Joel Karppanen’s exhibition, Alhaisolauluja (Common people songs), named after the collection of poems by Kössi Kaatra, published in 1922, studies the Finnish labour movement and the red City of Kemi. A fresh perspective into Finland’s political history and present opens up through the nation’s most left-wing city. Kemi’s red heritage, going back over 130 years and originating in the flourishing forest and paper industry, is still influential in the city, which is embraced by two factories and one mine.
In fact, leftism in Kemi is institutionalised and often sincere as well because there is a workers’ association for all hobbies from a chess club to sailing. At the same time, the question arises whether it is a question of keeping up the appearances, based on a yearning for a time when the relationship between work and capital was strong. Things are done and repeated due to tradition.
Kemi is remembered for the events on 18 August 1949, known as the “Blood Thursday”, when two people, Felix Pietilä and Anni Kontiokangas, died in a clash between the police and demonstrators. It took 67 years before the next incident of political violence claimed a victim in Finland. In 2016, Jimi Karttunen died from injuries he sustained when a neo-Nazi assaulted him at Helsinki Railway Square.
In his new series of works, ‘Alhaisolauluja’, Karppanen continues to describe ordinary people and the social scenery. The exhibition consists of a documentary series of photographs taken over a three-year period, a diptych of Polaroid pictures and text, and a video installation. The experimental 12-minute work of art, lending its name to the exhibition, is an essay film of the collective memory, traumas and dreams of the working class. Led by a Kemi-based working class choir, Ajan laulu (Song of the Time), it takes viewers on a journey through May Day marches and labour law battles, lending imagery from films, including those by Aki Kaurismäki, Sergei Eisenstein, Mikko Niskanen and Charlie Chaplin.
Karppanen has received recognition, including the New Photo Journalist Award and Young Hero Grant by the Jouko Lehtola Foundation in 2017. In spring 2019, he had his first museum solo show at the Aine Art Museum in Tornio. Furthermore, his works have been exhibited in various solo and group exhibitions in London, Helsinki, Vienna and Bratislava, among others. Karppanen’s works can be found in various public and private collections. His first work, the photographic art book ‘Finnish Pastoral’ was published in the Musta Taide book series in 2018.