From Painting to Maintenance Art and Back to Painting via Advocacy

Title: Day (3),(4),(5),(11),(12) ​or perhaps more spent on trying to request student housing associations to give students, especially non-eu/non-finnish a kind of a house rent relief for next two months.
A service manager from a student housing association where I am renting my accommodation from, gets back to my email and suggests that I look into an update on Financial Student Aid benefits during COVID-19 on Kela’s website. I wish she and her staff would acknowledge that there are many, many students living here that are neither from an EU country nor are they Finnish. And they are clearly NOT ELIGIBLE TO KELA BENEFITS. KELA was never for us, nor did we expect it to give us any benefits.
Medium: Watercolor, markers and colored pencils on watercolor sheet
Size: 10.5 x 14.8 cm
Year: 2020

(This blog post is an excerpt taken from an essay titled “Letter ‘P’ is for Painter, Painting, Personal, Place, Political, Picture (excerpt)” that is part of the writer’s MA thesis – 2020)

As someone trained in fine art skills and competencies it has been a revelatory process to at once come into contact with the subgenre of art called Maintenance Art whilst also doing ‘maintenance jobs’ to sustain a livelihood as a foreign student in Finland. But what is Maintenance Art? Among many feminist artists’ works that I have been engaging with like Martha Rosler (US) and Salima Hashmi (Pakistan), it is Mierles Laderman Ukeles’ (US) artistic trajectory critiquing the art institutions and the society in America that lead her to define the concept of maintenance art. Ukeles negotiates the conflict arising from the two types of production of works, (i) the production of art and (ii) less intellect driven tasks like washing, cleaning, cooking which are considered better suited for women. Anyone who carries out domestic chores, gets categorised as doing maintenance work – labelled as menial – and considered unimportant to maintaining infrastructures.

As a non-European artist with limited access to many forms of social security, I have been figuring out ways to support my life and artistic practice in Finland. When I moved here in 2018, I had realised rather quickly that unless I know the language I would not be able to secure a job here easily. Therefore, I decided to teach myself and give haircuts as a side job while studying, because I realised that my prior visual art training was taking various forms, leading me to take up tasks that are hands-on; done manually. Giving haircuts gave me the feeling of being purposeless at times, as I was not sure why I was even doing it. There are several paid positions of similar nature catered out to immigrants, foreign students and ‘the others’, yet most probably have not or never made it in the list of dream jobs, as those certainly are not related to our years of studying.

My internship at the Museum of Impossible forms was comforting as it directed me to a window, to become an active member and contribute as a member of the association to M{if}’s role in the Finnish art scene.

Last year, the Museum of Impossible Forms provided an intimate and homely space to test out a contemporary iteration of the conversational salon, nestled within the frame of a hair salon; hosted by me. The idea was to share these newly learnt skills, and foster frank and generous conversations about learning and unlearning in relation to expectations of living as an artist. It is a way to experiment in regards to relational aesthetics and to begin sharing strategies and knowledges about survival: student vs working residence permits; successes and challenges in the labour market; fostering networks and exchanges via alternate currencies; reflecting on feelings of loneliness and burnout; trying to set boundaries between art and life; and voicing approaches to making your work and practice visible while navigating limitations and biases because of the language(s) you speak. The unprecedented emergency caused by Coronavirus, the rising death toll, followed by the lockdown last spring (16 March 2020) in Finland like many countries in the world, only added to the difficulties – mentioned above – that one goes through in maintaining life.

Furthermore, a perplexing circumstance took over when I had to apply for Social Assistance from KELA1 (which is considered the last resort for international students as they are expected to have enough funds to reside in Finland). According to the order of receiving any help through social assistance (as a foreign student), the applicant should demonstrate a rather low bank account statement and a legitimate reason like lost jobs or low income from family. It turned into a rather incomprehensible situation when it was time to renew my study permit and not only pay the application fee, but also show a whole sum of €6720 to MIGRI2. Persistent correspondence with KELA and MIGRI respectively, in which I am trying to explain to KELA why am I not receiving any income and requesting MIGRI, on the other hand, to accept the whole sum in installments if not all, because most students are left with some or no savings due to the pandemic.

The Kafkaesque experience of having to deal with KELA and MIGRI simultaneously became more overbearing when Aalto University was not arranging rent reliefs for students in need. It was alarming to receive forlorn responses from various members of the institution, leaving me no choice but to turn to forums on social media platforms for support. Another tuition paying international student of the University of Arts Helsinki dealing with similar struggles, Dasha Che offered to join forces and helped in collecting information on international students who were in need of rent relief. The circulated survey – consisting of a number of students directly affected – was noticed by a former policy/advocacy specialist, Rosa Väisänen at the student union (AYY)3. This led AYY’s representative council to let the student union open a grant application process. The grantees were notified through email about getting selected for the one-time COVID-19 scholarship, although Väisänen mentioned that “…AYY’s decision to spend its own funds on these scholarships was challenged to the Administrative Court…”. Action taken in arranging for the scholarship was objected by a local student. On a recent follow-up on the process, Väisänen informed that AYY is still waiting for the case to be heard, and if it gets through the scholarships will be granted to students even if they have graduated.

By Zahrah Ehsan


Visual artist from Lahore, Pakistan and currently based in Espoo, Finland.
In 2020, she completed an MA in Visual Cultures, Curating and Contemporary Arts from Aalto University, Finland. She received a BFA with Honours in 2012, with a concentration in Painting from the National College of Arts, Lahore.
Zahrah’s practice is deeply experimental, including scavenged materials from industry, popular culture, and utility incorporating it into paintings, on-site installations, video art that is mostly a critique on gender, adaptation and identity, mental health and types of labour like artistic and everyday, domestic labour.
Her artistic practice has recently pivoted to encompass hair and makeup artistry that has led her to be an aspiring hair and makeup artist; serving as a method to engage with the concept of maintenance art and labour that makes up the ‘infrastructures of care’.



  1. The Social Insurance Institution is a Finnish government agency in charge of settling benefits under national social security programs ↩
  2. Finnish Immigration Services ↩
  3. Aalto University Student Union ↩