Company:   Moderna Museet Stockholm
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Today, Sweden is a model of social equality. But it hasn’t always been so.

Universal suffrage was not established until 1921. In the medical, legal and teaching professions, women were generally excluded until after WWII. The first woman minister in the Church of Sweden was not ordained until 1960. The arena of politics was clearly reserved for men. Women often found themselves unwelcome as professionals in the performing and visual arts.

Misogyny permeated all areas of Swedish society when Siri Derkert was born in 1888. Her family was of the working class and struggled to make ends meet. At the age of twenty-three, she began studying at the Royal Swedish Academy of Arts. Like many other artists of the time, the Avant-garde and Cubist movements in Paris attracted her attention. In 1913 she settled in Paris to continue studying and working as an artist for the next several years.

Her years as part of the Parisian Avant-garde were very formative. They nourished her artistic abilities as well as her radical political philosophy. At the core of her worldview was a strong dedication to feminism.

Bringing the Avant-garde to Swedish Art and Politics

Moving back to Sweden, Siri Derkert became a champion of women’s rights as well as one of the important contributors to modernism in Swedish art. Her Cubist paintings are renowned even today. She often contributed to social debates in the media. These were monumental feats, considering the devotion she had to her children and the burden she shouldered as their primary caregiver.

Siri Derkert’s art is known for its highly personal and expressionistic style. Thanks to her continued work during two World Wars, she attained an unusually prominent position in Swedish cultural circles. In the 1940’s and 1950’s she was part of a curriculum that brought her together with other Swedish feminist pioneers of the time; Emilia Fogelclou, Elin Wagner and Elise Ottesen-Jensen.

These members of Sweden’s cultural elite shared Siri’s revolutionary thinking. She envisioned a society where neither men nor women were favored because of their gender. Rather, both were welcome to contribute to society in a spirit of mutual respect.

Public Art as a Means to Social Reform

With time, she became known for her radical thoughts and sharp tongue. Yet, Siri Derkert’s most profound legacy is perhaps her monumental contribution to Swedish public art.

After WWII she won several competitions. Her first commission was to create the so-called ”Women’s Column” at the Central Station of Stockholm’s subway. Here she used a new technique of drawing in wet concrete.

In 1962 she was chosen to represent Sweden in the newly opened Nordic Pavilion at the Venice Biennale Arts Exposition. One of the highest recognitions an artist could be given at that time.

”Where Are the Birds Singing?”

Part of Siri Derkert’s social vision also included respecting nature and the fragility of our eco-systems.

In the mid-60’s she designed a large, woven tapestry for the City Hall of Hoganas. Entitled ”Where Are the Birds Singing?” this work was finished in 1967. It is a beautiful, moving and eloquent warning of DDT’s destruction of life, echoing the prophecies of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring.

Siri Derkert’s artistic integrity and dedication to social equality, helped turn the wheels of progress in Sweden. The birds are singing in Sweden. They sing of a more just society – a hopeful model of human rights for one and all.