Text & Interview: Monica Uszerowicz
Photo: Olimpia Dior
Images Courtesy of the Artist
One of my favorite photographs by Marie Tomanova features Tomanova herself. She’s gripping a small statue of a woman; the statue and Tomanova both look sullen, eyes downcast. Tomanova’s sheer bodysuit is obscured by the figure, all white and alabaster, and she holds her protectively, though it’s hard to tell exactly who’s doing the safeguarding. It’s part of the photographer’s Displacement series, in which she explores the strange experience of being an Eastern European woman in America, of belonging to two places at once and to nowhere at all. Born and raised in Mikulov, a town in the Czech Republic, Tomanova was once a painter, photographing herself upon her move to the States as a means of examining her burgeoning sense of self.
Exploring similar themes and ultimately seeking interconnectedness, Tomanova often turns the camera on others, too, such as in her upcoming Young Americans series, in which her subjects—for whom the American dream” continues to transform—are vulnerable but bold. She’s also working on Miss Amerika, a collaboration with Mirenka Cechova, another Czech artist, that examines identity. In the spring of 2017, Tomanova curated Baby I Like It Raw: Post-Eastern Bloc Photography and on November 10, her latest curated show, One and Three Photographs—featuring work by Bara Prasilova—will be on view at the Claude Samuel Gallery in Paris, during the Paris Photo Art Fair. We spoke to Tomanova over e-mail about that sense of displacement she’s never shied away from you, how she’s grown both closer to and far from it—and, in turn, how she connects with others.
I am focused on emphasizing the space that I am creating for myself, the space that I am shaping for myself, the space that I am taking control over.
Tell me about your upbringing—did you draw? Did you paint or tell yourself stories? Your work is very ‘real,’ but it also feels fantastical.
I loved to draw when I was younger. I used to draw imaginary landscapes and jungle sceneries with animals—that was my favorite. I’d spend days working in the field or vineyards with my family, and since I was the youngest, I would sometimes just hang around while they worked. So I would entertain myself by drawing in the dirt or sculpting drawings from sticks and stones.
When I was older, I started to paint. I painted lyrics by my favorite bands all over the walls in my room. I used to paint animal symbols on my pants, sit in the tall branches of my favorite tree and read novels filled with boy heroes and their adventures in nature. There were no books with girl heroes that were adventurous in the same way. And I was totally bored with the girl-love-story books. So I made up a boy nickname for myself: “Jindra.” I was really into adventures!
Did you always want to document yourself and your world? You’ve described your work as such: “Almost geologically, almost as an archaeology of what and how I am, each photo is a landscape for you, of me…”
I always had a special urge for documenting my immediate surroundings, close friends, and things that were happening in my life. I was really interested in my own picture, and I wanted to understand if my inner world, thoughts, and whom I believed I was—if all of that was reflected in my exterior. I think part of it was the fact that I have very few pictures of myself growing up. I was the third and kind of an unexpected child; my parents were busy with life and in the family photo archive, there exist a bunch of pictures of my older sisters, but almost none of me.
I started to obsessively photograph myself when I was twenty-one and got my first cellphone with a camera. Before that, I’d to draw and paint self-portraits. The funny thing is that I sometimes painted myself baldheaded or, even though I used to have very long hair. My mom hated those bold, bald self-portraits. I think she used to see a buzz-cut on a girl as a form of punishment or self-destructive behavior. But for me, it’s a celebration of the self. A buzz-cut reflects freedom and the power to have my own choice over my body.
What inspired Young Americans? We live in a terrifying political climate, in which the concept of “being American” is constantly reckoned with.
Young Americans is an ongoing series that I’ve been working on for a couple years and will launch as a solo show next year. I used to photograph friends at parties and art events, but I realized that I work much better with one-on-one shoots. They’re more personal and intimate, and it’s easier to share one’s story.
I’m fascinated by people’s stories, dreams, and why they came to NYC. For me, the title“Young Americans” stands for all the adventure and desire I could imagine as an Eastern-European immigrant. The cult of the “American Dream” is still alive, even though it has a very different shape in today’s political situation. I also realized during these shoots that my perception and interpretation of the “American Dream” are very different than that of someone born in the U.S. It’s interesting how differently we approach this based on where we grow up. For me, the series is today’s representation of all the cool kids I used to see in American movies and wanted to be like.
The cult of the “American Dream” is still alive, even though it has a very different shape in today’s political situation.
And you said that Miss Amerika, your project with Mirenka Cechova, is about the experience of being an Eastern-European woman and an artist.
Miss Amerika is a multimedia collaborative project. I met Mirenka in the spring of 2016. We are both from the Czech Republic; we both went through the phase of adjusting to a new culture, language, and environment, and we both focus on personal experiences in our work. One day, we talked for a very long time and realized that we need to speak up, that we want to share our stories, that we want to create a platform to share other people’s stories.
Together we created McKenzie Tomski, a fictional character who emerged from both of us. McKenzie Tomski can talk about whatever she wants and whatever she feels, regardless of her class or immigration status. Through McKenzie, we reflect and elaborate on issues of gender, race, privilege, immigration, consumerism, and our perception of America from the Eastern-European female point of view. For this project, Mirenka wrote over 50 stories, I am putting together an edit of over 700 photographs that I’ve shot since I came to the U.S., and together we’re working on one hour-long multimedia performance. The project will launch in the spring as a performance, exhibition, and a book, which will be published by Wo-men publishing house in Prague.
In an e-mail to me, you wrote that you’re “exploring how identity is shaped…as well as dealing with displacement and how that affects one’s identity.” This is very moving. How do you channel the sense of displacement into your work?
Displacement is a big theme in my work. It’s channeled through the self-portraiture work, as well as in Young Americans and Miss Amerika. I think that my first self-portrait works were quite naïve and innocent, in a way. I photographed myself to get a grasp on the fact that I was in a whole different part of the world. I wanted to see myself in the new environment, to affirm that it was the truth. I felt that if I photographed myself in America, I belonged to America.
But that eventually changed, thanks to the many instances where I hit the wall and realized that I definitely do not belong to America. I will always be Czech, living in the U.S. It’s a sweet and sour relationship that I have with this country, and it has its own dynamic. I do not blindly crave to belong anymore. And in my latest self-portraiture work, I am focused on emphasizing the space that I am creating for myself, the space that I am shaping for myself, the space that I am taking control over. It became about embracing displacement.
Tell me about Bara Prasilova and the upcoming show you’ve curated?
Bara Prasilova is an amazing Czech photographer. I love her work and I especially appreciate her sense of humor, playfulness, and mild cruelty, which she combines with precise perfection in her photographs. When she approached me a couple of weeks ago to see if I would be interested in curating her upcoming show in Paris, I was super excited. And since I usually curate with my partner Thomas Beachdel, we teamed up on this show as well. The opening of One and Three Photographs by Bara Prasilova will be on November 10th at 7 pm in Claude Samuel Gallery in Paris during the Paris Photo Art Fair. You are all invited!