– Maria, in your projects you often go beyond traditional photography, but this medium is still your primary one. Could you please tell us about your background and the transformation of your visual language?
– I don’t really remember when and how it happened. I do see it as a continuous progression in my art and my experimentations in various mediums. At some point I just realized that photography does not have to be a final outcome of my ideas, but rather a starting point. Even though my experiments might look like random ones, they are all connected. For instance, my work in embroidery or textile comes from my childhood. I grew up with my mother being a patchwork artist and she always tried to teach me how to knit, stitch and sew. Quite often I refused to do it, and she was worried about how I was going ‘to survive’ as a woman without these skills. So, when I got the ideas for my “I Am Usual Woman” work, which is a quilt, and for “Fifty/Fifty”, which is embroidered tapestry, I realized that I already have all these skills and I am capable of realizing my ideas not just by taking pictures, but by stitching or collaging.
– How has the move to England affected you as an artist?
– My move to the UK has been a benchmark for my career as an artist. Everything that happened before that move is like my BC era (before my degree in art), and after is my AD era. I have a degree in Economics, which I got in Estonia, where I also worked for 6 years in Marketing. But I never enjoyed it as much as photography, which came into my life quite late, when I was already working at the office. So, I decided to test myself and study photography in the UK. I knew nothing about UK universities or about contemporary photography, but I was excited to learn about it. Studying photography at the University for the Creative Arts at Farnham made me realize what a massive difference existed between studying what you love and what you don’t, as it was with Economics in my case.
– Tell us about your relationship with Estonia. For many of those of Russian origin who have moved away from the Baltic states, the question of identity is very sensitive. “Who am I and where is my home?”. This is the type of question we often have to answer to ourselves and other people. How would you define your identity?
– It is a good question. Actually, my move to the UK made me more aware of my identity as ‘the other.’ It is not just about my presence in the UK as an Estonian citizen, it is about what happened to me and many other Russians in the Baltic states. I was born and grew up there, but in 1991, when I was a teenager, almost in one day (at least that is how it felt) we all turned from native inhabitants to ‘occupants’ and an ethnic minority. It was quite a dramatic change, but at that time, no one really tried to analyze that transformation; we just tried to adjust to a new situation and make decisions on a daily basis.
We have started to learn the history of my country all over again but from a totally different point of view. It was a massive discovery for me to realize that history is not fixed and that it all depends on interpretation and point of view. Anyway, my move to the UK made me realize that being ‘the other’ is not a new feeling to me; it is something I have been carrying inside myself since 1991. So, there is no point in trying to run away from it and to pretend to be someone else (Estonian, British, Russian, etc.). Rather, [I] realize that ‘the other’ is me, it is in me, and I keep exploring it as a human being and as an artist. So, that is why in my bio I usually say that I am a Russian from Estonia, as it is a part of my identity, which combines Russian, Soviet and Estonian histories and cultures to various degrees.Tell us about your relationship with Estonia. For many of those of Russian origin who have moved away from the Baltic states, the question of identity is very sensitive. “Who am I and where is my home?”. This is the type of question we often have to answer to ourselves and other people. How would you define your identity?
It is a good question. Actually, my move to the UK made me more aware of my identity as ‘the other.’ It is not just about my presence in the UK as an Estonian citizen, it is about what happened to me and many other Russians in the Baltic states. I was born and grew up there, but in 1991, when I was a teenager, almost in one day (at least that is how it felt) we all turned from native inhabitants to ‘occupants’ and an ethnic minority. It was quite a dramatic change, but at that time, no one really tried to analyze that transformation; we just tried to adjust to a new situation and make decisions on a daily basis.
We have started to learn the history of my country all over again but from a totally different point of view. It was a massive discovery for me to realize that history is not fixed and that it all depends on interpretation and point of view. Anyway, my move to the UK made me realize that being ‘the other’ is not a new feeling to me; it is something I have been carrying inside myself since 1991. So, there is no point in trying to run away from it and to pretend to be someone else (Estonian, British, Russian, etc.). Rather, [I] realize that ‘the other’ is me, it is in me, and I keep exploring it as a human being and as an artist. So, that is why in my bio I usually say that I am a Russian from Estonia, as it is a part of my identity, which combines Russian, Soviet and Estonian histories and cultures to various degrees.
– The main theme of your work is the role of women in modern society. Tell us more about this subject. Why is it so important to you?
– It is one of my themes, but not the only one. I guess it, again, comes from my background and the changes many of us are going through like, for instance, the Westernization of many countries. I am interested in seeing how it affects people, how the history and present link together, how the rooted traditions get transformed, questioned or supported in the context of contemporary changes.
Women in most societies are still in a quite fragile position, so they are the ones who are usually affected the first and the most with changes. So I guess, for me, women are my tool to look at the different aspects of our lives and to provide a chance to hear their voices, their stories. The more varied the stories and voices that are heard, the richer in terms of culture the world be and the better the chance for equality. Moreover, being part of the research project ‘Fast Forward: women in photography’ (www.fastforward.photography), I often have conversations with people about gender issues, so it is a part of myself I cannot avoid and separate from my artistic practice.
– Tell us more about your project “Fifty/Fifty”. What is the role of photography in this work?
– This work was a continuation of my exploration of the Russian Brides phenomenon. By that time, I had already done a few works on this subject matter which focused on the fantasies sold to these women and men about each other and how matrimonial websites operate with stereotypes about each of these two groups. So, by that time I really wanted to find a real story of a woman who married a Western man. I was lucky that the woman with whom I worked allowed me to use her story for my artwork on the condition that I would protect her and her husband’s identities.
It was a challenge for me, as I couldn’t use any photographs I took of them. What I have done is re-stage what she told me. The work consists of an embroidered tapestry and a sound piece, 13 minutes long, in which a young Russian woman reveals that it was not really her dream to live in the UK and how the whole very bureaucratic process of marrying an English man failed to make her believe in any system anymore – just in herself. Also, it is meant to provide an inside look into one of these stories, where behind all the stereotypes we might have about Russian brides, at the end of the day it is a story of two people who try to find a way to live together and realize their dreams.
Speaking of the tapestry, while I was working on this project, I had an idea to do a large-scale cross-stitching tapestry. I have decided to give the project a go, as the cross stitch really reminded me of pixels which form the images of people on these matrimonial websites. After 6 months of spending all my evenings and weekends working on it, I realize how difficult it is and how much work, time, and patience is required of me. It is an unfinished tapestry with a needle still in it, which refers to the story of that woman, whose story has no ending yet.
The image for the tapestry I have chosen based on the woman’s words about how she had chosen that man; she said that she saw a man standing next to a house and a car and at that time she thought that was all she needed. So, I decided to use an image of an average house and a car as the basis for my tapestry. I also Googled ‘an average figure of a British man’ and I used one of the first figures that came up as a silhouette, as his personality did not matter for her at the beginning.
– In your latest project, “Reading Apocrypha”, you work with archival photographs. You use a randomizer on your website that creates a new story with these pictures each time someone visits the page. We are interested in learning how you imagine this series in the physical world.
– I am interested in knowing that, also :). This project is quite experimental for me and I haven’t shown it yet in the gallery space, except as part of the final exhibition at Four Corners Film in London, where I began to work on it at my FATHOM residency last year. During the residency, the project began with a box of about 200 negative films I found in my parents’ house. These images have been photographed by my father since he was a teenager. Without his involvement, I dug into them and tried to make sense out of them for myself. I ended up selecting about 100 images which are all from my father’s past before his marriage to my mother and my birth. They form a project I entitled ‘Reading Apocrypha’. During the residency, I focused on a dummy book which, despite its fixed form, has a few narratives to go through. I also used some quotes from Italo Calvino’s book ‘If on winter’s night a traveler’, which helped me make the book more exciting and intriguing.
While I was working on the dummy, I tried to find a way to present it so that the narrative would be different every time. I came up with that gallery view on my website, which gives you a bit of flavor with respect to the inconsistency of history and the ability to get a new narrative every time you click. So, it is quite experimental and I don’t think I will be keeping this online version for long. I still work on this project; thus, I am trying to find ways to re-create that online idea for a gallery space. I think it is important for me to find a way that, with every space or place at which I will exhibit it, I can come up with a new idea for the installation, a new story. I like to have flexibility in my work when it comes to its display.
– Looking at Estonian contemporary photography, it seems that virtually all young photographers are experimenting with different media. Why do you think this is happening?
– Really?! That is an interesting and exciting observation! Well, it could be for many reasons, but partly because of a reaction to the acceptability of photography in the new digital era. Artists feel that they want to produce something which hasn’t been done before, or something which has its physical content as an object, sculpture, installation or book. It is about expanding a viewer ’s experience of art, I guess. We click and look at so many images per minute that it is really hard to stop, to look at something longer and to think ‘why.’ Thus, my installing work in some unusual (for instance, public) places or creating new sculptures or objects out of photographs is a way to say something new, to find a new language. Artists always challenge themselves to find new ways of expressing their ideas.
– May we ask about your next project? What are your interests today?
– At the moment, I am planning my new work at Narva Art Residency in Estonia, where I will be this summer. It is a very new residency; I might be the first artist in residency there. There is not much funding support yet, so together with them we will apply for funding, so I could realize my artistic plans back in my hometown. The best part of it is that the residency is located in one of the buildings of an abandoned textile manufacturer about which I intend to do my work. I started my research a year ago by interviewing local people, former workers of the manufacturer, and collecting their family photographs and stories. Now is the time when I can reflect on what I have collected and produce new work based on it.
Also, I have just gotten good news that we (me and Anna Muller, an Assistant Professor of History at the University of Michigan-Dearborn, USA) have received funding to conduct research for a new collaborative work about the history of the Polish community in Michigan. It will be an exciting project for me, one that will give me a chance, I hope, to work again with history and present-day stories together.
Maria Kapajeva is a Russian artist from Estonia who is based in London. She got her first BA degree in Economics at the University of Tartu. In 2006 she left behind her career in Economics and moved to the UK to get her BA in Photography at The University for the Creative Arts (UCA) and then her MA in Photography at The University of Westminster. She got the British Council PMI2 Award twice to produce new work in India. The Photographers’ Gallery for The World in London commissioned her in 2012 and she was shortlisted for The Title Art Prize in 2013. Her work has been exhibited internationally, including in Belfast, FORMAT, Guernsey and Chobi Mela VIII photo festivals and the recent shows at Harn Art Museum (Gainesville, USA) and Kaunas Photography Gallery (Lithuania).
Along with her practice, Maria teaches at the University for the Creative Arts at Farnham, where she became part of a research project on women in photography (@womeninphoto), which culminated in a conference at Tate Modern in 2015.