Patterns of the family

On Friday May 31st. At 18:00 an exhibition of Erla S. Haraldrdóttir’s exhibition “”Patterns of the Family” opens in Reykjanes Art Museum.

Erla S. grew up in Sweden and has been living in Berlin for over a decade.

In Reykjanes Art Museum Erla S. exhibits new works, paintings and lithograph prints inspired by family history and memories. She finds connections to her family-based works in abstract patterns created by the Ndbele people, patterns that Erla S. explored while staying in an artist residency in South Africa.

Alongside traditional paintings created by Erla S. students from the painting department of The Reykjavik School of Visual Arts have assisted in the creation of patterns that are  painted directly on the walls of the museum. The paintings Erla S. displays came into being partly because of her interest in getting to know her roots; her foremothers and female relatives. While Erla S. studies the cultural heritage of women from another continent, the artist reminds us that today we live in a world village where people with a different cultural background need to work together in a peaceful environment

The artist and curator will give a talk on the exhibition on June 15th at 14:00. The exhibition is open until August 18th the museum is open from 12-17 every day.

Who were your foremothers?

The works in Erla Sylvía’s exhibition are mostly paintings, inspired by old photographs. In her exhibition Family pattern, she works, in part with old photographs taken during a roughly forty year period. The earliest photographs in the collection were taken in 1910, with the latest ones from the mid 1950s. In the photos ladies from her family pose, wearing the Icelandic national costume. The background used in the works refers to a cultural heritage of women from South Africa, namely, Ndbele patterns, that are solely created by women.  Patterns that have taken on very few changes throughout time. Thereby the artist bases her work on the cultural worlds of women from very different places – far north and south are put in juxtaposition.

Other works by Erla Sylvía show patterns and images from the Íslenska teiknibókin (2013) a book that displays drawings used as models for embroidery patterns by Icelandic ladies in a bygone era. In these the subject embraced is the world of women; images of women, letters and drawings women used in their handicrafts.

Erla Sylvía has lived in Berlin for over a decade. She grew up in Sweden, where she studied art, along with her art studies in the United States. Throughout her carreer Erla Sylvía has spent time in art residencies at different locations in the world, including South Africa. The works on display were produced, in part because of Erla Sylvía‘s interest in looking at her roots; studying her foremothers and female relatives. Exploring the images, the viewer gets an opportunity to study the family likeness. Compare facial features, noses eyes etc. The South African patterns found in many of the works serve the purpose of introducing the cultural heritage of women from different continents. They also remind us that presently we belong to a world village where it is essential that different cultural spheres can work in unison. 

By showing images of her foremothers in Icelandic costumes Erla Sylvía refers to her origin. In images presented by travellers in Iceland from the 18th and 19th century one often sees ladies wearing costumes that are beautifully decorated with embroidery. During this time contact with the outside world increased, this had the effect that styles from abroad took over and the local style of clothing began to disappear. In the fight for independence it was essential to give the nation a sense of the national and the sublime. The idea being that this would lead to the self respect of the nation and an understanding that the Icelandic nation had a duty to gain independence. In order to spread the national pride women began wearing costumes strongly resembling clothes worn by their foremothers and thereby visibly took part in the fight for independence. Ever since that time the Icelandic national costume has remained the pride of Icelandic women and an important symbol of the national self-image.

Even though women were able to make their mark on the battle for independence, they were lagging behind men when it came to equality. In her essay (A room of one’s own, 1927) Virginia Woolf makes the claim that men and women have different value systems. Men look down on the value system honoured by women and consider their artistic work and the subjects that interest them to be inferior. She points out that many women devour this masculine attitude to women. Woolf’s writing was a contribution in the battle for equal rights of men and women, a battle that has since been broken down into waves. By the end of the sixties a second wave of feminism rose. At the forefront were women who considered the legal position (autonomy, the right to education and the right to vote), won during the first wave of feminism at the turn of the 20th century not enough. Women were being held down by their gender, and the roots of inequality lay in the construction of society – women were disrespected and invisible in society. An investigation into the contribution of women in society was needed, so that it could be made visible. This investigation included a study of women’s art and crafts, with a focus on feminine values. The outcome of the study showed a wide variety of works had fallen outside the art scene, methods such as textile, ceramics and various other decorative art forms, achieved their deserved platform. The slogan of the second wave was the personal is political and in keeping with that slogan the distinctive experience of women inspired the works of many female artists.

Over time the particular experience of women in the world has been accepted as a subject to be studied and valued. Certainly a lot of the source material used by Erla Sylvía would not have been valued by the art scene before the second wave of feminism.

Erla Sylvía’s use of colour is personal, and in her work she applies methods shared by other conceptual artists, such as instructions, when making her art. Her methods are not dissimilar to what the artist Yoko Ono puts forth in her book Grapefruit (1964), instructions for specific conceptual works. The game rules Erla Sylvía applies when creating figurative paintings are ambiguous, yet, they influence the final outcome on the canvas and the impact her works make on the viewer.

Guðrún Erla Geirsdóttir

Patterns of the Family: The Recent Paintings of Erla S. Haraldsdóttir

‘We are inclined to think that there must be something in common to all games, say, and this common property is the justification for applying the general term “game” to the various games; whereas games form a family the members of which have family likenesses. Some of them have the same nose, others the same eyebrows and others again the same way of walking; and these likenesses overlap.’ —Ludwig Wittgenstein, The Blue Book (1934)

The recent paintings of Erla S. Haraldsdóttir are concerned with the family. Based on a set of four photographs of her relatives, they are the latest addition to her artistic oeuvre, and if we take our cue from Wittgenstein, this series, like a group of relatives, bears resemblances to previous works authored by the Berlin-based Icelandic artist.

Haraldsdóttir has placed the emphasis on depictions of female members from the agnatic side of her family. The four paintings in the series are titled Þóranna alone, 1910; Þóranna, her mother and sisters, 1915; Sulla and Family, 1948; and Saumarklúbbur, 1956. The last painting deviates from the strict principle of the family portrait as it is based on a photograph of a sowing circle or women’s association. Sulla and Family, 1948 is based on a photograph taken in 1948 that shows five generations of the artist’s family posing for the camera. Sulla (the pet name for her grandmother) stands behind Haraldur, Erla’s father. To Sulla’s right stand her father Þorsteinn, and seated on the chair in front of him is his father Sigurður. Þóranna, her mother and sisters, 1915 is a double generational portrait in which the artist’s great-great-grandmother and great-grandmother are portrayed along with her older sisters. Þóranna alone, 1910 is a solo portrait of Erla’s great-grandmother as an adolescent.


These photographs from Haraldsdóttir’s private family archive are set against bold geometric patterns. The patterns are appropriated from the art of the Ndebele, a minority group of black women who paint their homes in the rural areas of South Africa in stark abstract patterns. During apartheid, many Ndebele women lived in precarious homesteads, working as seasonal labourers for white farm owners. Notwithstanding their daily hardship, they decorated the adobe walls of their dwellings out of a sense of pride and cultural expression.[1] The colours and designs with which Ndebele women embellished their homes echoed the beaded costumes and traditionalist dress worn by Ndebele painters.

In Haraldsdóttir’s work, the cruciform patterns borrowed from Ndebele culture enclose or frame the characters, as in the painting Þóranna alone, 1910. The linear and radiating motifs create a dynamic, almost comic-strip-like floor for the seated and standing women in Þóranna her mother and sisters, 1915. The same painting also features large-scale shapes mirroring architectural motifs that are common in many of the murals of Ndebele women. The band-like, compartmentalised meandering patterns in the background of the mid-section of the painting Sulla and Family, 1948 interplay with the heights, ages and poses of the five persons depicted in the image. A foreground of flowers before the family offsets the hard-edged abstraction that surrounds the relatives.


In the early days of photography, cameras were cumbersome, and the plates and chemicals used to record images were less light-sensitive than today’s devices. This meant that cameras had to be mounted on tripods so as to achieve the long exposure times needed to obtain a clear image. It was also preferable if the living subjects remained as still as possible so that their facial expressions were recorded without blurring. As a consequence, the task of taking pictures of oneself or one’s family were most frequently entrusted to studio photographers. Patterns of the Family shows a selection of pictures that span a forty-year period from 1910 to the late 1950s in which the photography industry made improvements in equipment and successfully developed a hobby and home snapshot market. In each of the paintings, we can see changes in the dress of the people in the frame. Saumarklúbbur, 1956 shows Icelandic women wearing the traditional Icelandic folk costume. The women are dressed in traditionalist costume harking back to the times when the majority of the populous of Iceland lived in turf houses. The sorority inclusive of mothers, daughters, cousins and friends is a proliferation of women who resemble in both appearance and costume the women depicted in Þóranna alone, 1910 and Þóranna, her mother and sisters, 1915. Sulla and Family, 1948 is the one painting in the series where the national folk costume of Iceland is not worn by the depicted: here, the family is dressed in modern western costume, and while the dress of the individuals is smart, it does not identify them as Scandinavian or, indeed, Icelandic. While the suits worn by the men and the dress worn by the only female in the picture look dated, they are not far removed from formal dress or conservative business attire of the present day.

The game of painting

Erla S. Haraldsdóttir is an artist who uses rules and instructions to generate artworks. These instructions may emanate from her colleagues when she works collaboratively[2], or from the artist herself. Because of these hidden rules, her approach to figurative painting aligns her with conceptual artists from the Oulipo movement to Yoko Ono, whose classic artist book Grapefruit provides instructions on how to make conceptual art. The rules are ‘hidden’ because in many ways the instructions behind the paintings are not apparent in the final result on the canvas. Patterns of the Family reiterates some but not all of the attributes of previous works by Haraldsdóttir. Ndebele patterns, which appeared in her work as early as 2012,[3] return as prominent backdrops to the family portraits. Photos from the family archive are further elements this series shares with Day Four from her series Genesis. Plant life, featuring prominently in Sulla and Family, 1948, also played an eminent role in previous works such as The Mangrove Tree and The Ocean and Sun. Patterns of the Family is a new and convincing addition to Haraldsdóttir’s work, which explores the complex structures of multi-generational Icelandic families in a novel way.  

Craniv Boyd

[1] See Margaret Courtney Clarke, Ndebele: Art of an African Tribe (New York: Rizzoli, 1985) and Wolfger Pöhlmann et al., amaNdebele: Signals of Color from South Africa (Berlin: Haus der Kulturen der Welt, 1991).

[2] For a collaborative project, see Erla S. Haraldsdóttir and Carin Ellberg, Difficulty of Freedom/Freedom of Difficulty by (Reykjavík: Crymogea, 2014). For an individual application of rules to create paintings, see Erla S. Haraldsdóttir, Make a Painting of Trees Growing in the Forest (Reykjavík: Crymogea, 2015). 

[3] See her contribution to the M.E.E.H. collaborative project as part of (I)ndependent People, Reykjavík Arts Festival, curated by Jonatan Habib Engqvist.