Anna-Stina Treumund – lesbian artist and activist
Anna-Stina Treumund (born in 1982) has proclaimed herself to be Estonia’s first lesbian artist, meaning an artist who has publicly professed her sexual preferences and who considers that these play a determining role in her work. One might say Treumund is a programmatic artist. As she is fighting for the visibility of a marginal group in society – for its right to acceptance as is, both in the public as well as the personal sphere – her works are therefore obviously politicized. What makes them political is mostly the way the artist treats sexuality and non-traditional family models. In a way she creates an activism-based platform, while also expanding and mobilizing the LGBT community.
Treumund is a photographer by education (she studied in Tartu, Tallinn, Vilnius and Linköping) and her works by and large portray people. They tend to be laconic, but also poetic and dreamy. Even though she most often depicts the people close to her, and many of her works are also autobiographical, she still aims for a generalization of the subject. She achieves this with the help of documentary technique, which is an important key to generalizing and symbolism. Her work can essentially be described as aesthetic punk with an awareness of the power of photography.
The exhibition "Est.Fem" from 1995 signifies the beginning of feminist art in Estonia. The activities of the first generation of feminists can be summed up with Katrin Kivimaa’s endearing euphemism "that disgusting woman" used to describe Mare Tralla's loud and controversial media images of the 1990s. Back then it was mostly women's gender roles that were discussed, and attention was also paid to the way those roles were constructed (it is important to take into account that this all happened against the background of the boom of “Eastern-European beauties” that had overtaken Estonia’s post-Soviet society) and how this related to national identity. Pictorially, women's physiology was often used including symbolically, and related taboos were often publicly and provocatively broken. But now Estonian feminist art has changed. The role of women is now treated in a wider context and instead of the question of identity, the focus has shifted to woman as a social agent (Liina Siib "A Woman takes little space", 2009–2011, Marge Monko "Shaken, not stirred", 2010) entitled to her own opinion about gender inequality (Marge Monko "Nora's sisters", 2009). This makes the terminology used to describe the experience of being a woman almost Marxist.
Treumund’s approach covers both ends of the axis of this interest. Her image-based works are often egocentric and in a way might even explain (pedagogically) the way traditional gender roles were constructed, and help construct new ones more suited to the artist. Then her activism steps in, which means she treats a (lesbian) woman as an active participant, who has left egocentric topics behind her and is now ready to participate in wider social discussions.
Creating a community
With her first solo exhibition "You, me and everybody" (2010) Anna-Stina Treumund wanted to create an initial pictorial image of the lesbian community – she wanted to depict women who are not afraid to be openly labelled. She photographed various women from her own circle. Most of the women selected were lesbians, but not all – her sister is also represented in some of the images, and the artist used her to hint at the understanding and trust that are part of family relationships. With this show, Treumund wanted to define and understand her own experience of her sexual identity. Our identities are in a continuous formative process and sometimes simply taking a photograph of something makes it real – it is virtually the same as the conscious yet unintentional silence that can make things seem unreal. It is important to add that the exhibition took place at a time when extensive debate over civil partnership and sexual minorities in general had erupted in the media. All this was unusual considering that until then the media had resolvedly kept a lid on those issues.
In her attempt to create a community, Treumund also sought inspiration from the past, browsing Estonian art history for role models and earlier signs of such sentiments. With her series "Woman in the corner of Mutsu's drawings" (2010) Treumund pays homage to graphic artist, Marju Mutsu, in whose works Treumund sensed a lesbian longing. Such digging through art history is naturally problematic, and the artist does not actually make any claims about Mutsu's sexuality. Her work rather gave Treumund an opportunity to reflect on her own sensibilities.
One of the most interesting works from Treumund's earlier pre-activist period is a photographic installation called "Family" (2006), where photographs of a father, a mother and their three daughters were exhibited in the round in a darkened room. The viewer could use a lamp hanging from the ceiling, to illuminate one image at a time, although each time the image could not be seen in its entirety. Similar questions of dysfunctional communication and inaccessible petty bourgeois ideals are discussed in the video "Why aren't we moving on?" (2009). Also set in a dark room, but this time the figure of a young woman with a silver crown dangles exactly where darkness and light meet. Both of these works are autobiographical, and are probably among the most figurative symbols of expectation, of what should be, but is not (or what should come, but as yet has not). On her webpage the artist has said that waiting is the most passive role possible for a woman.
In the summer of 2011, an iconic exhibition "Untold stories", that spoke of sexual minorities, took place at the Tallinn Art Hall. Treumund exhibited two works there – a short documentary film "Mothers" (2011) that explored lesbian women who had had babies in some way other than the traditional man-woman relationship, and a photograph, "Together II" (2011), emulating the Victorian family photograph depicting the artist herself seated beside her partner. The chosen style is clearly mediation in an attempt to give her relationship certain similar qualities.
The four works mentioned above all highlight “family” as a strong theme, which is at the heart of Treumund's work, or at least has been up till now. There are two families: the family you are born into and then grow out of, but also the family you yourself make and/or wait for.
Lesbian art versus the idea of a nation state
In the second half of the 1990s (and also later) very many women were depicted in folk dress in Estonian art – feminist artists and those critical of the "nationalist" campaigns used this to criticize the nationalist ideology as well as to analyze the position of women within this ideology. Katrin Kivimaa, who covered the topic very thoroughly in her (PhD thesis) monograph "National and modern femininities in Estonian art, 1850–2000", believes that although those female artists treat the image of a woman in folk dress with irony, the results are not unambiguous. Despite the irony, such playing with the nationalist discourse also reproduces the object of its own parody.
This first example makes it easy to see the image of a woman (a woman who is made to give birth and who embodies a nation's cultural continuity) and its ironic interpretation in the context of nationalism, but lesbian art on the other hand is in strong conflict with the nationalist ideology. Even when a lesbian couple demands the right to form a family, it can never be a fully acknowledged family because without a fecundating male a family simply does not fit into the ideology of recreating the state. The apparent barrenness of a family consisting of two people of the same gender is destructive for the state – it is of no use to the country.
Such a nationalist model of a hetero-normative society is one of the main sources of Anna-Stina Treumund's activism, giving her cause to fight – namely for the right to create a family (or a community) based on the values that the particular individual holds dear.
Activism – Ladyfest and the reading group
Compared to the first generation of feminist art, the most remarkable change you see now is that while feminist art before was simply shown in art hall exhibitions and primarily discussed identity, now the topics and approaches have broadened considerably and activism has also emerged.
The "disgusting woman", Mare Tralla, was considered so vulgar because she spoke of things everybody else kept quiet about, and she did so loudly and indiscreetly. This, however, tells us a lot about the public of the time, as well as their threshold of embarrassment. It is important to be aware of the threshold, but eventually you just have to start questioning what such behaviour produces. The main difference between a scandalous artist and an activist lies in their strategies. A scandalous artist is a lone wolf who shines in the media skies and brings storm winds everywhere. Activists on the other hand work collectively because they have reached the understanding that (unofficial) networks and civil organizations are the things that can actually help make real change. You need quantifiable pressure and interest groups in order to make the voice of minorities heard. In the case of Estonia, we simply have to mention the critical mass and the capability of a group to gather that mass.
In 2011, Ladyfest Tallinn was launched with the help of Anna-Stina Treumund and other activists (Aet Kuusik, Dagmar Kase, Brigitta Davidjants and others). Its aim was to make women's culture more visible by discussing important topics, inviting people to participate and empowering the sisterhood. Ladyfest is an international non-profit platform that was first launched in the States in 2000 and promotes a self-initiating form of DIY feminism. The reading group "Virginia Woolf is not afraid of you!" is a similar platform that was formed in 2010 and focuses on reading feminist texts and queer theory. Neither of these projects could be led by a single person. Activism is an open position that works through collective actions because like all grass-roots activities it requires the contributions and attention of a wider interest group.