Helinä Rautavaara


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1. To the world

MA Helinä Rautavaara made a career of documenting foreign cultures and religions. After graduating from the university, she travelled outside Europe as a reporter during the 1950s. Her travels to the Middle East and South Asia made these areas familiar to Finns through a series of colourful articles written for the Seura magazine. She also made her first radio and television programmes out of the material collected during these travels. Her subsequent travels added to her ever-increasing amount of photographs, super-8 films, audio recordings and videos.

Collecting material for a doctoral thesis, Helinä Rautavaara spent long periods of time in South America and North Africa. The thesis never got written, but Rautavaara did learn a lot about the places. In Finland, she became known for her personal knowledge of South America, the Caribbean and Africa; during her last years, also for a museum project under preparation. Rautavaara created a wide international network of contacts through her good public skills, all-round education and with the help of Finland’s politically neutral reputation. Artistic creativity was as important a tool for her as her knowledge of written sources.

The young reporter

In the summer 1948 Helinä Rautavaara participated in an international peace camp in Hässelby, near Stockholm in Sweden. She took a two-and-a-half week leave from her 16-hour dish washing days in a Stockholm restaurant to spend time with young people from as far as Brazil, USA and Vietnam. For the first part of the 1950s she continued to work as a dishwasher in Stockholm, where the newly-wed Rautavaara-Pelander couple resided together. That is where they also took off together to their travels in Europe, whether to an international teachers’ meeting in England or to hitchhike through France to Spain.

In the early 1950s, Helinä Rautavaara also worked as an airport hostess at the Malmi and Seutula airports. Later, when recalling her early days as a reporter, her foremost recollections were of the price and awkwardness of the 1950s camera equipment.

Helinä’s decision to travel to India through the Near East was an independent one: “I just thought that if the Silk Road has been around for thousands of years, there has to be some way through. - - - They had a great respect for individuals, I wouldn’t be afraid of anything there; I just wondered at the practical issues.” Her parents, on the other hand, considered the journey dangerous and did not understand their daughter’s attempt to understand non-European cultures: “You should always remember Kipling’s truth: East is East, and West is West, and never the twain shall meet”, the father wrote her daughter to Irak in January 1956.

2. Round the world

“I stopped asking questions” (Asia)

As “Thumbelina, the hitchhiking reporter”, Helinä Rautavaara travelled in Central and South Asia. She was highly impressed by the way in which the religious imagery familiar from temple art came alive during religious festivals. She commented her travels later on: “Only once I’d reached Ceylon did I start to immerse myself into culture and really see it. India was difficult; with all those amazing things, the conditions were still a shock to me.”

In 1991 Helinä Rautavaara made a short collection trip to Malaysia, Indonesia and Singapore. She had never visited this part of Asia before.

“I am working on my doctoral thesis” - Cycling to South America In 1958

Helinä Rautavaara received an ASLA-Fulbright stipend for postgraduate studies in psychology at Ann Arbor, Michigan. She began long-distance cycling in the United States. She also started dating Larry, a medical student from Chicago, but her desire to see the world overcame her intentions to settle down in another country.

Helinä Rautavaara decided to make a cycling tour through Mexico and Central America to South America. She got to know several artists and was invited by archaeologists to visit the famous Maya ruins. In southern Mexico she got to know Frans Blom, a Danish-born researcher who studied the Maya, whose home, known as Na Bolom, was already an international base for researchers in the field.

Once Rautavaara had reached South America, she had seen both the rituals of the native population living in the mountains and the folk dances of the coastal European-derived population. In Bolivia she heard heroic songs in praise of the guerrilla leader Chispas. She worked hard to reach this evasive hero, whom she finally caught up in the mountains of Tolima. She wrote her father an excited letter in which she told him that she had decided to write her thesis on guerrilla psyche. The article that Helinä Rautavaara finally wrote for Finnish newspaper publication brought down harsh criticism from her parents.

In Bolivia, Rautavaara got to make a program for the Bolivian national radio. What particularly impressed her in Bolivia were the saints’ days: “Every village has a different saint. You first find out where a catholic saint’s celebration is going to be held. They start the thing nine days in advance, so you’ve got to go there well in advance to see the full richness of the event. I went from one festival to the next, always trying to borrow recording equipment from someone.

” Helinä Rautavaara briefly re-visited Mexico and Central America in the early 1990s.

Brazil: dance and religion

On her first journey to Brazil in 1963-1964 (Rio de Janeiro, Bahía, Recife) Helinä Rautavaara was captivated by Candomblé rituals and the capoeira martial art. She started to collect material on Afro-Brazilian religions for her doctoral thesis in order to analyse them from the standpoint of individual psychology. During her second stay in Brazil (Sao Paolo, Bahía, Rio de Janeiro, Manaus), funded by a scholarship in 1970-1971, Rautavaara furthered her knowledge by taping ritual explanations on location and by filming various initiations with her new super-8 camera. She got access to places where the uninitiated were usually not allowed. A familiarity with Afro-Brazilian religions also awakened her interest towards Africa.

South of Sahara

In 1966 Helinä Rautavaara made her first trip to Africa, participating in the UNESCO cultural colloquium for Africa and Latin America. Afterwards, she continued her travels in the Republic of Benin (former Dahomey) and participated in the Premier Festival des Artes Nègres in Senegal. The festival was a meeting between various representatives and scholars of Latin America and Brazil, too, as well as artists promoting black consciousness, and Rautavaara told later that she learnt more about African culture than during her entire life up to that point. That is also where Rautavaara got to meet His Imperial Majesty Haile Selassie.

Rautavaara visited Eastern Africa in 1973-1974. She took a cheap tourist flight to Kenya in 1973, at the time of the nation’s 10-year anniversary, and returned through Uganda in February 1974. During her trip she met Idi Amin, for example, to whom she expressed her wish to learn about the country’s ancient kingdoms. Rautavaara got to travel among various tribes in Uganda, and to make recordings in various temples.

Rautavaara travelled to Ghana in 1976 and 1986. She travelled around the country, documenting the various rituals and festivals of various ethnic groups. During her travels, Rautavaara got the name Nana Akua Okomfo. “Nana” can signify either a mother, grandparent or even a chief. Okomfo refers to a priest or priestess.

In 1976 Helinä Rautavaara returned to Nigeria to study the origins of Brazilian religious influences. She had problems with getting interviews, but she photographed Nigerian material culture and made a number of purchases. In conjunction with the FESTAC77 festival held in Lagos, she also toured Nigeria’s Islamic north. Rautavaara held a photo exhibition in the Benin City University in 1988 and acquired several objects during her stay.

After 1984 Helinä Rautavaara returned to Senegal closer to a dozen times. She got acquainted with Senegalese Bayefallism well enough to make a pilgrimage to several sacred places of the Bayefall in 1991, whilst she was busy with a number of other projects. In 1989-90 Rautavaara made three brief visits to Egypt. On the first time she was introduced to a female sheikh in a Luxor temple, whose funeral she attended during her second visit.

Rautavaara was born short-sighted, but her eyesight deteriorated dramatically in 1974. She had just decided to continue her studies at the department of comparative religion, but could not go through with her book examinations. She did, however, continue to apply funds for her research, first on Brazilian and later Jamaican religion.

With the Rastafarians

Helinä Rautavaara was first introduced to the Rastafarian movement during her trips to London and New York in 1980. She later stated that she had been dragged into the movement because of her African interests. Her ability to move naturally amongst a variety of ethnic groups also brought her closer to the representatives of the black consciousness movement.

In 1981, Rautavaara spent six months in Jamaica in order to familiarise herself with Jamaican syncretistic religions. She got to know a number of local Rasta communities and reggae musicians. She photographed and taped Rastafarian rituals, such as the ceremonies held in honour of Haile Selassie’s 50th birthday. She participated in Bob Marley’s funeral on May 21st 1981 at the National Arena. Rautavaara was initiated into the Rastafarian religion, and she sought to make herself known as Ras Benjamin.

In 1991 Helinä Rautavaara made a short but consequential visit to Haiti and the Dominican Republic. The objects acquired during that visit formed the core of her first museum.

3. From the world

The collection

Helinä Rautavaara named her 400-volume library on Brazil as her first true collection. She often attached exotic stories to the objects she later acquired, even though the collection includes several antique objects bought from public auctions.

Rautavaara’s style of dressing in ethnic clothes and decorating her home in exotic styles was a reflection of both styles adopted from the 1960s to the 1990s and of her taste as a collector.

Rautavaara herself summed up her relationship to the collection with the following words: “I have never understood an object’s significance as an object, rather it has always been part of an entire culture, not to mention being part of a ritual associated with it.”

Activities in Finland

As a journalist, Helinä Rautavaara participated with a reporter from the Finnish Broadcasting Company to make one of the first television programmes produced in Finland. In the 1970s she received part of her income from making radio programmes. In addition, she gave numerous public lectures on Brazilian religions and Rastafarianism.

Life in Helsinki

Helinä Rautavaara’s home turned into a small meeting place for cultures. Since the 1960s, Rautavaara got to know several African diplomats, who also visited her home. She was introduced to researchers for example in the international summer conferences held at the University of Jyväskylä. In the 1970s Helinä Rautavaara’s home was also visited by a group of Kenyan athletes who participated in an international sports event held in Helsinki. Rautavaara was, furthermore, a member in twenty or so Finnish friendship societies, to which she often borrowed her photographic materials during various fairs and other events.

From collection to museum

In 1991 Helinä Rautavaara rented a former shop at Ruusulankatu 8, Helsinki, where she opened her first private museum. The collections she held at home had been accessible to visitors, but visiting groups had also access to the new exhibition rooms. The Baga-Zombie Museum displayed ritual objects that Rautavaara had brought back from her short trip to Haiti in 1990. In addition, there were Buddhist, Mexican and West African objects, and a wall-size glass painting made in 1885 by the Belgian glass artist Jean-Baptiste Capronnier.

The cataloguing of the objects began in 1991.

In 1995, Rautavaara rented more rooms for the Baga Zombie Museum from Ruusulankatu 11. Her aim was to guarantee the future of her collection, and after a drawn-out negotiation process, a foundation was founded in 1997 with representatives from the City of Espoo, the Finnish Anthropological Society, the University of Helsinki and the Finnish Museums Association. In 1998 the collection was relocated from Helinä Rautavaara’s private museums and home museums to Tapiola, where they found a new home in the newly-renovated WeeGee building. The organisation of the museum’s permanent collection reflects its founder’s vision, though the interior design was made by the architect Jouni Kaipia. The Helinä Rautavaara Museum was opened on June 16th 1998. The museum has been professionally managed from the beginning and receives part of its funding from the state.

It needs to be said that not everyone was pleased with the guidelines of Helinä Rautavaara’s collecting activities and their success. For example, the public display of cult and Voodoo objects made a well-known Espoo artist publicly accuse the Helinä Rautavaara object collection of connections to Satanic worship. Rautavaara herself thought that art inspired by the numerous religions of the world should be respected.

The current, renewed permanent exhibition of the Helinä Rautavaara Museum was opened in October 2006.