From Family Photo Albums to the White Cube – Interview with Diana Tamane

By Piret Karro & Hanna Samoson


From Family Photo Albums to the White Cube – Interview with Diana Tamane

By Piret Karro & Hanna Samoson

Photo: Hanna Samoson

Diana Tamane is an artist from Riga, Latvia, currently based in Tartu, Estonia. In her practice, she explores the line between the intimate and the artistic, using photos, drawings and videos from her family archives or images created in dialogue with her family members. Her recent exhibitions include Antibiography at the Centre d'Art Maristany, Spain, Allied at the Kyiv Biennial 2021, and Flower Smugglers as part of the Frame of Sopot Photography Festival, Poland. Her artist book Flower Smuggler received the Author’s Book Award at Recontres d’Arles and was shortlisted for the Aperture First Photobook Awards in 2020. Perhaps this work is a good example of her practice – Tamane used photographs her grandmother had taken of the flowers she had either grown in her garden or had been gifted and combined these with a story of her grandmother being denied passage across the Latvian-Russian border with flowers she wanted to bring to her grandfather’s grave in an area annexed from Latvia by the USSR in 1945. Through combining the personal with the political, Tamane has a unique way of shining light on geopolitical realities through the lived experiences of ordinary people, her close ones. We meet on my 31st birthday and one day after her 36th birthday, over a table of tulips and cake in her home in Tartu, to discuss how she feels about her art being read as feminist, women’s power, and the turning point from trauma to healing that has provoked a change in her artistic position.

How is the cake?

It’s really good, thank you! So, there is even a birthday cake this year. Now the day is complete.

You were telling me about how you didn’t speak Estonian when you came to Tartu Art School, so you felt like your works needed to speak for themselves. How did it happen that you are still living here 15 years later?

I started studying in an art school in Latvia when I was 12. There, I took academic drawing, painting and sculpture, but in the last year we also had a photography class. I fell in love with the process of developing in the dark room. I would stay late and lose track of time. After I graduated from high school, Tartu Art College seemed like a good option, as there was nowhere to study photography in Latvia. After moving to Tartu, I travelled a lot and lived in different countries. For a year I went to Portugal as an Erasmus student, then moved to Barcelona to do an internship. After I graduated from Tartu, I moved to Brussels for my master’s degree and continued at HISK’s (Hoger Instituut Voor Schone Kunsten – Vlaanderen) art residency programme for two years in Ghent. I was planning to stay in Belgium because it was going well. I had received several awards and grants, but at some point, I realised they don’t really need me there. There are so many artists in Belgium already. For some reason, I never allowed myself to consider going back to Estonia. Then one day I realised I could, and I felt such relief, so I packed my stuff and left. Here it’s different, there is space to evolve and it feels like home at the moment.

Photo: Hanna Samoson

How come you felt you could go back to Estonia, and not to Latvia?

It’s like I had two lives. Before I was 20 and after. I cannot imagine that I would go back to Latvia. When I arrived in Tartu, I immediately felt in sync with the city, like its rhythm and my own were moving at the same pace.

Looking at some of your works, I started thinking about the misogynist attitude that prioritises the “official” history, often written by men – an example of this is monuments of men on horses, whereas small personal details like family photos or diaries remain less visible. For example, looking at the photo series Family Portrait depicting your mother’s lineage, or the work Blood Pressure showing your great grandmother’s notes documenting her blood pressure readings on the backs of the photos from her personal album. Many of these items might look insignificant, but they are important to someone. Do you find yourself conflicted about crossing the boundary between a photograph as your grandmother’s personal item and exhibiting it as a piece of art?

Daily rituals take a lot of time and have great importance in our lives. They can be considered insignificant by some, but it’s what really carries us. As an artist you are like a magician. It is here [points as if at an object] but it doesn’t mean anything. As an artist, I take it, bring it, let’s say into a white cube – and it is like baptizing it, the object becomes sacred.

Regarding personal rituals, did your birthday yesterday have any special meaning for you?

I started the day in the way I wish more days would start – slowly, with warm lemon water, meditation, reading, and afterwards I went to a 5Rhythm dance class. In the evening, my friend came over for dinner. I would love it if this year was about slowing down, connecting to things and people who bring me joy.

I want to do things differently, to be a better friend to myself. Sometimes we know what we should do, but it hasn’t yet settled into our system, into our body. But now I feel some things are settling down for me. I mean I can still push myself sometimes, but I really have started to feel that always running somewhere is violence against myself.

A lot of your work is auto-biographical or auto-ethnographic; it includes conversations with your family or observes your father in the garden. Among other things, these are feminist methods. Some of your work is probably read as feminist art. How do you feel about that?

I prefer not to be put into a box, any box. Of course, I am feminist, but that’s not the place I make my work from. My fear is that when we say it’s a feminist work then people don’t see that there are so many other layers. But I am interested in women's experiences and want to tell stories about women in a way that would support them. I’ve sometimes had an issue with the feminist vibe – in my eyes it creates a division between men and women. But it is time to take responsibility and acknowledge that both men as well as women have contributed to the patriarchal system. Of course, there are the sad statistics that every fourth woman has experienced physical or sexual abuse and we carry these traumas in our bodies. Most of us have trauma, personal or collective. We can stick with it, but we can also choose to let it go. It’s time for women to appreciate themselves. We can do a lot, we can give birth, we can have careers, be artists, healers, truck drivers like my mother, and I think women’s choices need to be honoured. A woman should also be supported if she chooses to be around the kitchen and raise children.

That statement is also feminist.

Yeah, it is.

We wanted to talk about women. What are your latest revelations regarding being a woman?

In recent years, I’ve realised that honouring the cycle is important. The daily cycles, seasons of the year and the menstrual cycle – through these we connect to nature and to ourselves. Based on what I have experienced and what I have also heard from my female friends, issues around menstruation were never discussed with us by our mothers or were talked about in a negative way. But I think it’s a gateway to our power and a place of wisdom. It used to be something that I never paid attention to. Now I have a different approach. It’s like you have these four phases [menstruation, follicular phase, ovulation, luteal phase – P.K.] connected to the seasons, there are phases when we must rest and when we are more productive and I try to respect that. There are times we are invited to go inwards and times when we are more communicative and open. It is very interesting for me to navigate all that, how at some point I am overwhelmed by a range of emotions, everything comes to the surface, it can feel dark and deep, but then I look at what my body wants to tell me: what needs my attention, what needs change. Maybe not every woman feels this, but I personally feel those phases strongly.

Photo: Hanna Samoson

You have exhibitions coming up at the Contemporary Art Museum of Estonia (EKKM) in Tallinn and at Tartu Art Museum and Kogo gallery in Tartu. You mentioned that you feel like you are at a turning point as an artist. Could you tell me more about that?

In a way, my upcoming exhibitions at EKKM and Kogo gallery summarise my practice of the last decade. The EKKM exhibition Typology of Touch summarises the works related to the female lineage of my family, which have been completed during the last 12 years. At Kogo gallery, I will show my latest project Under the Same Sky. It’s an installation and a documentary film about three generations of women – the grandmother Tamara, who was born in Ukraine; the mother Irina, born in the Latvian SSR; and the daughter Sonya, who is half-Korean and grew up in Spain. For the last 17 years, the family has been living in the tourist city of Fuengirola in Costa del Sol, Spain.

But these days I am making more intuitive work. For example, I make drawings which are partly based on meditation and breathwork – I synchronise my breath with my drawing, I am interested in the use of the psychosomatic method in art.

I used to be interested in some sort of tension. Now I feel another kind of energy and perhaps I can start a new chapter. I would like to be more present, and to communicate more joy for life. I remember a long time ago a friend of mine said something about Louise Bourgeois: “You know it’s sad that she held on to her pain until the end”. It’s important to let go of things that do not serve us, to be transformed as humans and see where it brings us as artists.

Would you say that your previous work was created from a place of trauma?

I like what curator Martin Germann said about family in relation to my work: “It is a room or matrix we will never leave, and if we escape it, we inevitably escape in relation to it.” It’s a way of dealing with certain issues and finding a way to communicate. For me this became my language for speaking to them, it opened communication between us.

So, you feel that art is your language to speak not only to the art audience but to your family as well?

Yes, it’s like a thread that facilitates connection. It’s my love language.

Photo: Hanna Samoson

Piret Karro is a cultural critic and curator based in Tallinn. Her academic background lies in Gender Studies and Semiotics, and she is currently the Head of Exhibitions at Vabamu museum.

Hanna Samoson explores the boundaries of art and tries to perceive the unknown. Being in constant motion as an intuitive creator, her work is characterized by quick and spontaneous decisions. Since the beginning of 2022, he has been searching for her dream along the 2222 islands belonging to Estonia.