Posing with pulla – can self-portraits shed a light on our relationship with food?

Pulla is a traditional Finnish pastry similar to the world-famous cinnamon roll. In her self-portrait Symbioosi (2009) Finnish artist Iiu Susiraja (1975–) poses with pulla in a way reminiscent of the icons of Virgin Mary. In my previous post I wrote about art and its ability to offer perspective. Now I’d like to see what Susiraja’s self-portrait can show us about our relationship with our bodies and food.

First, let me introduce you to Susiraja. She’s a photographer known for her painfully honest and humorous self-portraits in which she often poses with food items. [1] What makes her self-portraits especially poignant is that she is overweight. In an interview with Kodin Kuvalehti-magazine (2014), she describes herself as “thick and happy” while recalling past shame about her weight and later overcoming it by becoming “openly fat” through her art.

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Why though?

We’ve probably all had to deal with that devil on the shoulder asking if whatever you’ve chosen as your professional career makes any sense – it’s not really worth anything, is it? Most of the time, there’s a relatively easy way out, something to validate the choices made: “I’m a nurse to help save lives” or “I’ll make myself a boatload of cash to have a comfy retirement”. But what if you’re an art historian?

I’ve now been working on my PhD in art history full time for six months, a year before that with a job on the side. Before getting into art history I studied to be a visual artist, and did my bachelor’s degree in art – oil painting, to be more precise. In a moment of weakness, I cried at the graduation dinner with my family, because I felt I’d chosen a useless field as my career. Why couldn’t I have just kept it as a hobby like so many others, and done something sensible, like… accounting? My father was furious. He wasn’t furious because of my choice, but because for a moment I’d lost my faith in myself. He’d supported me financially through studies and bought me paints and canvases since I was a kid. He’d worked his ass off at a stressful job so that I could do what I wanted. And it’s true, I really wanted to ‘do art’. But is it enough?

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