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Deconstructing Puman: a Half-Year Retrospective Interview With Sculptor Camilla Akraka

☞ AN UMEÅ TODAY SUNDAY MORNING FEATURE

CENTRUM – Some six months ago — before anyone had heard of COVID-19, before the Umeå winter had really set in, and before Puman had become a regular stop for tourists to the city — the MeToo monument, whose name as a statue is Listen, was inaugurated in front of the old city hall in front of hundreds of people. At the time, I met its artist, Camilla Akraka, over a table in Väven, and she told me that the cat was meant, symbolically, to protect and defend survivors of gender-based violence.

She said, at the time, that she had been getting messages from Umebor saying, for example, “thank you for this piece of art called Listen. It makes me feel stronger, every day“. “It’s a dream scenario,” Akraka told me, “if it helps somebody. In your mind, you can visualize and hope for that… but you have to concentrate on doing your artwork. But if it helps, you’re like… shoot!

Now, Umebor — and Akraka — have had half-a-year to process Listen, through a pandemic, the seemingly eternal snow of Norrland, and the slow but steady process of the roaring, red and gold cat on a pedestal becoming a symbol of the city. What have we learned? Akraka sent me her reflections from her studio in Stockholm.


ERIK CAMPANO In the half a year since Listen debuted, what sort of reactions have you gotten about it? From the general public? Art critics and media? Anyone else?

CAMILLA AKRAKA Except for everything that happened around the inauguration, no critic that I know of later reviewed the work. But I’ve gotten messages from here and there, and that’s exciting.

Most of the commentary has been positive. People say they like the design, and want to have the symbol at home, or carry it in some way, because it represents something that engages them. I’ve also come to hear about people going to the site, just to look at the piece. That’s interesting and cool.

When [viewers] take what I’ve done and “filter” it through their own system, the piece becomes, for me, broader. Others add something that I cannot add.

Camilla Akraka

It was around the inauguration that I also got negative commentary. It had to do with the art costing too much, people not liking how it looks, or that it is political.

CAMPANO Now that you’ve had six months to think about the sculpture — now that it has seen a winter and a spring — how have your feelings about it, and understanding of its meaning, changed? Have you visited it since it was inaugurated?

AKRAKA It was, in fact, other people’s reactions to the piece that created a dynamic for me. When they take what I’ve done and “filter” it through their own “system”, the piece becomes, for me, broader. Others add something that I cannot add, because they receive the piece in a personal way.

When I approach the concrete execution of the sculpture itself, I try to “become friends” with the sculptural challenges with which I had problems, formally, during creation of the work. I try to look at them and learn something instead.

Camila Akraka with the original Puman sculpture, before its installation. -C. Akraka

Has my understanding of the work’s meaning changed? Yes. This may sound very abstract, but it became clear to me that there are so tremendously many ways that people project things on to a work. And this sculpture has become a focal point in such a “state of things”, or surroundings. And even if a person, as the creator, can “load” a piece by trying to produce an expression or “emotion”, it feels as if, in this case, circulating projections are being loaded onto the work. Something is created out of this, almost like a “fluid” (“flytande”) image. This is extremely interesting, and the image is completely disconnected from me.

The new logotype for the Listen project. -C. Akraka

No, I have not been to the site since the inauguration.

CAMPANO In our last interview, you told me that Listen was intended to, symbolically, protect survivors of gender -based violence. Has it succeeded in that intention? Why or why not? 

AKRAKA First of all, I want to add that it should “bear” something around it. It should bear and draw from something very abstract: namely, a problem. The problem lies far away from this sculpture. The sculpture is maybe something like word, a meaning, or a language, and it is, indeed, people, and only people, who can take action. This can change. Maybe a word, or language, is a reminder of what you can do, of what is possible. And I hope that Listen can function as such a reminder. And of course, as a symbolic memorial, it can contain power. But all this is something that I cannot know myself: how it has succeeded, or not, and in which way.

Listen points to the inner strength that resides in each person.

Camilla Akraka

But when I think about what I said about the intention to protect or defend, this is primarily about a power. If everyone has the opportunity to constantly know about it, this can be beautiful, because then people themselves also possess a kind of protection. So, maybe it’s more that Listen points to the inner strength that resides in each person.

CAMPANO How does Listen speak to the coronavirus pandemic? For example, can its “protection” extend beyond gender-based violence survivors, and to people affected by the pandemic (who are, I suppose, all Umebor)? 

AKRAKA This question ties into the earlier ones. Of course, I can have the intention that a thing does something special. I can also wish that a symbol can, for example, give power and protection. And maybe, outside such a perspective, someone can “load” a piece, so that there is something is in its expression. When the work is finished, however, it is on its own, and positive things are set it motion, so people carry its meaning further. I hope that the work can function as a positive catalyst. But for whom or for what, I cannot control.

Erik Campano inside the “protective” symbolic prison bars of Puman’s pedestal. –H. Nordin

CAMPANO What’s next for your art? How does Listen inform you, as an artist, going forward?

AKRAKA The work means several things to me, as an artist, and I’m still trying to grasp what they are. Biggest for me has, undoubtedly, been the response, which in various ways has reached me, and the positive experience, of the work, that I have been made aware of, from different people. It makes my constant “fight” or struggle, in connection with the work, less important. Much of my energy during studio work was wound up in the problem that the piece was not good enough. Other people’s experience, in this context, shifts the focus a little. It is good.

Much of my energy during studio work was wound up in the problem that the piece was not good enough. … It is good.

Camilla Akraka

Because I’ve now received requests for them, I am now working on different works, related to Listen. This is fun but hard, because I am trying to understand what the intention of the work actually was. What contribution is it making? It takes time to understand this, so I am going slowly. But, somehow it feels as if all this needs to be done. For the new work, I have recast the sculpture, but now in plaster. It is a tough job, but we’ve been able to use 3D-scanning in order to, among other things, 3D-print it a smaller format.

Puman with gold leaf on top. – Alexandre Patachine

Otherwise, I’m creating artwork with my husband.

CAMPANO What should I have asked, but I didn’t?

I chose this language, to express myself through art, to be able to process, understand, or approach reality from a — for me — manageable place. And when I, in the context of Listen, come across people who express something, this happens outside that place. And so I put this manageable place into question — the protection, but at the same time the distance from “reality” that it represents. It is nourishing, to raise these questions.

Puman, from the view of the old city hall, under observation from passers-by. -H. Nordin

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