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Dina Kantor: Finnish and Jewish – 20th annual Contemporary Finnish American Artist Series

Photography by Dina KantorHANCOCK, MI – The Finlandia University Gallery’s 20th annual Contemporary Finnish American Artist Series features an exhibit of photographs by New York artist Dina Kantor. The exhibit, “Finnish and Jewish,” is featured December 2, 2010, to January 14, 2011. The Finlandia University Gallery is in the Finnish American Heritage Center, Hancock.

An opening reception will take place at the gallery Thursday, December 2, 7:00 to 8:30 p.m. Kantor will speak at 7:15 p.m. The reception is free and open to the public. Refreshments will be served.

How does Judaism survive in a country where there are only two synagogues? In a nation of 5.3 million people, how do 1,500 Jews maintain their cultural identity? Kantor explores these questions in a series of photographs documenting the lives, work, and religious traditions of the small Jewish community in Finland.

Kantor’s photographs investigate the construction of identity and community in today’s complex and multi-cultural world.

This project developed as Kantor began thinking about how her Jewish and Finnish heritage affected her identity and sense of belonging. Kantor’s mother, born in Finland, moved to Minnesota as a child in 1947.  Her mother converted to Judaism when she married Kantor’s father thirty years later.

“I spent a period of time looking into my mother’s history,” Kantor explains. “I photographed all the houses she had lived in over the years, and sifted through her old family photographs. I scanned images of her playing on stilts in front of one house, and the passport photo that she had taken when she arrived at Ellis Island.”

Photography by Dina Kantor“As I struggled with those images, I began to think of how my siblings and I were a combination of my parents, and I sought out other families that were the same,” Kantor continues. “I was able to find one other family with a Jewish father and Finnish mother in Minneapolis, and one family in New York. Then I got stuck. So I decided to move on to the community in Finland.”

In 2006 Kantor travelled to Finland and began her “Finnish and Jewish” project by writing a letter to a Jewish community leader in Helsinki. The letter was published in a Jewish community newsletter and as people learned of Kantor’s project, her opportunities to photograph people increased.  To date she has photographed approximately 300 Jewish people in Finland.

“One of the things that interests me about making this work is that I straddle the line between being an insider and an outsider,” Kantor notes. “I didn’t know anyone in the community before I began photographing. But because we share common cultural characteristics, we were able to talk as if we had known each other for a long time, and it felt like I was part of the community.”

Influenced by Dutch photographer Rineke Dijkstra, Kantor’s first approach was to photograph people against a neutral backdrop.  She soon discovered, however, that she was missing the personal details and cultural signifiers that she believes are important to reading a photograph.

“I think the images that I make are as much about the environment as they are about the individual,” Kantor says.  “Finnish design is very striking. I’m drawn to colors, pattern and light, and to personal objects like snapshots and artwork. I’m interested in the similarities and differences in the homes throughout the community.”

Kantor will work with Finlandia University International School of Art & Design students December 2 to 4. Her advice to students is to create art that they feel passionate about.

The artist Dina Kantor“Use your camera to explore things that truly interest you,” she advises. “Don’t worry about the technical things or the art market. All of that will work itself out in time. Enjoy yourself and the act of looking. I think it is evident in people’s work when they love what they are doing, so be selfish. If you make something that you genuinely love making, it will be much more compelling than if you make something that you think other people want you to make.”

Kantor received a bachelor of arts in journalism and mass communication at the University of Minnesota and a master of fine arts at the School of Visual Arts, New York City.  She was finalist for a Honickman Book Prize, and her work has been supported by Finlandia Foundation and Finnish Cultural Foundation grants.

“Finnish and Jewish” is on display at the Finlandia University Gallery through January 14, 2011.

The Finlandia University Gallery is in the Finnish American Heritage Center, 435 Quincy Street, Hancock. Gallery hours are Monday to Friday 8:00 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.; Thursday, 8:00 a.m. to 7:00 p.m.; Saturday 12:00 to 4:00 p.m.; or by appointment. Please call 906-487-7500 for more information.

Photo cutlines:

Photo 1: The artist, Dina Kantor

Photo 2: Heli, Helsinki, Finnish and Jewish series, Digital C- Print, 2007,  25.75″ x 30″

Photo 3: Andre, Helsinki, Finnish and Jewish series, Digital C- Print, 2007,  25.75″ x 30″