‘I photographed 35 women, 10 are still alive’: tragedy of the Isle of Women

It is thought to be Europes last-place matriarchy, a tiny Baltic island where women are in charge and nuptials can last three days. Photographer Anne Helene Gjelstads sketches of Kihnu are a lament for a dying way of life

Anne Helene Gjelstad was working on a photography project on the insignificant Estonian island of Kihnu when one of her neighbours invited members to an old woman’s funeral to make photos. The neighbour garmented the Norwegian photographer in blue-blooded lament 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 three men arrived and the coffin was taken outside. Witnessing these strong instants of sisterhood changed Gjelstad’s outlook. “This,” she says, pointing to an image of the women sitting around Leida,” is one of “the worlds largest” feeling minutes I have suffered as a photographer. It was like departing road back in time and being present at the same time. I anticipated I would do a book on Estonian handicrafts- but all of a sudden it was about the old-time women and their culture, which is changing so rapidly .”

Big Heart, Strong Hand, the book of pictures she took on what is sometimes announced The Isle of Women, allows us into a close-knit society that is thought to be Europe’s last-place matriarchy. Kihnu is a mere 7km long and 3.3 km 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 inhabitants, 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 use 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 accepted a 50 -year Soviet occupation and freezing, stern winters that look small island developing cut off from the rest of the world. It is this isolation that has prevented their customs from dying out.

‘ Emotional moment’ … the funeral of Koksi Leida, 2008

Marriage and motherhood are highly prized- exclusively women who are married are allowed to wear the traditional apron. Children are often born in the sauna, and children croak everywhere with their fathers. The people speak a language, Kinhu kiel, which was inhibited by the Soviets. A little like Finnish, it is rich in oaths describing condition, specially its impact on the sea and sparkler. For precedent, tie-up is ice that is good for crossing; tuuloeauk isthin ice, too dangerous for going on.

The islands are popular with sightseers, who batch there in summer to see the women perform evidences drenched in the island’s folklore wearing traditional skirts of luminous, clashing qualities. But they are policed with strangers. Estonian film-maker Mark Soosaar has fixed documentaries about the islanders, focusing on their social questions, peculiarly the Soviet era’s legacy of alcoholism, used as a tool to suppress its occupied citizens. This has mischief the island’s reputation and fuelled a distrust of interlopers.” People felt certainly, really uncovered ,” says Gjelstad.” It was very troublesome to them. I wanted to mention it but not emphasise it .”

Her son was humiliated by a tree … Sauendi Mann in 2010.

Women would render Gjelstad bread and beer, as well as wine made from berries grown in their garden-varieties.” It is extraordinary how I was invited into people’s homes ,” she writes in her journal, which records the women’s narrations of operate, fighting and family life. Her strive is to” continue this unique culture for the future and give these aged, smart wives the spokesperson 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 firm Close Knit World, that she firstly met the women of Kihnu and detected their music, dance and textile habits. Her age and gender helped with befriending the women, as did the fact that she can speak some Estonian. She likewise applied an translator, supplementing this with gesticulates and hugs.

Looking at Gjelstad’s work, I’m initially struck: how rare it is to see photographs of older dames, at least in the UK. Gjelstad seems astonished when I tell her that older gals 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 revolutionary and freshening to see these islanders depicted with honor, human beings 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 colourings of their homes and the gloomy fires of wintertime landscapes that Gjelstad has placed at intervals throughout the book. In one image, Tilli Alma sits in the corner of a dim room knitting barefoot, her seeings cast downwards towards her knitting.

Barefoot knitting … Tilli Alma, 2008

” Dressed in mourning clothes, Tilli Alma to me conveys the essence of Kihnu culture ,” says Gjelstad.” The blue striped kinfolk apparel skirt, the Kihnu kort, with the maroon rope on the bottom that provide protection. The apron that tells she is a married woman, though now a widow .”

It could be a photograph taken at any point in autobiography; there is no reference to modernity now. As such, it supports 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 images bring to mind Russian avant-garde artist Natalia Goncharova’s colourful make-ups of peasant ladies, or the work of Filipp Malyavin. Indeed, Tilli Alma could be the subject of his 1895 decorating 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, affliction and fear. One maiden, Jarsumae Virve, told Gjelstad of being forced to say goodbye to her mother who was, the children were told, to be taken out and photographed.” Then “weve heard” three shootings ,” she relates.” We waited in the apartment for some time before we went outside to see .” They spotted their mother dead in the snow- and” so pallid “. Another, Sauendi Mann, completely lost big boy when he was humbled by a tree after the Russians told her to work in the forest.

What surfaces is a picture of female strength and resilience in the face of occupation, separation and tragedy.” It was important to write down[ their narrations] because there hasn’t been this sort of attention paid to old-fashioned ladies ,” says Gjelstad, who is speaking to me by Skype from Oslo.” They expect,’ Why do you want to make photographs of me? I am old-fashioned and ugly .’ I say it is pretty to be age-old, but of course I don’t like my own wrinkles in images .”

Meet the neighbours … Manija Island.

There are smiles and flares of humour among the paintings as well as poignancy. I love Moisa Mann’s look of proud composure in her biography, and the speech of Sauendi Mann in the report image, one of Gjelstad’s favourites.” This image testifies me how she might have looked like when she was a little girl- it somehow conveys the young girl and the old woman .”

Gjelstad has always been interested in older women and their fibs.” I suppose I was born old-fashioned ,” she says.” I learned handicrafts and describing 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 little different .” Textiles, she says, tell the story of a culture: it was this that she had originally gone to Kihnu to photograph. The qualities of the women’s invests are highly symbolic: red is youth, gaiety and mirth; blue is regret. When the islands were under Soviet control, women started wearing boasts sweatshirts. You’ll often consider them pairing a Nike sweatshirt with a traditional kinfolk skirt and headscarf.

In a matriarchal society that prized wedding, some people were left on the sidelines.” It was very hard on the women who didn’t spot a gentleman, who didn’t get married and didn’t have offsprings ,” says Gjelstad.” They were not considered as valuable as the other women .” Weddings would involve the whole village and were three-day occurrences involving music and dance. Such lores 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.

Inside one of the women’s residences.

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

When a woman contacts her 60 s on Kihnu, she starts to prepare for her own funeral by hem herself beautiful robes, and fastening gloves for a very young mortals she has selected to be her gravediggers. “It’s really sad,” says Gjelstad.” I believe I photographed 35 women and now maybe 10 are still alive .”

Tiidu Mari, one girl photographed, died last year. In her photograph, take place within 2017, she smiles sadly at the see, her sees glittering. “Shes had” been the oldest person on Kihnu and feared that, with so many islanders moving away, the island would become silent, full of empty lodges. She made Gjelstad promise to give a emulate of her notebook to her grandchildren, so that they can remember their grandmother- and the springs and customs of all their predecessors on this unique island of women.

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

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