Sickly-Sweet Monsters at the Ethnography Museum

By Andreas Kalkun


Sickly-Sweet Monsters at the Ethnography Museum

By Andreas Kalkun

Jaanus Samma, Pattern no 25, 2021. Crayon, 38x38 cm. Courtesy of the artist and Temnikova & Kasela Gallery

At first glance, Jaanus Samma's works resemble souvenirs with ethnographic motifs and some even evoke pure nationalist kitsch. This is, of course, a treacherous trap, set for the unsuspecting viewer. The artist seems to approach folk heritage and the past in the most conservative way possible; however, on closer inspection it becomes evident that the national ornament has, in fact, been stripped of pathos and solemnity – under the layer of ethnographic beauty bubbles an explosive mix of provocative questions. Jaanus Samma's works have been discussed as homonationalist acts Toomistu, T. 15 May 2021. Homonatsionalismi kriipiv visioon. Available at:, where the queer subject and their desires seem to have been secretly written into the national narrative and history. Indeed, Samma works with archives, historic museology and history and almost produces sugar-coated 'monsters' to be incorporated into the heteronormative narrative of national history. Yet, these meek additions have the capacity to blow apart the heteronormative power matrix and the glossy images of nationalism.

Jaanus Samma, Pattern, 2021. Exhibition view. Photo: Marje Eelma

Personal mythology

At his recent exhibition (in collaboration with Carlos Motta) Otherness, Desire, the VernacularOtherness, Desire, the Vernacular. In collaboration with Carlos Motta. 19 November 2021 – 16 January 2022. Curated by Denis Maksimov. Temnikova & Kasela Gallery, Tallinn, Samma exhibited a traditional woven wedding tapestry titled Personal Mythology. The tapestry was created using traditional materials and in the most 'authentic' way possible – it was woven on anachronistically narrow looms and also includes errors in the pattern. The tapestry was a masterful imitation of a 19th century north Estonian tapestry, used during ritual wedding rides. Alongside traditional trees of life, tankards, churches and the traditional kaheksakand patterns, we also see symbols from the artist's previous work. Among other things, the tapestry includes jockstraps, outhouses, a toilet pull, New Year's Boys in costumes made of reed, directly and retrospectively referring to Samma's earlier work. Instead of the heterosexual married couples usually depicted on wedding blankets, Samma is displaying decorative figures of men without shirts, also present in his earlier project Applied Art for a Gay Club. So, the form of a wedding tapestry is cunningly used to display secret symbols from the artist's personal mythology that supposedly undermine heteronormativity in a non-violent manner.

Jaanus Samma, Pattern no 27, 2021. Crayon, 38x38 cm. Courtesy of the artist and Temnikova & Kasela Gallery
Jaanus Samma, Pattern, 2021. Exhibition view (detail). Photo: Marje Eelma

Noble and dirty patterns

At the exhibition Pattern, Samma exhibited 19th century coifs (tanu), on loan from the Estonian National Museum, side by side with drawings and embroidery inspired by the headwear. With these works, Samma continues exploring the hidden cruising culture and fetishes in gay communities, also present in his previous projects. Here, the focus is on men's underwear and jockstraps, provocatively decorated with perfectly executed national floral embroidery. The coif signalled the wearer to be a married woman – Estonian peasant women had to wear these daily as a symbol of that status. Furthermore, as part of a wedding ritual, the freshly married woman was slapped on the head or in the face with the coif and told, ‘…forget sleep and remember your husband!’ The beautifully embroidered coif was a sign that the woman was no longer single, and moreover, it was also meant to remind her of her position within that union at all times.

Jaanus Samma, Pattern no 19, 2020. Crayon, watercolour, 38x38 cm. Courtesy of the artist and Temnikova & Kasela Gallery

These embroidered patterns, created by illiterate women are the only letters we have of them. We could say that these patterns are essentially and specifically 'Estonian', but obviously, international fashions have not left the work of these women untouched either. These baroque floral patterns, originally from north Estonia, acquired strong nationalist associations only later on, at the beginning of the 20th century, when the Estonian National Museum acquired the most aesthetic and 'authentically Estonian' examples of garments for their collections and these became known as folk dress. The founders of the museum hoped that based on the items they collected, local artists and applied artists could develop an idiosyncratic Estonian national style. With a layover as a tool for the Estonian authoritarian regime of the 1930s, these patterns also made it into art of the Stalinist era and are still represented in conservative nationalist applied art in full glory today.

Looking from a distance, Jaanus Samma's dignified flower motif wreath drawings would fit well in both the castle of Konstantin Päts, the authoritarian president of Estonia, as well as a Stalinist palace of culture; however, taking a closer look, we see that this is not sincere national kitsch after all. What meanings emerge when patterns stolen from the coifs of married women come to decorate jockstraps as part of the hidden heritage of gay culture? Is this a homonationalist incursion into the heritage of Estonian national ethnography or the grief of the queer subject recently declared incapable of marriageIn November 2021, the Legal Affairs Committee of the Estonian Parliament released a statement regarding the current Family Law in Estonia, saying that it is not discriminatory as it does not prohibit marriage to anyone who is capable of marriage. The capability, however, is defined by the Family Law, which states that marriage is concluded between a man and a woman. With this statement, the Legal Affairs Committee essentially declared anyone in a non-heterosexual relationship incapable of marriage. (– Ed.), and dipped in glamour?

Andreas Kalkun received his PhD degree in Estonian and Comparative Folklore at the University of Tartu and is currently working as a senior researcher at the Archival Library of the Estonian Literary Museum. His main area of study is the religion and the songs of the Seto women but he has also researched the history of folkloristics, the heritage of obscenities, and the LGBT history in Estonia.