural initiative directed at young people in Finland’s history. Organised by the Finnish Cultural Foundation, the project aims to provide some 200,000 14 and 15 year-olds with an opportunity to experience culture to which they might not otherwise have access.

When religion and education are opposed

The fact that some students in northern Finland have found some aspects of the programme objectionable on religious grounds has caused coordinators to take this possibility into consideration in the selection of events it makes available to the kids. Finland’s National Education Agency says the principle is that all of the students participate, in line with the core curriculum.

Compania Kaari & Roni Martin’s production of ‘Kill Carmen’ that featured flamenco dancing and questioned traditional gender roles was one of the performances some of the teens in the city of Ylivieskä were asked to see as part of the Art Testers project. Local event organiser Anne Pelttari noticed that many of the school groups that were supposed to attend didn’t show up. She says that this area of Finland has long had problems pairing religious convictions with cultural education.

“There was a lot of bared skin in the dance performance and this caused some discussion about the appropriateness of the show,” Pelttari said.

What is Laestadianism?

Laestadianism is a conservative Lutheran revival movement that started in Lapland in the mid-19th century, and is currently the biggest revivalist movement in the Nordic countries. About 90,000 conservative Laestadians live in Finland, according to figures from 2016.

Olli Lohi, communication director for the conservative Laestadian organisation, the Central Association of the Finnish Associations of Peace (SRK) told Yle in an email that the Art Testers project has been perceived to confuse teens in their community.

“One of the exercises asked them to modify a photo of themselves so they would look like they represented a different gender. This kind of talk and exercise was experienced as very unpleasant, as it destabilised the pupils’ self-image and gender identity,” he said.

Lohi said that the workshop in question took place at the Kiasma Contemporary Art Museum in Helsinki.

Classical music OK

He says that Laestadians do not traditionally attend operas either, as they have such a dramatic effect on people’s thoughts on certain issues.

“Many operas present themes like forbidden love, betrayal and scheming, and justifications for violence. These are in direct contrast to our teachings and principles. They create internal contradictions,” he says.

A cultural diversion that the conservative Laestadians in Finland do not have a problem with is classical music, and for this reason the Art Testers team has made sure that classical concerts are on the roster for the teens every year until the project ends in 2020. Next year, an orchestra is even being sent to Northern Ostrobothnia for a series of performances.

Anne Pelttari says that the Art Testers team, in an effort to make the project democratic, has tried to ensure the selection of cultural events is appealing to as many pupils as possible.

Related stories from around the North:

Canada: Canadian government invests over $35M to preserve Indigenous languages in the North, Radio Canada International

Finland: National Sámi Day celebrated across several nations, Yle News

Norway: Arctic Indigenous Film Fund launches in Norway, Radio Canada International

Russia: Building new state governance in Russian Arctic, The Independent Barents Observer

Sweden:  Report: Stricter criteria for state support to religious communities in Sweden needed, Radio Sweden

United States: Presbyterian Church formally apologizes to Alaska native people for denouncing culture, Alaska Public Radio Network

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