Babushka, Svetlana and Me

Maria Quigley

2019 - Ongoing

This is a project about memory and female identity across three generations though an exploration of my own family relationships and history.

I was born in Russia, but came to Britain at the age of four, after my mother fled my abusive and violent father. I grew up believing that my Irish stepfather was actually my father, assuming that I had been born in Russia on a holiday. A few years ago I began to discover the true story, learning that my biological father tried to murder my mother and me when I was an infant, before my mother had the courage to run from him.

As a young woman my mother experienced the period of perestroika and lived through immense hardship when there was no food on the shelves and basic items were rationed. She also remembers the fear during the Chernobyl nuclear disaster. My grandmother was born at the start of the Second World War and suffered starvation and many privations, including temporary blindness when she was a child, and lifelong partial deafness as a result from the war. My great grandfather was a victim of Stalin’s purges and was executed in the 1930s. So the traumas of state violence, war and male gender violence weigh heavily on my family’s emotional legacy.

I have grown up in a mostly female environment. When my mother escaped my father I was a newborn, she left me in the care of my grandmother when she travelled to Britain in the hope of finding marriage. My grandmother raised me until the age of four. This work is the beginning of my planned long-term exploration of my personal and family history, and my complex relationship to Russia, ‘the motherland’.

The images I am presenting were all taken in August this year inside my grandmother’s small flat in St Petersburg. My grandmother has lived in St Petersburg her whole life, never travelling out of Russia and rarely from St Petersburg. Now in her old age, she will only go outside to get groceries and a TV guide from the shop underneath where she lives. In this small apartment I made portraits of my grandmother, (Babushka), my mother (Svetlana) and myself in various configurations. I also documented the minutiae of my grandmother’s life–the furnishings, her food and pickles, her decor and the ubiquitous television screen that is her main connection to the outside world.

If I were to win this grant I would continue this project through the impending Russian winter and beyond. Giving a sense of the seasons my grandmother lives through. I envisage a final book and exhibition which would include extensive interviews, video elements and a series of images that would incorporate the elements of portraiture, intimate documentation of my grandmother’s life and the textural exploration of her environment.

Female narratives, so often neglected, would be at the centre of this. I would explore the interface of all our lives with the disrupted and traumatic history of Russia over the last 100 years. I believe that putting myself into the project through the element of self-portraiture is important. I will not be an ‘external’ photographer documenting the lives of others as I am also a crucial part to this story. This project will be an opportunity for me to discover more about my family history and memory, much of which I am only uncovering now.

Because this is so much about history, I feel that shooting on film, and using an old Rolleiflex camera would bring a special quality to this, along with a dreamy sense of memory. For the work so far, I was only able to shoot a few rolls, but with the support of the grant I would be able to work substantially in this manner. Image 1 in the sequence is from this camera.

I am particularly interested in the idea of postmemory and understanding the ways in which family trauma is passed down through the generations. I am also interested in the history of my own subjective memory, how we project on, and create our pasts, and the part that images play in its construction. Prior to beginning this project my memories of Russia were built around a photo album my mother had selectively put together when I was young. Before finding out about my biological father I had no interest in my family history, and for several years after the discovery I was in denial and chose to repress these painful memories and realisations. I chose to reject my Russian identity and cut myself off from my Russian family. I did not return to see my Grandmother for seven years.

The work I am presenting here is the beginning of a process of rediscovery of that Russian part of myself. I see it as a creative tool to process my own personal history alongside my mother’s and grandmother’s. They are both powerful women who lived through so much and laid the foundations of my life. So, in order to represent myself I must represent my mother and grandmother. Through the camera I am finding a new way to engage with my grandmother and mother, deepening all of our relationships. I hope that this exploration of the lives of three ordinary women will represent something universal about the bonds of love and history that connect generations of women around the world.

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  • Babushka, Svetlana and me.

  • Babushka, Svetlana and me in Babushka's kitchen.

  • Babushka sits beside the kitchen table.

  • A self-portrait in a silk shirt my Babushka wanted me to have. The shirt belonged to my mother when she was in her twenties.

  • Babushka sits at the kitchen table and looks out the balcony window.

  • Svetlana and Babushka stand in the kitchen.

  • Svetlana, my mother, sits at the kitchen table. She is in the process of getting ready to attend Babushka's friends funeral.

  • A self-portrait at the kitchen table.

  • Svetlana stands in the main corridor of the flat as the sun sets.

  • Babushka looks at a photograph of me when I was ten years old. My mother would send a large envelope of photographs regularly back to Russia whilst I was growing up.

  • Svetlana leads Babushka down the apartment hallway. It's becoming more difficult for her to walk each year.

  • Babushka sits in bed watching her television. She wears large black headphone which are turned up to the highest volume. Babushka has lived with moderate deafness her whole life.

  • Babushka lays in bed watching her television. On top of her tall mirror are the ribbons of Saint George tied into bows.

  • Svetlana and Babushka rest on the pull out sofa.

  • A corner of the wall where two wallpapers meet.

  • A cabbage in the fridge. The cabbage was cooked a few days later.

  • A newly prepared jar of pickled cucumbers stands on the kitchen table.

  • The view from the window of the balcony which connects to the kitchen.

  • A light switch in the kitchen.

  • Vladimir Putin on the television screen in Babushka's bedroom. An LG 'Life's Good' TV box leans against the cabinet.