Grandmas. Who are They, and for Whom? by

by 6. 3. 2023

Feelings of nostalgia, compassion, and sadness. During her Magic Carpets residency, Romanian documentary photographer Odeta Catana opted to work with a strong social theme. The exhibition of photographs was introduced together with a semi-documentary theatre performance, A Land of Grandmothers, by Kvadrifons, an independent group based in Riga. The premiere of their joint project took place on the 29th of June 2019 at the LAMPA Conversation Festival in the Latvian city of Cēsis.

These weren’t old women in the spirit of poet František Halas, but grandmothers – an archetype of those who live for others and often desire for nothing more than a little love, love that is lacking due to the hectic lives of their loved ones, or even a simple lack of interest. The entire project was a clear invitation to spend more time with our grandmas; to respect them. In the theatrical performance (which was of a traditional, conversational type), the desire of grandmas to care and sacrifice themselves for their families was heavily accented. The script arose from the actors’ experiences with their own grandmas. The songs used, sung by a children’s choir in grey wigs, were also the favourites of the actors’ grandmas. Playwright and dramaturg Justīne Kļava attempted to sensitively remove our mythologisation and taboos about the women’s old age, but she portrayed this only from a kind, idealising position. And there aren’t only nice and selfless grandmas in the world – this is a myth too. Where were the domineering, evil grandmas who terrorise their loved ones? And so the taboo of the evil grandma, the hag, the terrifying and therefore powerful old woman unfortunately remained unspoken. Although I understand this project’s pro-family focus, I was missing (particularly in the theatrical component) a more critical position, or at least a variety of views.

After the performance was finished, the audience was directed to the photography exhibition in the next room. Three rows of heavy, black wooden panels (220x150cm) were hung on wooden beams with black ropes in this raw space. Each of them was dedicated to one of the Kvadrifons actors’ grandmas – some of them alive, some of them already deceased. Odeta Catana took these between the 16th and 29th of May 2019. Curator Sandra Laptovska also played an important role, acting as a mediator and interpreter. At the beginning of their encounter, Odeta would always ask the grandmother about the things that were important to her, which she then recorded. This was often on a mobile phone, which became the visual link binding together the entire photographic series. Even though there was sentiment here too, it was not as clear of an appeal to the emotions. The unifying motif among the panels was a strong atmosphere of isolation, of life that is at its end but not quite over yet. This necessarily brought up questions about our own end, or rather about the living out of life; about waiting for the end. What do the yellowing photographs of their family line really mean to the elderly? What do they really think and feel and what do we simply attribute to them? What are our ideas of old age? Will the millennials’ old age be different to those born after World War I? 

Only one of the nine panels featured a grandma with a hobby (a greenhouse). The other images portrayed empty lives immersed in memories. The question arises: why? And could it be otherwise? In the Czech environment, a project for a retirement home for artists is slowly developing led by Kristýna Kašparová. Her idea is to avoid the isolation of pensioners, creating a stimulating environment a little like a studio; an environment offering possibilities for mutual inspiration, and for creativity. Kašparová expects art to be such a strong shared interest that it’ll allow pensioners to form new friendships and maintain their position in society. She is proposing the creation of a system of social ties outside the family, which is an absolute alternative to the Land of Grandmothers project. 

Odeta Catana’s residence was organised by the New Theatre Institute of Latvia, a Magic Carpets partner. The Kvadrifons group wanted to create a semi-documentary performance on this topic and Catana was approached given her previous works featuring older people. She also works consistently with the strong wave of Romanian migration to various European countries. Interpersonal and intergenerational relationships are an important topic for her, one which was also reflected in the project under review.

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Jana Orlová