Maria Kapajeva’ is an Estonian artist whose  photographic work has developed at an exciting pace from its  collaborative beginnings using various means such as installation, quilts, digital collage, portraiture in which to consider women’s  identity, challenging tradition and old values in today’s globalised economy.

Kapajeva is currently completing the Fathom residency at Four Corners and Film in London.


Maria Kapajeva interviewed by Karen Knorr


Karen Knorr: Now is the perfect time to consider the development of your work these past 6 years. I have followed your work for some time and visited your graduating MAPS Installation at Ambika P3 in London in 2013. Your work continues to evolve. You have recently been shortlisted for an artist residency at Four Corners and recently your work has been accepted for Chobi Mela in Dhaka, Bangladesh. Congratulations!

You have been using photography in different ways and you are originally from Estonia.
Your identity is complex as you are a Russian – Estonian and your recent work explores amongst other things, Russian identity in the age of globalisation. Could you tell me a bit more about how you relate to identity in your photography?

Maria Kapajeva: Thank you, Karen, for this question. I think this is a core question in my work, which I continue to ask myself every time I start to work on a new project. I was born and grew up in Estonia, which used to be part of the Soviet Union. It was always my home and I never could imagine that one day I would suddenly become ‘the other’ in my own country. That is what happened since Estonia got independence in 1991, when the Russian community, which was in a privileged position at that time as the Soviet political structure dictated, suddenly turned into an ‘ethnic minority’. At that time, I did not think of how it has affected me and how it shaped my views on various things. When I moved to the UK in 2006 to take a degree in photography, I had to face a new role of ‘the other’ here as a foreign student. That was the time when I realised that actually it was not a new role for me but rather an already well- rooted part of my identity, which I carried with me from 1991.

So, in my work I keep looking and asking the questions around identity: how we see each other through the prism of stereotypes and how our cultures affect each other. For instance, westernisation is one of the widely spreading cultures, which from its modernising characteristics moved to the culture of consumerism and late capitalism. My country, as well as the whole Eastern European bloc, opened its borders only 25 years ago, comparatively recently. The western traditions are not quite rooted there yet but they were borrowed, transformed and adapted by communities in these territories. So, as an artist I am interested in looking at these processes and how they change some rooted traditions or self- consciousness of local people.


KK: When did you become interested in photography? I noticed that you won many awards for your photography in Estonia. You came to the U.K. in 2006. What attracted you to the U.K? How did moving to the U.K. change your practice as a photographer?

MK: When I was a kid, I did some printing with my father in our bathroom where from time to time he would set up an enlarger, but it never occurred me that it could and would be something more than just a hobby. Then I had no camera at all until I was about 25. At that time I got a small digital camera as a gift and that is how it started. By that time, I was already spending a lot of time on photographic websites just looking at the images taken by other people. My hands were itching to take my own images. So, when I got the camera, I started to spend most of my free time taking pictures of various places, people, pretty much everything I saw around me. It was like re-discovering the world for myself – I started to notice things I hadn’t before. I also started to participate in some Estonian photography contests, exhibitions and I won a few prizes. They gave me a confidence and desire to achieve more and to develop my skills more. So, at some point I decided to apply to a photography course in the UK and check if I could get in. I already had a Degree in Economics and a good job in an office. But I never felt that is what I want to do and make a career out of it. Photography was rather the opposite: it was exciting and it had no limits where the knowledge or experience could be ended for me. I was ‘hungry’ to know more all the time, if I can describe it like that. I felt and I still do feel that I want to learn so much in it, but there is not enough time.

My choice of the UK was quite pragmatic: I could speak English and in 2005 Estonia became a member of the EU, so Britain was one of a few first countries allowing Estonian citizens to come and study here with no restrictions. So, these two factors formed my decision. To be honest, I had no clue about photographic education in the UK: I didn’t know which universities and courses are good, I didn’t know much about British photography either, just a few names. So my choice of the course was quite random but I guess sometimes we need to do things like that. I always say thanks to the “powers that be” or whoever led me to Farnham (UCA). I do appreciate that a lot, that I met great people there: my tutors, colleagues and friends such as Anna Fox, Natasha Caruana and you, Karen.

Britain has obviously affected my practice and even transformed it. Saying that, I have a reciprocal ambiguous opinion about it. British photography education is based on the concept. Students need to learn how to think critically and work more around the issues and concepts rather than to be driven by technique or medium. So that affected me too. If previously I was looking only for things hidden from others and tried to capture them, then taking an Honours Degree in photography made me think before I even take the camera into my hands. Sometimes I feel it blocks me from taking photos, sometime I feel it helps me in my process. Moreover, education helped me to realise that photography doesn’t have to stand alone against the other mediums. There is constant collaboration and mixture of the disciplines in the art world. I think, with the digital technologies the borders between disciplines have become even more blurred. This is a very exciting thing and that is why, probably, I made my move from just photography into interdisciplinary practice.


KK: You will be exhibiting the series Interiors at Chobi Mela VII. These are digitally manipulated of Russian women projecting their availability as sexual subjects in order to attract prospective partners . The poses are familiar to us as they refer to the commodification of women’s bodies in pornography and fashion. The images are disturbing since they seem so intimate yet you have interrupted our fantasies by a form camouflage . Where did you find these images ? What was your intention? Can they be related to other recent photographic work using the internet such as Ruff’s or Mishka Henner ?

MK: I think my work is quite different to these artists. As I said before, I am interested in cultural codes which can be read and interpreted differently depending on your background. The images of these women, which I found on the internet, grabbed my attention by the interiors they were photographed in. I could straight away identify them as ‘Soviet’ or ‘post- Soviet’ ones. I could easily relate to those wallpapers, carpets and curtains and I could easily imagine what their whole flats would look like. I do understand that it is me who easily relates to them. Your associations would be different. At the same time, their poses are easily read as ‘selling points’ of sexual female characters taken from erotic/porn publications or advertising campaigns influenced by Western culture. Since the Soviet Union collapsed, those sorts of poses were everywhere in public media. Soon we took then as the norm, as part of the new culture (Western) which was so welcome in these territories at that time.

So, when I found these images, I was interested to see if I could challenge these codes by camouflaging the women. After various experiments, the final layered and digitised image highlighted the sexualised poses yet simultaneously hid the identity of the subject in the photographs. The confusion elicited by these photographs brings up questions about whether I was trying to protect these women and from what, or why they are posing like that and for whom. For me it is important that people have some questions around my work and open some discussions around it.


KK: One of your first projects on the subject of matrimony was taken in India. Could you tell us about your working method and how it has evolved over the past two years? You also take analogue photographs and use different approaches concerning portraiture….

MK: I think most of my projects were developed from an idea or question I had about some issues. Interestingly, I found that most of the time I produce an artwork as an object, which has its visual value but also it is important as an object of craftwork. It wasn’t the case with Interiors because they are inkjet prints but with Marry Me where I produced a series of 20 hand-painted photographic portraits. I like the craft side of the photography or other art mediums. In our digital age it is so easy to produce new work just by sitting in front of the computer. Actually it is great thing and it opens up a lot of opportunities for artists. The only thing it is missing is the physicality of an art object: I cannot touch it, smell it, scratch it – it’s all on a screen. I enjoy the slow process of craft also: it took me four months, for instance, to paint over 20 of these portraits. It is some sort of meditation time when I do precise work like that, such as cross-stitching as I did for the Fifty / Fifty project. I hope I can do more work with craft in the future.


KK: The work I am Usual Woman intrigued me by the way you combine photography with quilting .. What led you to work in this way? Could you describe how it was made? What is the background and context to this approach? Will you continue making more work in this way?

MK: As I said, I enjoyed putting together new technology, and finding materials on the internet with the craftwork. Although the quilt I Am Usual Woman was not stitched by myself but my mother, who is a patchwork textile artist. So as soon as I got the idea, it was very logical to ask her to help me as she is an incredible expert in it.

I do not remember how exactly I have got that idea. It all comes with the process of research and experiment. At that time, I spent most of my research by browsing websites specially created for Russian women to find a Western husband. So, there are a few statements, which were constantly repeated everywhere on these websites: an idea of ideal home, idea of an ideal partner, and an idea of an ideal self-representation. So, I worked on all these ideas with a few of my pieces about Russian brides.

The quilt was created as a summary of these websites: what you get if you manage to fit these criteria of the best match. The images I used for it are samples of how women should be photographed for the best chance to find a man. Many of the sites have recommendations for women (not for men, by the way) how to “sell yourself” basically including demonstrating these samples. The selections I used for the quilt demonstrate well that the sexualization of women as an object on a photo is the most important criteria in their success.

Interestingly enough, many women in their profile statements express their dreams of their new home somewhere “far far away” where they will take care of their new husbands and create a life of comfort for their families. The West, in their ideas, associate with freedom of choice and better living conditions, which they hope to get by marrying a Western man. At the same time, they are trapped in that ‘masquerade’ of the men’s desires to be able to make their dreams about a new home come true. So for me a quilt as a domestic decorative piece, represent their dream of a new home and ‘their way’ they can achieve it.


KK: You use different display strategies in your work. How does the installation address the spectator? You also use text and sound … please tell us a bit more about how you bring them together with images .

MK: I am not sure I have much to say about installation right now. It is very new territory for me.

I try to be careful with using images and text together. I do need to have a good reason to use the text. In most of the cases it means that the complexity of the story I am working on requires not just a visual expression but the story to be told about it. For instance, my work Fifty/Fifty consists of hand-made embroidered tapestry, which I made based on the story shared by one of the Russian brides who got married to an Englishman. To my question how had she selected him from the many men who approached her on the website, she told me that on his image she saw everything she needed at that time: a man standing next to a car and a house. So that was an important message for me to represent the beginning of her journey. Moreover, in her words the man was not that important for her choice at that time, so I decided to search Google for ‘an average middle age Englishman’ and used one of the found images there as an outline of a man on the tapestry.

But her story is not that simple as we tend to think about these women. So, I did feel I needed to tell her story, so people would be able to see that in any ‘fairy tale’ you imagine there are two different people meeting with two characters, from different cultures and they have different expectations. So it is a life story, which has its ups and downs. And for me it is a story of a woman who tries to make her dream come true and who works hard for it. So, to be able to deliver it, I decided to bring her ‘voice’ to the work by re-staging her story in a sound studio with another Russian-speaking friend, who kindly agreed to record her voice, so I could hide the identity of the Russian bride as we agreed in advance. The sound piece, which is 13 minutes long, hopefully opens up lots of issues and raises some questions about relationships, about immigration, and about dreams and expectations. I don’t think I would be able to present all these issues showing only images or only the tapestry.


KK: What projects are you currently developing? What next?

MK: I am happy to share that I was selected for FATHOM Residency at Four Corners & Film organisation in London where I will start work on a new project. My residency will start from April and the exhibition will be at the end of September. It would be again something experimental for me and it is hard to say now what the final outcome will be. But I am very excited to get a chance to go back to the darkroom and get the smell of black and white chemicals on my fingertips.


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Maria Kapajeva is an artist from Estonia who works and lives in London, UK. Her work has been shown internationally including the most recent shows at Chobi Mela VIII in Bangladesh, at Auckland Photography Festival in New Zealand and the exhibition ‘The Space Around Me’ at Tartu Art Museum in Estonia.

Maria was commissioned by The Photographers’ Gallery for their Olympic project ‘The World in London’ in 2012 and by The Harn Art Museum (USA) for the duo exhibition ‘he, she, me’. Last year she was selected for three monthArt Residency ‘Bridge Guard’ in Slovakia where she worked on ideas around borders. At the moment Maria works on a new project at ‘FATHOM’ Residency at Four Corners & Film in London with the final exhibition in the end of October, 2015.