August 1995 was the date of the first Estonian feminist art exhibition. Called "Est.Fem" it was organised by Eha Komissarov, Reet Varblane and myself. 21 artists participated in that exhibition, not only by giving works for the show, but taking part in discussions before August and writing short contributions to the catalogue as well.
The preparation process for "Est.Fem" was long, starting between 1992 and 1993, when Eha Komissarov became convinced of the need for feminist art in Estonia regardless of what others thought. She wrote about that time in the exhibition catalogue: "My first experiences with feminism became soon a conviction, that the questions of gender and identity are completely alienated in Estonia and dealing with feminism would mean to voluntary banish oneself from society." (1) In 1994 she invited me to take part in organising a feminist art exhibition. Honestly, I wanted to refuse at first, but she just convinced me and pushed me into action. We started to organise a seminar, where Leena-Maija Rossi and Asko Makela from Finland would give talks to Estonian artists about feminist art practise in "the west". Somehow we managed to arise interest in the up and coming feminist art show. Thus we made our voices heard in many different media channels. Finally the artists were willing to take part - especially the younger generation. This exhibition can be considered the birth or first delivery of Estonian feminist art. Artists who took part in "Est.Fem" are closer to post-feminist thinking, evaluating tolerance and introspective thought. It is a good place to throw light on some points of recent Estonian history, which may have influenced the artists through their personal experience.
When I was a child I had many idols based on the image of female heroines of Soviet time which had been created by both the totalitarian regime and its media. I grew up in rural Estonia. My parents valued hard physical work, which is very typical of Estonians. This suggests partly why the communist propaganda succeeded to show heroines as female tractor drivers, milkmaids, weavers and so on. But it was not simply professions like those that were honoured, the "idols" were very concrete: namely those who had been given the title of the Hero of the Socialist Labour. Strangely enough in my teenage years I knew only the names of these individuals and I had my own fantasy pictures about what they looked like. I thought they must look big, strong and fat with artificially curled hair. That image is directly linked to TV programs, which showed the Congress in Moscow. My idea was connected to a picture of how Leninist feminism was shown through the ideology: a woman was more than equal to a man. One can say she had partly lost her gender. The only dream of equality left was to be equally accepted in the army. However, that equality worked mainly in one direction: women were made equal to men but not men to women. Everything which was traditionally seen as women's duty, was still present. Family life continued in the "best" tradition of patriarchy: to justify her existence a woman was to give birth and take care of her children and her husband. Despite the possibilities for education and career; despite the political rights she had; she was not liberated - rather she was in double slavery. Her body, her feelings, her happiness, her private life did not exist.
The Estonian male photographer Peeter Tooming photographs and shows the naked female body as a forbidden secret topic. The nude photographs he took were not exactly how the communist propaganda would show a woman. Women in his photos are fleshy and naked - nothing heroic. Sadly he puts into these images all his masculine long-established hidden desires and sexual sickness through the contexts in which and how the bodies are shown and they are made. A good example is "The Hunter's Valley" from the year 1974. A rising woman's bottom is in the center-front of a landscape, the "valley" in between the two buttocks being parted by hands put on it. "His smutty images pretend to be art, to disguise the real meaning. Most of his photos are made at the time, when pornography was forbidden: single examples of porno magazines smuggled in the Soviet Union and the illegal photo-cards did not satisfy men's need to look at naked bodies". (2) Tooming's nudes aren't far from bad pornography. Indeed, they carry out some desire for beauty similarly to that of the Estonian artists Ando Keskkaala, Andres Tolts, Tiit Pesuke and others, who painted at the same time ideal landscapes - still-lifes, as if those were a reaction against the official soviet art-world.

A woman became a hero in communist society, if she managed to have kids and take care of her husband, or she successfully made a career for herself. Estonians used to think then, and are still thinking now that a woman is behind everything. Even though a man is always on the scene, he is being led by a woman. This is a common misconception.
To talk about women's liberation and feminism in Estonia is the same as making bad jokes. Hasso Krull has seen it as scandalous for intellectuals.(3) All women are happy! At least they appear to be like this and they are happy indeed because they got tampons along with independence.
In Estonian history women have played significant roles. Poet Lydia Koidula became the Estonian national hero. Madli Puhvel writes in her biography of Lydia Koidule: "Her patriotic poems were set to music already during her lifetime... These were the songs which stirred Estonians in their initial quest for national independence early this century, and which, during the latter half formed a primary expression of Estonian national identity in the face of fifty years of Soviet occupation." (4)
Women's movement could have started during the 1905 revolution in Tartu, when young female students, eager to take part in the revolutionary movement, became involved in a local political scandal and were accused of immorality. At the same time the Estonian nationalist politicians saw a woman's place at home - being a good mother. Ainiki Valjataga refers to those ideas in her text about women in 1905 revolution in Estonia by saying "Only an Estonian mother of a family would lead the nation into moral (ethical) existence (independence)."(5) Ainiki Valjataga concludes her text: "Something about the essence of women's movement was not understood and spoken out loud, a serious feminist dialogue was not started and, maybe because of that, some kind of strange and mystic, almost erotic, aura surrounds women's rights movement, but some space in political culture is "occupied" only by vacuum "(6)
Besides family politics in Soviet Union the attitude highlighted by Ainiki Valjataga could be another reason why women started to fight for the right to stay at home; be housekeepers; look after children; and their husband in the 1980s. The family became - for a short period of time - extremely important for Estonians. By 1988, it was established that a woman could stay at home until the youngest child is three years old. State subsidy was not sufficient for living. However, the right to stay at home was a victory. I guess this is not so easy to understand for Western people, who live in a society with high unemployment rate, how women felt in the Soviet Union after they got that right. I can speak about Estonia only and about the feelings here. What people felt was that there should be more children in Estonian families. A song, which has a chorus: "Our country must be filled with kids, and with kids, and with kids..." became popular before the Singing Revolution. During the Singing Revolution it was repeated thousands of times by tens of thousands of people. In the summer of 1988 the Estonians gathered under the national flag to sing about freedom - on many nights in Tallinn. The common feeling amongst all was a compassion for the people you met and shared nationality with. Even under Moscow's rule, there was the feeling of independence. Indeed, the future seemed brighter and this had an impact on everyone. 1988-89 were the years of baby-boom and the Singing Revolution was generally a political liberation movement - men and women fought together for independent Estonia. Creative people: artists and musicians, poets were those who played a significant role in the movement.
Now Estonians are too involved in observing the glamour of capitalism and it is hard to believe in the idealism of the Singing Revolution ten years ago. All the society is oriented to male young and successful people. There are no forbidden ways to success - all progress is good. Even feminism as such is a good way as it may have some points of scandal in it and therefore be liked by the media. Some artists saw feminism merely as a fashion - a trend. "And the West they is waiting for the feminist art from post-soviet countries to emerge." That wasn't the reason why we organised "Est.Fem". We had in mind to start a dialogue in society which was critical about its new discriminative sides. Most of the artists in "Est.Fem" were very young. They were looking at gender and their personal stories, nothing too political or shocking, using different mediums - from painting to video-installation. Many artists used photography, which was relatively novel for the Estonian art-world in 1995. Something familiar and recognisable without explicit description was often searched for by artists. The search for personal identity and understanding - who we are and where we come from - was most important for artists in "Est.Fem". Social criticism was hidden inside, into a "third layer". However some voices were heard and a dialogue started - mostly in media. The Estonian State however continues to develop a capitalist society - "democratic" they say. The polarisation of rich and poor; male and female; Estonians and non-Estonians is more visible than in 1995. At the same time artists are more self-aware. Still I don't see the possibility for a powerful feminist movement, like it was in the west during the 60s and 70s. A small society like Estonia needs to become really unbearable, more than the Soviet Union was, in order to create a situation when individuals will start to sacrifice their own comfort. The erotic aura around feminism will still exist and at the same time the game with shocking and painfully honest ideas awaits its players.
  1. Eha Komissarov, "Testing Feminism", "Est.Fem" catalogue, p. 4, Tallinn 1995
  2. Mare Tralla, "Kaameranarkomaan", weekly "Eesti Ekspress" 23.02.96
  3. Hasso Krull, "Feminism and the Estonian Community", "Est.Fem" catalogue, p. 9, Tallinn 1995
  4. Madli Puhvel, "Symbol of Dawn", p.10, Tartu University Press1995
  5. Ainiki Valjataga, "Estonian Women, Moral and Nationality", "Vikerkaar" 11-12/ 1996, p.98, Tallinn
  6. Ainiki Valjataga, "Estonian Women, Moral and Nationality", "Vikerkaar" 11-12/ 1996, p.102, Tallinn
Mare Tralla
Born in 1967 in Tallinn (Estonia). Studied at Tartu Art School, Estonian Academy of Arts and University of Westminster, London (MA in hypermedia). As an artist uses performance, installation, video, digital art, photography. Works also as a curator and contributor to many publications. Lives in Tallinn and London.
© 1998 - Mare Tralla / Moscow Art Magazine N°22 The Banner Network.