MECO360: Experiencing horse philosophy: recalling Kultivator’s ‘new horse cultures’ project with refugee women in Sweden

Laura Fisher | April 2017

In July 2016, I visited the island of Öland, on the east coast of Sweden, and spent 9 days with Kultivator. Kultivator is located on an organic cattle farm and was established by artists Malin Lindmark Vrijman and Mathieu Vrijman over ten years ago. A painted canvas in their house from an earlier project states that “we shall make art like farmers and farm like artists”, and this is perhaps the most concise way to convey their ethos. Over the years their land has been an evolving site of creative constructions, performances, education and experiments in ways of living.

Kultivator 2016. Photo: Laura Fisher. (Click to enlarge image).

Their place is a ramshackle collection of farm buildings that have been converted into living spaces, stables and workshops. The first thing you encounter as you leave the road is a fenced round pen with a sandy floor, with “Horses, Fuck Yeah” in wooden lettering around the railing.

Kultivator 2016. Photo: Laura Fisher

Kultivator 2016. Photo: Laura Fisher.

Kultivator 2016. Photo: Laura Fisher.

Upon my arrival, I was immediately involved in preparations for a party to mark Eid, the end of Ramadan, for members of Öland’s large population of refugees (as a holiday island, Öland has absorbed a substantial proportion of Sweden’s refugee intake from Syria and other places). Kultivator are playing a significant role in refugee ‘integration’ on Öland, to use the government’s phrase. In fact, their skills as socially engaged artists were being recognised by local and European authorities, and they were even being paid for their work (the only other organisation being proactive at the local level was the church…).

Kultivator 2016. Photo: Alireza Teimori

Many of Kultivator’s activities with refugee visitors revolved around a project called ‘new horse cultures’. Given the rich horse traditions of the Middle East, horses were an obvious point of connection between the refugees and the existing island community, which had an enduring recreational horse culture. Yet, as Malin observed: ‘you cannot really come to it, somehow, it is exclusive, like art… We have been opposing this eliteness of art ever since we started. I also wanted to oppose the eliteness of horse culture.’ Kultivator wanted to create ‘a new horse culture, this is also for people from other parts of the world, that here would not have access to the horse culture, or it’s for a guy like Matthieu that rides horses, “fuck yeah”, who likes something about it, but who is not correct in that horsey world sense of it.’

Malin sees her interactions with a horse as inherently poetic:

I think it’s a poetic essence and something very physical. The sensation of riding is… I was thinking of it yesterday, when I rode without a saddle. You sit there, the horse is walking, and your hips are moving. it’s like you’re walking, but when you get into it, after an hour or something, it’s my legs… It’s a bond… the horse has a mind that you’re also connected to. If it’s scared, or finds something uncomfortable, you’ll feel that when you move. And if you’re scared and uncomfortable, the horse will feel that, because they’re social…

Malin’s core project while I was there was a study group for refugee women which saw them visit once or twice a week over 4 months to groom, saddle and ride the horses, and practice speaking about horses using relevant Swedish words. As we pondered the relationship between women and horses, Malin raised something I’d never given thought to before: girl-focused visual culture portrays the horse relationship in terms of a love-saturated, cutesy femininity, which is perverse given that a horse is a hugely strong, and potentially very dangerous animal to be around. The horse demands a kind of strength from a human that has nothing to do with gender, and is communicated through bearing, self-assurance, tone of voice and through other non-linguistic forms of interaction. That special, intense relationship that girls and women have had with horses throughout history in fact points to a domain of female independence from men, and of respite from patriarchal relations.

Kultivator 2016. Photo: Laura Fisher.

This got me thinking about how patriarchy had shaped my perception of horse culture. Having spent most of my life living near the Randwick Race Course in Sydney, my childhood impression of horses was wrapped up in the image of racing, betting, women wearing silly hats, and drunken punters barely avoiding death on Anzac Parade. Each season was marked by a fresh spate of billboard advertisements carrying the message “princesses welcome”. As I grew older and acquired a feminist ethic, I came to hate these caricatures of womanhood. My other encounters with horses – those rode by police to bear down on activists at street marches – have also been abhorrently patriarchal.

Malin’s project with refugee women was decidedly feminist, but it was a feminism that didn’t have to be articulated as such – rather she treated the horse as a gentle catalyst for personal transformation in a women-only environment:

You need to act as a leader, you need to be the one that decides and takes the first step. It’s not about being an aggressive, dominant, mean leader – that might lead somewhere, but not all the way – you have to be someone that has a sort of confidence in your own body, in your own body language, and therefore you need to trust yourself.

Riding was still a scary prospect for some of the women, and Malin saw the various tasks associated with horse care as almost more significant, because they ‘create situations of togetherness and work’. The woman had initially thought Malin was crazy because she talked to the horses, but when I participated the stable was filled with the sound of affectionate murmuring.

I feel very privileged to have been able to inhabit the alternative social space Malin’s project produced. In these hours women were able to dwell in the company of women, and establish a very tactile connection with a being that didn’t make the kind of emotional demands that another human does. Malin’s project was crafted to take advantage of the qualities the horse possesses that make it an agent of potential change for the individual – wordless companionship, an impression of liberty, a different relationship to one’s body, and the possibility of a shift in outlook on one’s place in the world.

Kultivator 2016. Photo: Laura Fisher.