Helinä Rautavaara (1928-1988) made a career of documenting foreign cultures and religions. 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.
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.
In 1991 Helinä Rautavaara made a short visit to Haiti and the Dominican Republic. The objects acquired during that visit formed the core of her first museum.
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.”
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. The Helinä Rautavaara Museum was opened on June 16th 1998.
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.
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