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Newly appointed Art History professor, Minna Valjakka: 'Art teaches us more than you may think'

On 1 January Minna Valjakka was appointed Professor of Contemporary Art History and Theory from a Global Perspective. Valjakka sees her appointment as 'extremely topical' because of the discussions about the decolonisation of the arts: 'Art teaches us not just about art, but also about contemporary issues and situations.'

She calls her new position a great opportunity to support and contribute to the debate on contemporary issues. 'The future is increasingly multicultural. And then there’s also the environmental crisis, the COVID-19 pandemic and social injustices,' she lists. 'These kinds of emergencies provide an opportunity for the contemporary arts to help build bridges. How we perceive the environmental crisis in the Central Europe, for example, differs from how people living near the Arctic view it.' By analysing art, these differences can be identified and understood, says Valjakka 

Collaborating for the future

In her new job at Leiden University, Valjakka hopes to take an interdisciplinary approach to such problems. 'I appreciate the interdisciplinary approach and expertise in so many areas of Leiden University. Therefore, I’m looking forward to seeing what kind of possible collaborations I could undertake with my new colleagues of different disciplines and at different institutions. I truly believe that we need interdisciplinary research to build the future,' she says.   

Influencing cultural values

In that line, she wants to help her students develop more skills than just knowledge about contemporary art. 'I hope to encourage critical thinking, open-mindedness and the ability to shift perspectives. I’ll encourage students to become more aware of the values, norms and ethics they have grown up with, so that from that basis they can understand how different cultures can have different perspectives,' says Valjakka. She emphasises that this is important in art history, because the way people interpret art is closely linked to their cultural values.   
For example, Valjakka noticed that as a Finn she was moved by art works that involve sounds of and words for melting ice and water by the Japanese artist Yoichi Kamimura.  It made her realise how much is at stake, even if it’s not immediately obvious to outsiders. 'We have all these different sounds  and words that describe snow and water. If in a few years’ time, there won’t be any ice, the words and sounds will slowly become meaningless and disappear for future generations.' Aware of her own perception of works of art, the professor hopes to impart this skill to her students as well: 'We have to be aware of different frameworks and perceptions in order to understand why a work of art can evoke different emotions in people, and that of course also applies to ourselves. I want my students to look beyond the West.'  

After completing her master's degree in East Asian Studies at the University of Helsinki, Valjakka completed a PhD in Art History at the same institution. She then won several research grants and fellowships, one of which was based at the Asia Research Institute of the National University of Singapore. Valjakka returned to Helsinki to work as a senior lecturer of Art History and as a research fellow of the Academia of Finland until December 2021.

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