“A Queue, Naked Women and Politics": lecture by Indrek Grigor

Caricature by Olavi Vaher, published in the newspaper Edasi [Forward] humour section Herilane [The Wasp] on 7th march 1986

"A Queue, Naked Women and Politics. The Story of Woman in Photographic Art, the Most Popular Photo Exhibition in Soviet Estonia"
Lecture by Indrek Grigor

December 13 at 6 PM
ISSP Gallery (Berga Bazārs, Marijas iela 13 k.3)
Free entrance

One of the most legendary photo exhibitions in Latvian photo history is Jānis Kreicbergs curated Woman with Camera from 1977. Though women photographers' exhibitions were not unknown to the soviet block and Estonian photographers participated in the Riga exhibition, the format never reached Estonia. Instead, Estonians decided to follow the example of the nude and portrait exhibition Venus which had been held annually since 1970 in Krakow, and initiated the Woman in Photographic Art competition exhibitions in Tartu, where the role of the women was first of all that of a model.

On the 3rd of March 1983, the first exhibition in the series Woman in Photographic Art organised by the Tartu Photo Club opened in the Tartu Art House, immediately becoming one of the most popular exhibitions in Tartu’s history. It must be noted that the first competition was won by the Riga Photo Club. Altogether five exhibitions took place: in 1983, 1986, 1989 and 1991 in the Tartu Art House, and 1993 in the Küü Gallery. From 1989 onwards the photo clubs lost their role and it became a solely individual competition with the 1991 and 1993 exhibitions enjoying FIAP patronage.

The most popular of the Woman in Photographic Art exhibitions took place in 1989 when over four weeks it was visited by about 24 000 people. The stories about the queue at the Art House’s doors initiated the current research that extra to clarifying facts behind the mythical event, tries to bring attention to the international reach of photography in the 1980s and to the peculiar role that photo clubs, which enjoyed somewhat greater freedom than the strictly regimented creative unions, have played in soviet cultural history.

In the Soviet Union, photography was not recognised as a form of art and therefore there were no photographic artists. A professional photographer was somebody who took photos for the media, for a factory or some other institution. At the same time, beginning in the 1960s photography as a hobby was promoted by the state and thus a photo club was also formed under the auspices of the Tartu Cultural Centre, functioning in the eyes of the authorities as a hobbyist art circle. By offering an outlet for photographic artists whose works were shunned by traditional art exhibitions, the Tartu Photo Club was quite significant.

Some of the most notable events of the Tartu Photo Club made up of the series of competition exhibitions Woman in Photographic Art, which were organised by the club’s creative director Valeri Parhomenko. The incomparable popularity of those exhibition can be explained by a phenomena very familiar to the soviet population namely deficit. Eroticism was publicly deplored in the Soviet Union and organising an exhibition around the theme of women demanded quite a lot of political manoeuvring which is characterised by the decision that besides the initial idea of nudes and portraits, the exhibition had to focus on women’s social roles. That and the fact that the exhibition was opened on International Women’s Day was no coincidence.

With the growing freedom of the press – the first issue of the erotic magazine Maaja was published in 1989 and nude photos were printed on the cover of the daily newspaper EdasiWoman in Photographic Art lost its value as a deficit item. Curator Valeri Parhomenko did try to transform the salon into a cooperative and later a joint-stock company to restructure it into something suitable for the market economy, but during the era of the 1990’s cowboy capitalism he was not successful.

Indrek Grigor (b. 1981, Pärnu, Estonia) is the head of the exhibitions department at Tartu Art Museum. Prior to that, he served as the Gallery Manager for Tartu Artists’ Union's three galleries for eight years. A task he took up after having started his professional career as the photo and video art collection custodian at Tartu Art Museum in 2006. Grigor has been curating numerous exhibitions in Estonia and Latvia and has participated in the production of more than 500 exhibitions. The few current noteworthy projects have been The Queue. An Episode in Tartu’s Photo History that was dedicated to the story of a series of exhibitions titled Woman in Photographic Art that were held in Tartu in the 1980s, Alana Proosa’s Stories of Love, Bloom, Lust and Loss a deeply personal series of portraits of Kathoy’s, the transsexuals in Thailand and Silver Girls. Retouched History of Photography“ which opened the treasure troves of early woman photographers in the Baltics. All three exhibitions were accompanied by a catalogue. Grigor has been active as an art critic since 2007 writing for the Estonian cultural weekly Sirp, the magazine Kunst.ee, the portal Echo Gone Wrong and various other publications in the Baltic's. From 2010-2020 he co-edited the art criticism broadcast Ministry of Art for Estonian Public Broadcasting. Indrek Grigor's academic journey includes the study of semiotics, in which he holds a Bachelor's degree, and art history, for which he earned a Master's degree, both from the University of Tartu.

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