I photographed 35 women, 10 are still alive


PHOTO: The Guardian


It is thought to be Europe’s last matriarchy, a tiny Baltic island where women are in charge and weddings can last three days. Photographer Anne Helene Gjelstad’s portraits of Kihnu are a lament for a dying way of life.

Anne Helen Gjelstad was working on a photography project on the tiny Estonian island of Kihnu when one of her neighbours invited her to an old woman’s funeral to take pictures. The neighbour dressed the Norwegian photographer in blue mourning clothes, as is custom, before bringing her into the kitchen where Koksi Leida’s body lay in an open casket.

During the ceremony, the women of the Baltic island prayed, mourned and sang, before the men arrived and the casket was taken outside. Witnessing these powerful moments of sisterhood transformed Gjelstad’s outlook. “This,” she says, pointing to an image of the women sitting around Leida, “is one of the most emotional moments I have experienced as a photographer. It was like going way back in time and being present at the same time. I thought I would do a book on Estonian handicrafts – but all of a sudden it was about the old women and their culture, which is changing so rapidly.”

Big Heart, Strong Hands, the book of photographs she took on what is sometimes called The Isle of Women, allows us into a close-knit society that is thought to be Europe’s last matriarchy. Kihnu is a mere 7km long and 3.3km wide, with its highest point 8.9 metres above sea level. It sits in the eastern part of the Baltic sea.

There are an estimated 300 or so year-round residents, the vast majority of them female. The women of Kihnu and its neighbouring island Manija take charge of everything on dry land while the men have historically worked away from home – either abroad, on mainland Estonia, or at sea, seal-hunting and fishing. They are used to hard labour and hard times, having endured a 50-year Soviet occupation and freezing, harsh winters that see the islands cut off from the rest of the world. It is this isolation that has prevented their customs from dying out.

Marriage and motherhood are highly prized – only women who are married are allowed to wear the traditional apron. Babies are often born in the sauna, and children go everywhere with their mothers. The people speak a dialect, Kinhu kiel, which was suppressed by the Soviets. A little like Finnish, it is rich in words describing weather, particularly its impact on the sea and ice. For example, tie is ice that is good for crossing; tuulõeauk is thin ice, too dangerous for walking on.

The islands are popular with tourists, who flock there in summer to see the women perform shows steeped in the island’s folklore wearing traditional skirts of bright, clashing colours. But they are guarded with foreigners. Estonian film-maker Mark Soosaar has made documentaries about the islanders, focusing on their social problems, particularly the Soviet era’s legacy of alcoholism, used as a tool to suppress its occupied citizens. This has harmed the island’s reputation and fuelled a distrust of outsiders. “People felt really, really exposed,” says Gjelstad. “It was very troublesome to them. I wanted to mention it but not emphasise it.”

Women would offer Gjelstad bread and beer, as well as wine made from berries grown in their gardens. “It is extraordinary how I was invited into people’s homes,” she writes in her book, which records the women’s stories of work, war and family life. Her aim is to “preserve this unique culture for the future and give these old, wise women the voice they deserve”.

Gjelstad, who is 63, came to photography later in life after many years as a fashion designer. It was during a Nordic Knitting Symposium, which she attended as part of her company Close Knit World, that she first met the women of Kihnu and discovered their music, dance and textile traditions. Her age and gender helped with befriending the women, as did the fact that she can speak some Estonian. She also used an interpreter, supplementing this with gestures and hugs.

Looking at Gjelstad’s work, I’m initially struck: how rare it is to see photographs of older women, at least in the UK. Gjelstad seems surprised when I tell her that older women can be made to feel invisible in Britain, because in Norway they have been raised to see men and women as equal. But to me, it’s radical and refreshing to see these islanders depicted with dignity, humanity and respect for their work and customs.

We see them standing or sitting in their houses and gardens, the boldness of their dress juxtaposed with the muted colours of their homes and the desolate shots of winter landscapes that Gjelstad has placed at intervals throughout the book. In one photograph, Tilli Alma sits in the corner of a dim room knitting barefoot, her eyes cast downwards towards her knitting.

“Dressed in mourning clothes, Tilli Alma to me expresses the essence of Kihnu culture,” says Gjelstad. “The blue striped folk costume skirt, the Kihnu kört, with the red cord on the bottom that provides protection. The apron that tells she is a married woman, though now a widow.”

It could be a photograph taken at any point in history; there is no reference to modernity here. As such, it encourages the viewer to reflect on the nature of women’s work throughout the ages, and how it has been depicted in art. Though the cultures are of course distinct, Gjelstad’s photographs bring to mind Russian avant-garde artist Natalia Goncharova’s colourful paintings of peasant women, or the work of Filipp Malyavin. Indeed, Tilli Alma could be the subject of his 1895 painting Peasant Girl Knitting a Stocking, grown old.

There is suffering on the face of Rilka Ann as she sits in her sparse kitchen, face turned away from the lens. The women’s stories can be bleak: there are tales of death, hardship and terror. One woman, Järsumäe Virve, told Gjelstad of being forced to say goodbye to her mother who was, the children were told, to be taken out and shot. “Then we heard three shots,” she relates. “We waited in the room for some time before we went outside to see.” Their mother had not been shot, though. They found her standing in the snow – “so pale”. Another, Sauendi Mann, lost her small boy when he was crushed by a tree after the Russians ordered her to work in the forest.

What emerges is a picture of female strength and resilience in the face of occupation, isolation and tragedy. “It was important to write down [their stories] because there hasn’t been this sort of attention paid to old women,” says Gjelstad, who is speaking to me by Skype from Oslo. “They ask, ‘Why do you want to take photographs of me? I am old and ugly.’ I say it is pretty to be old, but of course I don’t like my own wrinkles in photographs.”

There are smiles and flashes of humour among the portraits as well as poignancy. I love Mõisa Mann’s look of proud serenity in her portrait, and the expression of Sauendi Mann in the cover image, one of Gjelstad’s favourites. “This image shows me how she might have looked like when she was a little girl – it somehow expresses the young girl and the old woman.”

Gjelstad has always been interested in older women and their stories. “I think I was born old,” she says. “I learned handicrafts and drawing from them. I was kind of a little lonely child even though I had a sister and a brother and family around. I felt a bit different.” Textiles, she says, tell the story of a culture: it was this that she had originally gone to Kihnu to photograph. The colours of the women’s clothes are highly symbolic: red is youth, happiness and mirth; blue is sorrow. When the islands were under Soviet control, women started wearing sports sweatshirts. You’ll often see them pairing a Nike sweatshirt with a traditional folk skirt and headscarf.

In a matriarchal society that prized marriage, some people were left on the sidelines. “It was very hard on the women who didn’t find a man, who didn’t get married and didn’t have children,” says Gjelstad. “They were not considered as valuable as the other women.” Weddings would involve the whole village and were three-day events involving music and dance. Such traditions are dying out as younger women head to the mainland in search of education, which was seen as less valuable for girls than physical work – such as farming – and childcare. Today, it’s not unknown for the young to live together without a formal wedding.

In 2019, there were more than 300 people living permanently on Kihnu. Together with Manija and a dozen others only inhabited in summer, they make up Kihnu Cultural Space, declared a “masterpiece of the oral and intangible heritage of humanity” by Unesco. Big Heart, Strong Hands is part of an effort to preserve this unique society and its customs amid increasing westernisation.

When a woman reaches her 60s on Kihnu, she starts to prepare for her own funeral by sewing herself beautiful clothes, and knitting gloves for the younger men she has selected to be her gravediggers. “It’s really sad,” says Gjelstad. “I think I photographed 35 women and now maybe 10 are still alive.”

Tiidu Mari, one woman photographed, died last year. In her portrait, taken in 2017, she smiles sadly at the viewer, her eyes shining. She had been the oldest person on Kihnu and feared that, with so many islanders moving away, the island would become silent, full of empty cottages. She made Gjelstad promise to give a copy of her book to her grandchildren, so that they can remember their grandmother – and the roots and customs of all their ancestors on this unique island of women.


ORIGINAL ARTICEL: https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2020/mar/04/isle-women-europes-last-matriarchy-anne-helene-gjelstad-kihnu-big-heart-strong-hands



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