Greif Alumni: Interview with Emma Sarpaniemi


We periodically invite our alumni, artists we have featured in the past, to share their new work and projects with us.

© Emma Sarpaniemi, from "Two Ways to Carry a Cauliflower", courtesy of the artist

Emma Sarpaniemi is a visual artist based in Helsinki, Finland. In her practice, Sarpaniemi investigates definitions of femininity through performative self-portraits. Self-portraiture is a playground for Sarpaniemi, where the artist aims to question certain patriarchal ideals of a female and to celebrate femininity without the boundaries defined by others. The world Sarpaniemi builds is blurred between her identity, reality, and imagination. Sarpaniemi has presented her work at The Finnish Museum of Photography, Wäinö Aaltonen Museum, The Finnish Institute in Stockholm, and Melkweg Expo Art Gallery in Amsterdam. Her series "Two Ways to Carry a Cauliflower" is currently on display as a solo show at the Photographic Centre Peri, Turku, Finland until the 26th of March. Our Community Manager caught up with Emma to ask her a few questions about her practice and the series.

Der Greif: Hi Emma! The first time we featured your work was in Guest Room: Nadine Wietlisbach in 2018. Can you tell us how your career has developed since then?

Emma: Hi! Yes, Nadine chose a picture from my self-portrait series Self-portrait as a Couple, (2017). I met her last year in Plat(t)form in Fotomuseum Winterthur and I found it beautiful that she recognized my work back then and now I was one of the nominated artists in Winterthur. That’s what I love about Guest Room, you can connect to people from the field without actually being in contact and perhaps years later find yourself working with them. But back to your question! I graduated from the Royal Academy of Art (KABK) The Hague in 2019. After my studies, I moved back to Helsinki and continued my graduation project called When the Sun goes down We see Lemons, (2019-). I had several solo exhibitions of the project and I attended group shows in Finland and abroad. While working on the project I did commissioned work for brands such as Marimekko. It was quite a lot to navigate several commissioned projects while trying to focus on developing my practice. Last year I decided to dedicate my time fully to art, which has been possible because of the working and production grants I have received.

Der Greif: Your imagery seems to exist at a crossroads between photography, art direction, costuming, and makeup artistry. Can you tell us about how this way of working developed?

Emma: It developed gradually. I was asked to style and do a set design for a commercial shoot in 2020 and at first, I was surprised they asked me since I was a photographer. After the job, I realized my strength in styling and set design and I started to build the world around my photography, combining all of them. Styling and set design give me room to play and a sense of freedom that is different to photography. Every week I research the flea markets near my apartment and I start to construct an image from an everyday life object or a toy, which sparks joy. I’m more in control of the whole setup if I do the styling and set design myself. Often I collaborate with make-up artists to expand my vision since that’s not my expertise. And I do want to highlight the fact that I love to collaborate with people although I have done most of the styling and set design myself lately. For example, together with a dear friend and artist Iiris Riihimäki, we did a shoot together in Amsterdam last autumn, where she painted clothes on me. The idea was to merge her strength from fine arts and my photography together.

Der Greif: Are there any photographers who inspire your work?

Emma: I mainly get inspired by painters such as Alice Neel and Georgia O’Keeffe and everyday life objects. Some photographers who I admire at the moment are Elsa & Johanna. They work as a duo and their self-portraiture and the characters they depict are visually strong and beautiful. But of course artists such as Wolfgang Tillmans, Cindy Sherman, Elina Brotherus, and Sarah Lucas have made an impact on my work.

© Emma Sarpaniemi, from "Two Ways to Carry a Cauliflower", courtesy of the artist

Der Greif: What is the most difficult part of self-portraiture for you?

Emma: The gaze is the most difficult part. I have to be in the right mood and sense the atmosphere, what I want to communicate with the gaze, and where to look. Although in my photographs the gaze is often relatively neutral it needs to be convincing and in a dialogue with the viewer. I like to play with the gaze too, to have different emotions such as in Self-Portrait as an Angry Blueberry Bunny, 2021 where I look a bit angry, or in Self-Portrait as Cindy, 2022 where I’m not looking into the camera. In my work, I see the gaze as the most vital part of my practice, although sometimes it can be intimidating.

Der Greif: In many of your images, the camera or shutter release cable can be seen. What does this compositional choice add to your imagery?

Emma: For me, it’s a symbol and gesture of power. I’m in control of the photograph in every way and no one else is in charge to decide how I look or behave. The release cable gives a clue to the viewer that I’m shooting analogue, which is an essential part of my practice.

Der Greif: Would you be able to expand on how your experience as a female-identifying individual influenced this series? In your project description, you express the need to address "the patriarchal ideals of femininity”.

Emma: In all of my projects, the starting point has been about creating space and viewing representation. The current series I’m working on Two Ways to Carry a Cauliflower touches the topic more through play. Most of the time, playfulness can be perceived as naivety in the case of a female artist, but in the project, I use it as a means of power. Through play, I see more possibilities for new ways of being and being affected in art and life. In my youth, I faced femininity very stereotypically by the norms set by society. When I was studying BA in photography at KABK, I had the urge to research and define femininity on my terms. The environment and people affected it a lot, which I feel thankful for. Performance is a big part of the work too since the character is performing for the camera and setting the rules herself. In my practice, I have the urge to have the freedom and power for creating a representation where I can play and feel comfortable.

Der Greif: How have viewers responded to your series "Two Ways to Carry a Cauliflower"?

Emma: I applied for several exhibitions and open calls when the project was still in progress and I was thankful for the response I got. Especially being selected as one of The Next Great Fashion Image Makers by Vogue Italia last year felt surreal. The snowball effect has started rolling and the project will travel for several festivals this spring and summer, which I’m super excited about. I’ve always dreamed of showing my work at international art festivals. My first solo exhibition of the project is on view at the Photographic Centre Peri in Kunsthalle Turku at the moment. In September I will have a solo show at Photography Gallery Hippolyte in Helsinki. In one year so many things have happened that I could only dream about and I feel very honored for each opportunity.

Der Greif: Can you speak about the process behind creating your exhibition at the Photographic Centre Peri at Kunsthalle Turku? Why did you decide to paint the gallery walls such bold colors?

Emma: For two years I’ve wanted to paint all the gallery walls in bright colors if the right space comes across. I was excited about the two spaces in Kunsthalle, and how to cooperate with them and create the feeling that it’s one big show even though the spaces are located on two different floors. I love primary colors and the choice of colors came from the photographs. I wanted to bring them into the gallery space to avoid the traditional white cube. All in all, I wanted the display to be playful so that the viewer can immediately dive into the character’s world. I was happy with the color choices and how they bring the photographs alive in the space.

Der Greif: Are you able to share with us what's next for your practice?

Emma: I’m planning to go back to school and do a Master of Fine Arts in Photography. I’ve had a good four-year gap to navigate on my own, finding new directions inside my practice and deepening my voice. I’ve learned a lot about making exhibitions, writing grant applications, etc. But I miss the community and the dialogue, which you get from school from your teachers and peers. I’m ready to deepen my practice and am curious to find new ways to expand my work in the future.