Artist profile: Emmu Johansson – Portraying Humanity

Emmu Johansson is an inspiring young Finnish artist, who examines humanity through allegories in her paintings. I have the pleasure of talking to her on a beautiful sunny winter morning. We meet at the bus stop in Turku and go for coffee together.

Emmu Johansson, photo by Sari Tenni


Johansson has just recently had an exhibition called Nattbrev (Night Letter) in B-Galleria, Turku with two other artists Nina Östman and Laura Kolehmainen. The exhibition combines poetry and fine art. Kolehmainen is a painter as well and Östman a poet. The exhibition is based on her poem Nattbrev, which won the Arvid Mörne prize in 2016.

The exhibition paints a very interesting experience for the viewer. You can sit down and see Johansson’s multifaceted paintings that form allegories of portraits and Kolehmainen’s paintings that discuss the human body through simple objects while listening to Östman’s poem of a young woman contemplating on her life. Johansson and Kolehmainen were in the same class in the Free Art School and they noticed that they had some similar touch in their work. So, they decided to have an exhibition together.

Exhibition Nattbrev at B-Galleria, photo byTiina Mäkitalo


Despite her young age of 24, Johansson has already had numerous exhibitions alone and with groups of other artists. She feels that as an artist it is her duty in the society to exhibit her work frequently. “I like to have goals, so I always do a half-year plan about the exhibitions I want to attend. This helps me to keep focused.” Johansson likes to do both group exhibitions and her own ones. “Working with a group often forms an inspiring atmosphere for learning and the others can inspire you to work harder. However, sometimes when you are working alone, it allows you to access deeper levels in the work. Sometimes you get more interesting ideas alone when you do not have to worry at all about what other people think.”

Johansson’s working process often starts from a person, facial expression or phenomenon that intrigues her. She often uses interesting photographs as a base for her paintings. Johansson takes the outline from the photograph and then puts it aside. After this, she starts to paint different layers, for example, starting from the base and then adding light and shadows alternately. “A great dream would be to someday have a live model for the whole process, but it can take many days and multiple hours a day. Therefore, it has not been possible yet to get a model for that.” Making decisions in order to limit her work to certain areas has felt natural for Johansson. She has decided to paint only people and to only use oil colours. “I feel the stricter of a confining you set for your work, the greater freedom you get artistically and expression-wise.“ Johansson’s work always involves a portrait that gets broken down into something else. Especially renaissance portraits inspire Johansson. “Particularly Agnolo Bronzino from the renaissance era and Lucian Freud, who represents the expressive, more modern style, have inspired me. I find it intriguing how the renaissance aesthetic is in many ways very modern. People were painted to look like flawless divine creatures and the same is done in advertisements today.”

Exhibition Nattbrev at B-Galleria, photo byTiina Mäkitalo


Johansson dreams that at some point, she would be able to retreat for a longer period to solely concentrate on painting. Currently, she is working on many projects. One of them is planning an exhibition abroad. Johansson is also working on an exhibition called ‘Tutti Frutti’ which will take place in Kaapelitehdas, Helsinki next summer.

At the end of the interview, our discussion wonders to crazy dreams. Johansson mentions that once while visiting Dublin, she came across a church that was on sale. “It made me think about how inspiring it would be to get to design paintings for a whole church and match them with the interior.” In life, it is important to dream big, and I am sure we will hear much more about this inspiring and active young artist in the future.


Interview by Karoliina / Kunstportal