Visual artist Liisa-Irmelen Liwata: What if one’s cultural identity was in motion, rather than bound by strict categories?

Visual artist Liisa-Irmelen Liwata: What if one’s cultural identity was in motion, rather than bound by strict categories?

Liisa-Irmelen Liwata is a Finnish-Congolese visual artist based in Helsinki. Her work Three-poled compass will be featured in Perceive sea, dunes, mountains in move exhibition at 198 Contemporary Arts and Learning in London. We interviewed Liisa-Irmelen about her artistic practice and the upcoming exhibition.

You have grown up in the intersection of several cultures. How has that affected your artistic practice?

In art making, my interest has been shaped by the relationship that people have with land, which I have approached from a nationalist and ecological perspective. Ideas revolving around nationalistic themes, such as the narrow perception of Finnishness in the world around us, have influenced my work. French is also an important part of my life, as I speak it with my Congolese family from my father’s side. These things have made me reflect on my feelings and how they affect, for example, my own experience of citizenship. Through this, I have also started to think more broadly about issues of national identity, for example, how the national borders marked on a map determine a lot of how people talk about nationality. Borders also make me question people’s desire to own land, and how this desire for ownership affects our relationship with nature.

You mainly work with ceramics. What made you choose this material as a basis for your works?

In the beginning of my working process I spend a lot of time on reflecting and writing.  I have noticed that often after this period of reflecting and writing I long for hands-on work. Here, ceramics have served as a meaningful counterbalance, to which I have often returned to. I am also fascinated by the different possibilities that ceramics offer and the fact that it combines many forms of visual arts, such as painting, drawing and sculpture. I also try to keep the process of making art as meaningful as possible for myself. For me, the process has to involve things that I just feel like doing, and I don’t need to justify those choices. But as my thoughts have evolved, I have noticed a link between the materiality of the clay and the themes it addresses, which I’d like to explore further.

‘Perceive sea, dunes, mountains in move’ exhibition features your work ‘Three-poled compass’ which consists of ceramic tiles. Where did you get the inspiration for the work? 

The work combines the themes I mentioned earlier. In ‘Three-poled compass’, I have reflected on my own national identity, which is influenced by Finland, Congo and the French language. The artwork is also influenced by word games of the Finnish language. For example, the word ‘napa’  (‘pole’ in English) refers to the body (navel) and geography, and also means centre or core in Finnish language, and the word ‘maa’ (‘land’ in English) means soil and states. This is combined with ceramics as a material, and the associations that come with it.

Gloria Anzaldúa‘s borderland theory has also had a huge influence on my thinking. Instead of cultural identity being rigidly categorised into something, what if it was fluid and in motion, and what would borders that were flexible and overlapping look like? Through these themes, I have been exploring one’s position in the world and how to navigate in it.

What was the most challenging part of creating ‘Three-poled compass’ for you? How about the most rewarding?

During the working process, I thought a lot about how and how much I wanted the work to communicate my ideas to the world outside, and how clear or abstract I wanted the work to visually be. Balancing out these questions brought interesting challenges to the process. Technically, the most challenging part was getting the ceramic tiles to stay intact in the pottery kiln, as I used the wrong type of clay in the beginning and made the tiles too thick, which caused them to break. The most rewarding part of creating the artwork was going through the whole process.

This is your second exhibition outside Finland.  How do you feel about bringing your work to London?

Very inspiring! I’m excited about London in general, and the gallery. It’s wonderful to bring these themes to this gallery, which is a very multicultural and a community-based space.

What have you got in the pipeline after the exhibition?

My next step is the University of the Arts Helsinki’s master’s exhibition, which will take place in the spring of 2024. In two years’ time I will have a solo exhibition at HAM Gallery in Helsinki.


Artist bio

Liisa-Irmelen Liwata (b. 1998) is a Finnish-Congolese visual artist based in Helsinki, Finland. In her works Liwata discusses the connections between body, land and language. As a person who has grown up at the intersection of several cultures, she is interested to explore that point where one’s being is interlaced.

She works with ceramics in a painterly way, so that the images are created on the clay surface by pressing and sliding different coloured clays. In it, the layered rolling of shapes is a combination of printmaking, collage work and finger painting. What fascinates her about the technique is that it places ceramic art in a wider context, expressing the versatility and potential of ceramics as a material in the middle ground between painting and sculpture.

Liwata is currently studying at the Finnish Academy of Fine Arts in the department of time and space. She has graduated with a BA from Aalto University School of Art, Design, and Architecture in 2019, including studies at Design Academy Eindhoven in the Netherlands.

Perceive sea, dunes, mountains in move exhibition is on from 13 October to 3 December 2023 at 198 Contemporary Arts and Learning in London. For more info about the exhibition, please click here!

Liisa-Irmelen Liwata’s solo exhibition at HAM Gallery will take place from 12 July 2025 to 7 September 2025.

Interview by Annika Pellonpää, photo by Tuure Leppänen

What’s On