These days even bedding can be turned into art. Have you ever seen a blanket or cushion pieced together, most probably by someone’s mom or grandma, from several layers of multi-colored fabric, making up a one-of-a-kind exemplar of handicraft? Maria Kapajeva, a UK-based artist, who grew up in the Soviet and Post-Soviet Estonia, has turned her memory of an item familiar from her childhood into a distinct form of art. In her series of I Am Usual Woman, Maria tried hand at stitching herself. Her quilt is now exposed to the West of the world. She moves her blanket out of the bedroom with a purpose of reveling to the public the realities of the Russian Brides. Maria’s pattern consists of images of Russian women, who have photographed themselves for various dating and matchmaking sites, in quest for better living conditions through marriage. Her chosen imagery illustrates the Brides’ naïve belief into the Western myth of happiness and what in their opinion helps to marry into this dreamlike society. We talked to Maria about the problematic of cultural expectations and her own experiences with it.
Be ready for something familiar, something new, something pink and something nude.
Is your work’s focus on the confrontation of cultures inspired somehow by your personal background?
Thank you for this question. Yes, of course. I was born and grew up in Estonia where during the Soviet times and right after the idea of the West as a dream destination was formed and cultivated. Then, with my move to the UK nine years ago, I formed my personal opinion of what is the real West like. For me it is interesting how with our easy access to the information via the Internet and increased possibilities to travel, we still operate a lot with stereotypes and have very distanced imagery about each other. When I say ‘each other’ I mean any two cultures that come together, as in my case me being a post-Soviet Estonian who became part of the British, hence the Western culture.
You are educated in economics and had a marketing career in Estonia, until you decided to leave the comforts behind and moved to London to study photography. Was it scary to take that decision? Did you care for the others’ reaction?
It was a bit scary because of losing the ‘tomorrow’s security’ but it was very exciting at the same time. I knew I could rely on myself only and I had to find a job straight away after my arrival to the UK. Getting a steady job abled me to pay my bills, which gave me confidence to do my best in my studies. I don’t think I cared much about others’ opinion. My family and friends supported me when I told them I got into one of the universities in the UK. My former employer told me that my job would be available for me if I wouldn’t like in the UK. It gave me a small feeling of security even though I kind of knew I won’t be back that quickly.
Do you consider yourself an artist?
I would love to be one but I am not sure if I am. It is up for other people to decide.
When and how did you get interested in the gender matters?
Pretty much with my move to the UK. I grew up with the idea that marriage is the main destiny for a woman. One of my reasons to ‘run away’ from my country was the hope that I can escape from the pressure of that ‘destiny’. When I started to study photography, I came across many debates, writings, artworks, which reflected the questions around gender equality or differences. With all the newly gained knowledge, I tried to think about my position in it. The Soviet Union was good at promoting the belief in gender equality and I grew up with believing in the idea that men and women are equal. It took me a while to realize the complexities of these post-Soviet women, who truly believed they were treated as equal, but in reality they were not. Moreover, there weren’t much writings done about that issue, and it was hard for me to find some support around the realities of these women. Only in the last few years, some research and writings have begun to appear. In my work I am trying to visualize these issues or questions that I am struggling with.
From where do you think these women have picked up their style to pose half-naked? Which media or values are responsible for their sexualized portraits?
Any media, really. It is hard these days to hide from media or advertising as they ‘scream’ on you from every possible corner and you are forced to see them. That is what Renata Salecl talks about in her book ‘The Tyranny of choice’. But what happened in the post-Soviet territories, the idea of the ‘great’ advertising came in early 1990s straight after the Soviet Union collapsed. So, all codes of how women and men should look like were borrowed from the Western media and the most sexualized presentations were considered as most prominent, progressive and supportive of the free set of mind. At the same time, it was only the image that changed, not the women’s role. Russian Brides is a good example of the clash of these ideas: to look sexually attractive (as market dictates), while promising to be an ideal wife, who takes care of her husband, house and family.
Has some of your work, for example the series of Interiors, been associated with porn? Does it bother you?
It doesn’t. I guess these photos that I used in Interiors were made as home soft porn. I don’t know the history of these images, so I can only guess. But if people have these associations, it means the poses are quite recognizable for it and that was my purpose.
Did you ever come in contact with some of the Russian Brides? Have you shown some of these women the outcome of your work?
My project Fifty / Fifty is about a real story of one of them. I tried to contact many of them but mostly all my contacts failed, except two. So, in the end, I was lucky to meet one of the women, who was very honest in her story and who allowed me to use her story for my work. But, of course, I had to protect her identity.
What is your overall opinion on dating sites?
It is an interesting phenomenon. I mean, the dating and blind dating was always there, but now it has turned to a very big scale. What I find interesting is the idea of the freedom of choice, which gives you an obsession that you might miss out on something better if you stop searching now. It is interesting and can be playful, but I still believe that for stable long-lasting relationships you need ‘to eat a few pounds of salt’ together first, as we say in Russian.
Are you continuing to work on the matters of gender and breaking free from cultural stereotypes?
These topics are certainly an important part of my practice. At the moment, I am working on a new project at FATHOM Residency in Four Corners and Film organization. It is too early to clearly formulate what is my project about as it is quite experimental for me. But I continue my work with ‘found’ images and this time I focus on the imagery of a young man, whose story I am trying to build up or rather play with.
To see more of Maria’s selected work, visit her website here.