An old box of photos featuring strong women living in rural Spain became the springboard for artist and photographer Macarena Costan’s latest photo series. Here she talks to us about traveling to the village where the archive was found to reflect on how women have been represented in art throughout history.
Words and Photography by Macarena Costan
Several years ago, a member of my family found an old box full of negatives. They were made in the 1920s-30s by my great-grandmother’s brother, and documented life in the south of Spain. I was particularly amazed by a number of portraits made of strong women with powerful poses and gazes.
As an artist who is interested in gender roles and cultural traditions, I have created a series of photographs inspired by the archive. I highlight women’s strengths, their control over repressive symbols and their self-determination, with the main intention of representing women through their own identity.
“Feminism isn’t about making women stronger. Women are already strong. It is about changing the way the world perceives that strength.” – G.D Anderson
The project is located in Carcabuey – the small village where the archive was found – with the aesthetic of this still very traditional place serving as an improvisational stage for my imagination. In a sense, I am creating a temporary and symbolic experience that shows the present, but at the same time makes reference to the past.
Caliza – the project’s title – references the characteristic limestone that is found in the Subbetic Sierras of southern Spain, where these works have been photographed. Caliza is a strong and permeable stone, which is often considered organic as well since it is composed of skeletal fragments of marine organisms. To walk through these limestone mountains and villages is to read, almost on each stone, both a living and symbolic history – one that is tough, resistant, resilient and layered.
“It is hard to find information about their lives because they did not have access to the arts to express their feelings or their history.”
Why did you decide to create this series?
The photo of the four women and the boy was the main inspiration for me to start this body of work. My great grandmother’s brother, who took the photo, was not a professional, he usually turned his camera to those around him, both friends, staff, and hired hands. I was particularly struck by the presence of strong portraits of women. I wanted to know more about the situation of women who worked on the land. I wished to understand how they fought for their rights while simultaneously working to survive.
It is hard to find information about their lives because they did not have access to the arts to express their feelings or their history. So, it is important for me to express how these women had to deal with the patriarchal world of the time and give visibility to the importance of rural women as political and historical subjects.
Do you have a favourite photo from it?
I normally begin Caliza with the photo of the leaf and the plait, “Adam’s rib”. I think this photograph stands out due to the symbolic and intriguing meaning, and the compositional aesthetic aspects of it.
The plant appearing in the photo is known in Spain as “la Costilla de Adam” which means Adam’s rib. You can find it in almost every house in the South of Spain. It is called Adam’s rib due to the form of the leaves which reminds you of the shape of the human ribs. The name Adam refers to the mythical creation of the Abrahamic religion, which said that the first woman Eve, was created from one of Adam’s ribs to be Adam’s companion. The verse of Genesis 2:22 translates as “The Lord took a rib and filled the hollow with flesh, shaped the woman and presented her to man.”
The face is hidden and only the plait is coming out from one of the holes of the leaf as a symbol of control and the wider image serves as an allegory of gender dynamics. It is interesting how an ordinary plant comes to acquire a symbolic power; becoming a different version of itself.
“One of my purposes with this body of work was to find visual ways of representing femininity in a non-typical way.”
Can you tell us more about the religious symbols in the photos?
I think the presence of religious symbols in my work is important as we cannot deny the influence that religion has in some people’s daily lives, on the way we behave and on our culture. The Bible says that man was created in God’s image, placing women in a different alignment, beneath as a subordinate.
All these mythologies, religious rituals, and traditions are deeply rooted and shape our identity as women. My purpose is to show the control of these repressive symbols, by decontextualising them, with the intention of arousing curiosity and provoking different responses to them.
“After 100 years, we still need to make a strong statement about women’s place in society.”
What do you hope people will take away from viewing Caliza?
This work is a response to how women have been represented in history and in the present-day. The project started as a deconstruction of a history that surprised and intrigued me. Now I am trying to extract new stories from the fringes of what is already there, highlighting the positive and being critical in a playful way; showing that after 100 years, we still need to make a strong statement about women’s place in society.
One of my purposes with this body of work was to find visual ways of representing femininity in a non-typical way, without following the established canons of women as a soft, sweet, vulnerable, fragile or weak being. I wanted to highlight women and their strengths through my photographs, showing that gender doesn’t provide this fragility.
I recently read a very interesting article in Clavo Ardiendo magazine, saying that the works presented in museums, like any other type of cultural creation, act as a mirror in which our society is reflected. And it is, therefore, my decision and responsibility to show a reflection consistent with the values I defend. I would like to use my project as an opportunity to keep the debate open about the representation of women in art and in society in general.
How do you view photography as a tool for social change?
The medium of photography has provided me with the ambiguity I needed to develop this work. It speaks in an extremely symbolic language, a language that derives power from its non-verbal, almost subconscious quality. I want to create photographs that say the unsaid, provide clues in the details, and allow the viewer to make their own final interpretation of the photographs.
What camera body and lens did you use to shoot the series?
I normally work with a few different cameras. I like the differences of working with a variety of formats. Digital is quick and more straight forward, while the medium format and 35mm force you to focus, and reflect even more on what are you shooting. I don’t like to limit myself to one format, so this project is a mix of digital, medium format 6×6 and 35mm.
I used a Canon EOS 5D Mark III with a Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8 lens and a Canon EF 50mm f/1.8 lens, a Nikon F50 with a Nikon 35-80mm f/4-5 and a 6 D 35mm zoom lens, and a Hasselblad 6×6 500 C/M (medium format) H511.