Maria Kapajeva

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Baiba from the series Portrait of the Artist as a Young Woman

Originally from Estonia, Maria Kapajeva is an up and coming artist wholly dedicated to her work.  As a researcher for Fast Forward, a photography symposium coming to Tate Modern in 2015, a tutor at UCA Farnham and visiting lecturer elsewhere her personal work is also thriving.  She talks to me here about the changes she has made to her life in order to follow her passion for photography and the themes that fuel her drive.

It seems like you see a project in every situation you find yourself. How did you develop your artistic vision? Would you call yourself an opportunist?!

I don’t know if I am opportunist but I do use opportunities. Both those that come to me and those I create for myself. When I moved to the UK from Estonia nearly 8 years ago I didn’t really know what I wanted to do, except take pictures. My passion to pursue photography meant I left all my comforts back home, such as a good job with a good salary and my own flat. I started everything from scratch in a new country where, together with my studies, I had to earn money to survive and pay bills. But I was ready to launch myself into it.

I think I was lucky to come to The University for the Creative Arts (Farnham) as a student. The course there gave me so many opportunities both during my studies as well as after. I do appreciate the people I am surrounded with there (now as a tutor and researcher). It is a privileged experience to be at a university where you can meet people from around the world, get access to all kinds of books and see artists work you could only dream of and meet great professionals and talents. I think this experience transformed me as an artist as well as a woman. Actually I don’t think I ever was an artist and I am still not sure if I am, but it shows me that there is always something to learn – the possibilities are endless and it is very exciting for me. I would never have felt the same working in an office.

Can you say a little about how your ideas have developed over time? It seems like you are moving into more and more personal work, putting more of you into the concepts. What has this been like?

I think there are two ways of working as an artist (at least I see these two): one is you start from a technique and develop / master/ transform it. The second way is to start from an idea and find a technique for it. I think most of my works take the second path. So, I don’t think I pick up ideas, but rather they find me. But saying that I do understand that the questions I have and try to visualize in my projects are all connected to my personal interests. I don’t see myself working on an abstract idea if it does not relate to me somehow. At the same time, although some of my projects are quite personal, it is not my intention to involve myself in it as the main character. However it is my work, so I am in it of course.

I find the hardest thing nowadays for me as well as for other artists (I can see it happening a lot with the students I teach) is the massive volume of information we all confront. We need to learn how to select the right subject and focus on it. Otherwise we will easily become overwhelmed and never manage to produce any work. It is hard to find our way through that and I am personally still in the process of learning how to do so.

I think what excites me most is that there will always be something new to learn, discover or question. So, I am not afraid of losing inspiration or ideas but I am worried about my capacity to reflect on them. Let’s see how it works out.


From the series Interiors

You have made three series around the theme of arranged marriages and specifically online platforms for Russian brides.  How did this interest come about and what drove you to make work about it?

Well, I could say it started from my first visit to India in 2008 but, to be totally honest, the idea of marriage has been with me since I was a teenager. I grew up in a culture where marriage is the most important and essential step in your life. Going to India I felt, like nowhere else, very conscious of my single status. Every time I met new people there, they asked me straight away if I was married and why not. So, I decided to turn my self-consciousness about my status into a project about young educated women of that country who I met during my visits.

It fascinated me that most conversations in India always ended up in discussions about marriage or weddings. Marriage is an incredibly important tradition for people in India. It is one of the last expected tasks for the parents to give their children, so they cannot fail as their future depends on it. (Often parents live with their adult children who take care of them when they retire and get older).

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From Marry Me

So, that is how my project Marry Me started. I didn’t have a strong opinion about arranged marriages. I was curious if the reality is so dramatically different from how we see it in Europe. Distance always breaks perspective, doesn’t it? So I managed to interview and photograph 20 young educated women who were of marrying age and who had their own concerns about the Indian tradition of arranged marriage. I produced 20 black and white portraits which I then hand-painted. While I was doing research on the subject I discovered that a hand-painted photograph in India is used a lot as a tool to make people look more wealthy in the photos or more attractive to the grooms and their families if it was a woman’s portrait. So, I used that idea and decorated my models. I left their reflection in the mirror unpainted to reference the original imagery. The portraits are accompanied by extracts from the interviews.

After that project, I worked on a few ideas and somehow my research lead me to the representation of Russian women on the internet. I found one collection of pictures of women posing half-naked in their domestic interiors so they became a basis for my project Interiors. I saw that these women were trying to be noticed by men via their profile; to stand out.  Ironically most adopted a pose which made them fit the stereotype of their culture even more. Even in these pictures I saw a culture where women are seen as part of the domestic landscape in a variety of roles (sexy wife, dutiful mother, housewife, cleaner etc) but not much more.     

The digital manipulation in these images is a visualization of the women trying to stand out but ultimately blending into the domestic interior.  It also protects their identity.

interiors3 From Interiors

Russian Brides was quite a logical step for me after that. I have always been interested in representation of ‘the other’ and communication, or rather miscommunication, between cultures and how easily we operate within stereotypes. I think it came from my personal background of being Russian in Estonia. Somehow I realized that my ideas about cultural stereotypes, marriage and the re-evaluation of women’s position in contemporary society all came together in the phenomenon of Russian Brides. So when I discovered that I thought about doing something about mail-order brides and the whole new amazing world of matrimonial websites opened to me. I spent months and months doing research on them. That is why I wasn’t satisfied to produce just one piece for this topic. At the moment I have 3 different bodies of work related to the Russian Brides phenomenon (I Am Usual Woman, Birch Trees of Russia, Fifty/Fifty) and I am working on one more.

What did you learn most about these women? How has it helped shape who you are as a woman today, if at all?

Interesting question. I think I learned and understood more about the complexity of communication between various cultures and what a huge role mass media plays in it. It forms and cultivates our stereotypes about each other, and ourselves and it deals with very basic and primitive models of behaviour, especially when we talk about capitalism which is based on the idea of sales.

We tend to like to be ‘different’ (often means ‘better’) than ‘others’. Stuart Hall, a multi-culturist theorist, talks about stereotypes. He says that they are usually formed not only by what is perceived as real but also what is fantasy about the Other. Mass media uses stereotypes so well they cultivate our fantasies supporting the stereotypes so we can benefit and feel better about ourselves. Obviously people are more complex than that and they never fit into “Hollywood happy-endings” or ‘Cosmopolitan’s How to…’ models.




I am Usual Woman

I used standardised imagery of Russian brides for my two projects with the purpose of critiquing and questioning them. In I Am Usual Woman I made a quilt (in collaboration with my mother who is a patchwork artist) from a selection of website images which recommend how women should be photographed to ensure the best matchmaking! The pattern of the quilt is a popular design called Double Wedding Rings and is a traditional wedding gift to the bride from her female relatives. In the video piece Birch Trees of Russia I put together a selection of women’s profile images in which they state belonging to Russian culture posing next to the very well-known symbol of Russia – a birch tree. I found it fascinating that almost every woman on these websites had the same sort of image.

I think I was playing a game of ‘reversing stereotypes’ a term used by Stuart Hall when he writes about being trapped in a ‘stereotypical other’ and the need to overturn and subvert it. I do this by contradicting these images with a song which is sung by a male singer about women as birch trees, waiting for him to come back to his homeland. It was in an ironic tone that I put together images of women who dream of leaving their motherland with a male who feels secure in the fantasy that women will always be there waiting for him.

The technique of cross-stitching and quilting is very intriguing. Can you tell us more about the cultural significance of the technique and what it means for you personally?

Well, to be honest I never ever thought I would be working in these techniques. When my mom saw the images of my embroidered tapestry (Fifty / Fifty), she said ‘Oh, I remember when you were a kid, you refused to learn stitching and knitting when I tried to teach you, but, well, now you are doing it’. So, it is strange for me.

I grew up with the understanding that stitching and knitting was a daily task for women. My family almost never bought any clothes because my mother designed and stitched them all. I did some stitching but mostly knitting in my childhood and I never consider these skills as THE skills I have, if you know what I mean. It’s like to fry an egg for yourself – you are so sure that everyone can do it. So, when I was doing these two pieces, I was amazed how many people commented on the skill aspect of them.

When I researched these techniques, I realised that patchworking and cross-stitching could be found rooted in many cultures. There are many different patterns and motifs but as techniques they are universal. I guess it can relate to the global side of the Russian brides phenomenon. Another factor which was very important to me is the amount of my own labor I had to put into it. Historically the stitching and embroidery were mostly done by women (in the European and Russian side of the world at least). For instance in Russia women were never allowed to paint icons for churches, this was done by men only and it was the most privileged work for an artist.  Women were allowed to embroider clothing for the church people and domestic items. In most of the cases they were unrecognized for what they were doing. We know the names of painters but we don’t know names of embroiderers. As part of my research I went to see the Bayeux tapestry in Reading Museum (a 19-century British copy of original Bayeux tapestry from 11th century which is preserved in France). The interesting thing I found on the British copy is signatures of all the women who did the stitching under each part they embroidered. There are 35 women in total and we know all their names – what a celebration of the craft masters!

I was inspired by that and decided to create quite a generic image based on a story of one woman and stitch my signature on it as statement. The tapestry is displayed as an installation piece and goes together with an audio lasting 13 min – a story of a woman who married English men and what she went through for it. The embroidery process was a test for myself. I decided to do it and have fun with it. I wish I could still say it was fun but the reality was different! I really slaved for my art, it was physically and mentally hard to do every evening and weekend for 6 months. It nearly killed my back!

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Portrait of the Artist as a Young Woman

Bringing us up to date is your current and ongoing work A Portrait of the artist as a young woman which I find to be an effectively simple strategy in presenting the complicated view of what it is like to be a woman in today’s society.   What is your main aim with this work?

I honestly don’t know the aim of this work. I just felt like taking portraits of women I have met in my life who I admire as individuals and professionals in whatever they specialize. It just happened that they are all my peers and they are all immigrants as I am. It might be some sort of reflection on my long-lasting connection with the ideas in ‘Russian brides’.

I also feel that immigration, including my own, can be a positive thing. I believe that in most cases when people want to move somewhere else it is because they are not happy in their home countries for various reasons. It is never an easy decision to leave your own country.  At the same time, travel is so much easier nowadays than it was even 20 years ago, so why not try? It is a big step for everyone if they decide to do it and I absolutely admire what these women have achieved by making that choice. It’s not easy to be Other and become someone in a foreign place.

It is very important for me to photograph these women in their own environment; studios, homes etc. I believe their own spaces add to the story and it is a collaboration in that sense.

It is interesting that one of the comments I got from the recent show in the United States at The Harn Art Museum (Gainesville, Florida) was that these women look too feminine to be presented with the feminist statement as I put with them. I found it an interesting comment which relates again to the stereotypes we build up about each other and ideas about how ‘they’ should look. Anyway, it is ongoing project, let’s see how it goes.

What is your experience of being a female photographer in this industry? Do you think we are in a good place and does anything need to change?

I never thought of my gender until I came to the UK nearly 8 years ago. I grew up with the idea that between men and women marriage is the most important step in their lives. After that both man and woman work full time, the man is always the breadwinner, but the woman takes care of the house and children and she would probably sacrifice her interests for the sake of the man or the family.

When I came to the UK the whole world of feminism opened up to me. Back where I am from feminism is still understood to be a backlash from women, who must be single, unsatisfied, with no children and who are angry with the rest of the world because of it which is why they call themselves feminists.

I never thought I could be discriminated because of my gender. At the same time, all my projects about marriage are about re-visiting the idea of marriage for myself and other women in contemporary society. I guess it’s not about being a female photographer but just being a woman. I still sometimes feel a pressure (sometimes from others but mostly from myself) or obligation to get married and to have children because it is supposed to be THE main task for women in this world. I think producing my work helps me to understand myself better and clarify what I really want in this life.

Teaching at the university, I am happy to see that more and more women tend to come for degrees in arts and make a careers in academia. I don’t know how it is in other countries but it is definitely a change in the UK, this can only can be seen as positive thing.

*Portrait of the Artist as a Young Woman is currently showing as part of the group show Walls at Pushkin House in London until June 2014.