I walk past a bland housing estate and through a tidy shopping mall. There are no Turkish kebab shops or Indian curry houses; no Vietnamese mail parlours or black hair dressers. Why would an Immigration Museum be housed in this unremarkable part of Denmark? The town of Farum, a 30-minute train ride from Copenhagen, is clearly the back of beyond.
I find the Museum at the back of the community centre that also houses a library and a café. Fortunately, given that the labels are just in Danish, I am handed laminated sheets in English. But it is the temporary art display by Hannah Habibi that attracts my attention. A large bold tryptch of a woman in a black burka against a fierce red background. The woman clasps her hands to her ears, covers her eyes, the only visible part of her body, and puts her finger to her mouth, shushing me. This is Hannah’s work I Hear No Evil, See No Evil, Speak no Evil delivered in striking graphic style. But who is Hannah Habibi and how has her work turned up here in Farum?
I find the answer to only part of the question. Hannah Habibi Hopkins is a white British born artist who converted to Islam in her 20s and wears a hijab by choice. The very act of wearing traditional Muslim dress brought Hannah face to face with people’s views of Muslim women as being oppressed or powerless.
It was Hannah’s visits to a tiny Islamic centre in London’s Soho, known for its ‘risque’ night-life, that inspired her work, Illumination. Animated pink green and yellow neon lights trace the movements of a Muslim woman at prayer – standing, kneeling, bending.
For Hannah Islam is a part and parcel of modern society rather than a bastion for traditionalists. In Ban, Hannah cavorts in front of Paris landmarks in, not only the veil, but various masks and disguises, clearly critiquing France’s position on banning the burqa.
Other parts of the Museum are more traditional. There is a colourful section on food
and one on the religious faiths of Judaism, Islam and Christianity.
The people in some of the photographs are by now familiar – the well dressed, affluent Dutch in Amager.
There are black jazz musicians, the gypsies who were allowed to stay in Denmark by King Frederick V111 and Victor Cornelins who was sent from the Caribbean to ‘perform’ in the Tivoli pleasure gardens. Then I see another name I recognize, Jacob August Riis (1849 –1914). He was a journalist and social reformer in the slums of New York and thought of as one of the fathers of photography. I never knew he emigrated from Denmark.
I stand puzzled before images of women packed into sardine tins – trafficked women perhaps?
There are demonstrations with some people holding up the Danish flag in support of humanitarianism and of others burning a flag saying, ‘Danish People not Welcome Here.’
It is frustrating not to be able to read the text and my laminated sheets don’t seem to help. And what are these references to the ghetto – what is the history of the Jews in Denmark?
As I leave a coach load of pensioners arrive to visit the Museum followed by a group of school children. Some people obviously find their way to this back of beyond.
On the train back to Copenhagen I Google about Hannah Habib. Her work, as the Times says, is indeed, ‘thought provoking’ and, in the words of the Evening Standard, ‘timely’ too. But the representation of Muslim women, within an increasing Islamophobic context, and by a woman of a different ethnic and cultural background than many Muslim women, is a complex issue. I feel almost frustrated by the work’s stark but striking simplicity. I am intrigued by her conversion which is perhaps referenced by her integration of Muslim iconography and recognisable Western art styles and subjects.
I Google to find out more about Hannah. Some wonderful Alternative Page 3 images appear on my phone – a woman breastfeeding, a doctor in a white coat, a grandmother in a bikini and Botticelli with her flowing hair modestly covering her right breast. Here I am on more familiar ground and the feminism more clearly articulated. Has the Muslim faith given Hannah more freedom as a woman?
I Google to find more about Farum, still intrigued as to why the Immigration Museum of Denmark is in such an out of the way place. It reads, “over 50 different languages are spoken. The majority are Turks and people from the Middle-East. This has given Farum a large number of exciting shops and exotic food.” I obviously took the wrong route from the station. But even so. Why not in Copenhagen?
I have a meeting at Copenhagen station with a woman who researches and work in Danish museums. As we sip coffee she explains, “It was the previous Director of Farum Museum who made the decision to turn it into an Immigration Museum,” she said. “He felt very strongly about the issue.”
She felt the Museum’s work, including with migrant communities, had not been sufficiently recognized. Even sniffed at.
“At least they deal with religion,” she said urging me to visit the Jewish Museum before I left.
“You know in Denmark,” she added, “Church bells are allowed but not the Muslim call to prayer.”