Mysterious Landscape by Tove Jansson
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What do Moomins have to do with the horrors of war?

Finnish artist Tove Jansson was far more than just her children’s books, as this retrospective at Dulwich Picture Gallery shows.

Moominvalley, with its snow-covered mountains, lush greenery and friendly, peace-loving creatures seems as far as one can get from the horrors of war. But the Moomins have more to do with strife and struggle than is immediately apparent. Their creator, Tove Jansson (1914-2001), was a political cartoonist from the age of 15, skewering fascism and communism during the Second World War. She channelled the wartime pain of her native Finland into her apocalyptic first book, The Moomins and the Great Flood (1945), a reminder that however calm things may seem on the surface, life can be both frightening and unpredictable.

In Dulwich Picture Gallery’s retrospective of Jansson’s work there is no escaping the cuddly trolls who brought her worldwide fame. Born in Helsinki to Swedish-speaking artist parents, Jansson saw herself primarily as a painter, taking on illustration work for the money. As the Moomins took off, popularised by a daily comic strip in London’s Evening News, Jansson became overwhelmed by their success.

Her brother Lars eventually took over drawing the comics, allowing her to concentrate on painting and writing novels and short stories for adults. But she remained fiercely protective of the Moomin brand, turning down an offer from Disney to buy the rights and only lending its image to causes that were important to her, such as a poster for Amnesty International showing the characters trapped behind bars like political prisoners.

What is clear from this exhibition is the breadth of Jansson’s talent. She worked with bold typography and bright colours on the cover of Garm, a Finnish satirical magazine in which she openly mocked Hitler and Stalin, drawing little characters called “Snorks” next to her signature. (The later name “Moomintroll” came from a tale Jansson’s uncle made up to scare her as a child.)  As Jansson grew as a painter she began to create impressionistic seascapes, the colours blurring into one another, a sharp contrast to her intricate illustrations. But the themes that run through all of her work are instantly recognisable; a connection with nature – and water in particular – is always present.

A biography inside old Puffin editions of the Moomin stories said Jansson lived alone on a small island in the Gulf of Finland. The truth was she stayed in her remote summer home with her partner Tuulikki Pietilä, a graphic artist and professor whom she had met in 1955, but the women’s relationship was often glossed over. Being gay was illegal in Finland until 1971, and only declassified as an illness in 1981. Jansson herself, however, defied labels, according to her niece Sophia: “It wasn’t gender that mattered to Tove, it was the individual.”

Jansson’s early self-portraits show a confident, self-assured woman, wrapped in a lynx boa or smoking a cigarette. The spectre of war that lurks within much of her work is made explicit in Family (1942), which shows her with her siblings and parents around an ominous red and white chess set. Jansson herself is clad in black mourning dress, and one brother wears a military uniform.

While her paintings were well-received in Finland, after a solo show in 1955 an influential critic concluded that they would fail to make an impression internationally. This must have left Jansson demoralised as she struggled to balance her time between different projects. She provided the illustrations for the Swedish-language editions of Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and The Hunting of the Snark, as well as JRR Tolkein’s The Hobbit. Although these differ in style to the Moomin books, her signature is clearly there – in the ominous landscapes, dark caves and bright moonlit skies, as well as the soulful eyes of the characters.

Lynx Boa, Self-Portrait (1974)

In the exhibition, illustrations from one of Jansson’s lesser-known Moomin books, The Dangerous Journey, are a highlight. They tell the story of a girl called Susanna who explores a nightmarish world, creating a lavish, colourful universe where danger lurks around every corner; sugary pink skies contrast with erupting volcanoes and dark shapes hide in the forest. Susanna is a tiny, blonde, bespectacled figure – said to look like a young Sophia – but she shows courage in the face of the scariest monsters.

Jansson’s admiration for strong women is clear. One of her final paintings, Print Maker (1975), depicts Pietilä hard at work in her studio, a proud artist surrounded by her creations. Jansson’s last self-portrait, painted at 64, shows her with a pained face and her eyes ringed with red, but the look of controlled defiance is still there. The Moomin books feature plenty of complicated female characters, from the calm and gentle Moominmamma to the spiky Little My – who resembles Jansson herself. She also paid homage to the real women in her life: Pietilä appears as a character called Too-Ticky, while the inseparable Thingumy and Bob represent Jansson and Vivica Bandler, a married theatre director whom she met and fell in love with in 1946.

Since Jansson’s death, the Moomin empire has continued to grow: a Moomin theme park is being built in Japan, and a new TV series is being recorded with a voice cast including Rosamund Pike, Kate Winslet, Richard Ayoade and Will Self. At the age of 80 Jansson said that while her life had been colourful, she would do everything differently given another chance. A world without Moomins, though, would be a meaner place; we need Jansson’s creatures to remind us that not all trolls are bad.

“Tove Jansson” runs until 28 January 2018

Lizzie Palmer is the New Statesman's deputy head of production.

This article first appeared in the 22 November 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Europe: the new disorder

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Othering, micro-aggressions and subtle prejudice: growing up black and British

Afua Hirsch’s memoir Brit(ish) adds a new chapter to the body of work on race in the UK

As every economic or political immigrant knows, the real enigma of arrival is to look in two directions. Immigrants gaze back at the homelands and family they have left behind; and they look anxiously at the customs, language and laws of the country they have adopted. Making sense of both can take a lifetime.

Afua Hirsch, the author of Brit(ish), who has worked at Sky News and the Guardian, was born in Norway to a British father and Ghanaian mother and grew up in prosperous Wimbledon, south-west London. She studied Philosophy, Politics and Economics at Oxford before graduating in law. Her experience of violent racism seems to be limited, but she writes of the cumulative toll of regular infractions while studying and working as a lawyer and journalist, described as acts of “othering”, “micro-aggressions” and “subtle prejudice”.

Of visiting a shop near her home, she writes: “The harshest lessons came in my late teens, visiting my best friend at work at a boutique in Wimbledon Village. The manager told her I could not come in. ‘It’s off-putting to the other customers,’ she said, ‘and the black girls are thieves. Tell her she’s not welcome.’” On another occasion, a man on the Underground threatened to beat Hirsch with his belt because “you people are out of control”. The incidents coincided with a growing curiosity about her mother’s homeland, which is common to many second-generation children. Hirsch first visited Accra with her mother in 1995: “I don’t think I had realised that there was a world in which black people could be in charge.” In the early 2000s, she worked for a development organisation and was based in Senegal for two years. A decade later, as recession and austerity gripped Europe, she returned to Accra as the Guardian’s West Africa correspondent.

Half a century ago, Hirsch would have been described as a “returnee”; in 2012, the changing nature of global wealth and identity saw the brief rise of a more assertive term, “Afropolitan”.

But Ghana failed to provide Hirsch with an enduring sense of arrival. “For someone like me, Britishness contains the threat of exclusion,” she writes. “An exclusion only made more sinister by discovering – after so many years of searching – that there is nowhere else to go.” Like Filipinos returning home after decades in the Arabian Gulf, Hirsch felt like a privileged outsider who ostensibly viewed a poor country from the safety of a guarded community.

This section of Brit(ish) provides some of the memoir’s most valuable insights. It also could have benefited from more detail; I would have liked to have learned if, like expat Indians who have returned to Mumbai or Bangalore over the last 20 years, Hirsch considered immersing herself in Ghana’s roaring economy by opening a business. She is currently collaborating on a clothing line inspired by Ghanaian culture.

In the end, personal safety prompted an abrupt withdrawal from Accra. Hirsch and her partner returned to the UK after they were attacked on a beach on the outskirts of the Ghanaian capital. In the harrowing incident, her earrings were ripped from her earlobes and her ring was stolen. The attack also marked an introduction to an under-resourced and inept justice system. On the day of the first court appearance of the assailants, Hirsch’s partner was asked to pick them up and drive them to the hearing.

The most interesting segments of the book aren’t those that dwell on racial theory; Hirsch has yet to coalesce her views on her British and Ghanaian heritage into a unified argument. That usually takes most writers a lifetime. Brit(ish) has more in common with memoirs by other immigrants and their children whose search for education and prosperity transitions to a longer quest for identity. ER Braithwaite, the author of To Sir, With Love, wrote about what it felt like to be a second-class citizen in the UK, despite decades of service to the education sector:

In spite of my years of residence in Britain, any service I might render the community in times of war or peace, any contribution I might make or wish to make, or any feeling of identity I might entertain towards Britain and the British, I – like all other coloured persons in Britain – am considered an “immigrant”.

Hirsch’s book is also less sure about how other immigrant groups view their British experience. For instance, she cites the return of present-day South Asians to the subcontinent as being partly due to racism, but a departing diaspora, resettling in India and Pakistan for reasons such as accumulated wealth or community, has been a fixture of British life since the 1950s. A more interesting detour would have seen an exploration of British Muslims, often wrongly charged with disloyalty to the UK by commentators such as Trevor Phillips, who selectively pick out the most extreme views on integration and religion.

Instead, the memoir offers clearer ideas on how the UK could do more to acknowledge its role in the slave trade and colonialism. In the book’s most searing sections, Hirsch rightly suggests there is more to be achieved in correcting Britain’s memorials to empire – those permanent exhibitions in museums, statues and plaques that fail to acknowledge the sins of colonialism.

For instance, for 300 years, every British monarch gave direct or indirect support to the transatlantic slave trade until it was abolished in 1833. Of the 12 million slaves abducted from Africa, 40 per cent were transported on British ships. We are told slavery was outlawed on humanitarian grounds in a campaign fought by abolitionists. In reality, an overproduction of sugar crops led to reduced profits.

In Capitalism and Slavery, published in 1944, Eric Williams, the first prime minister of Trinidad and Tobago, described the idea that slavery was abolished because of an appeal to humanitarian principles as “one of the greatest propaganda movements of all time”.

Hirsch argues these old ideas continue to hinder diversity. In 2013, only 23 students of black British African heritage were given paces to study at Oxford University. In 2016, one third of all people stopped by the police in England and Wales under “stop and search” laws were from ethnic minority backgrounds. Hirsch also highlights the worrying uptick in violence after the Brexit vote in June 2016. In the four months after the referendum, there was a 41 per cent increase in racially and religiously motivated crimes.

British public life is full of the talented children of Ghanaians who have written about racism and the push for acceptance, including rappers such as Tinchy Stryder, Dizzee Rascal and Sway. Just as Peter Fryer’s groundbreaking book, Staying Power: the History of Black People in Britain, did in 1984, Afua Hirsch’s memoir adds a new chapter to the body of work on race in the UK. As she writes, an island nation that has benefited from centuries of immigration should reframe the question it asks some of its citizens: “I can’t be British, can I, if British people keep asking me where I’m from?” 

Burhan Wazir is an editor at WikiTribune and former head of opinion at Al Jazeera. Afua Hirsch will appear at Cambridge Literary Festival, in association with the New Statesman, on Sunday 15th April.

Brit(ish): on Race, Identity and Belonging
Afua Hirsch
Jonathan Cape, 384pp, £16.99

This article first appeared in the 15 February 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The polite extremist