Iwajla Klinke

The Captured Rituals of Iwajla Klinke

By Travis Jeppesen

One of the more pernicious symptoms of global capitalism has been the spread of an overwhelming uniformity of style and appearance that goes under the name of “popular culture.” Like the global spread of English as a lingua franca, it is meant to serve as a universal language – one whose symbols we must all comprehend if we are to live in the world today, whether we like it or not. The annihilating effects of this phenomenon on local cultures and forms of expression are well known, and indeed, any counter-globalization effort worth its name must take into consideration some measures of preservation.

It is with great timeliness – despite the inherent timelessness of her images – that an artist like Iwajla Klinke then arrives on the scene, fully armed to give us a glimpse at various micro-worlds that continue to endure against the grain of contemporaneity. At the same time, Klinke’s photographs are global in their outreach – she does not confine herself to one particular culture or region, but has set out upon a journey to preserve glimpses of fast-disappearing collectivities that connect us to ancient traditions of myth and ritual, rites that continue to resonate in our day-to-day lives, whether or not we pause to consider their reverberations.

Klinke utilizes classical portraiture to capture her subjects in either traditional costumes, or else manufactured creations that somehow preserve some semblance of ancient ritual. Not far from her home in Berlin, the Sorbians of Eastern Germany still celebrate the annual Bird Wedding on 25 January of each year, in which two children are selected as bride and groom and brought together in a mock ceremony to celebrate the upcoming end of winter. Klinke captures her child brides against dark backgrounds and in natural light, allowing us to admire both the fine detail and flourish of their traditional dresses as well as the determined expressions of reverence that are somewhat surprising to find on children’s faces; they bespeak a worldliness that goes beyond our traditionally cosmopolitan conception of the term, a worldliness that is definitively earthbound and engraved in the machinations of a past that is eternally present.

In another series, Klinke travels to Sicily during Holy Week to select decorated subjects from the festive pageantry for her portraits. Here, the Mysteries have been played out in the days before Easter ever since the 1600s in processions that can last up to twenty-four hours. With baroque extravagance, the children take on their apostolic roles with dignity and honor – and yet the disparity that emerges between their exaggeratedly colorful and detailed robes and sacred cloths and the pitch black background they are shot against is like the very chasm between the Earth, with its millennia of history, and the perpetual darkness from whence it all emerged – and to which it might someday return.

The question, then, must be asked: What distinguishes these photographic works from a mere exercise in cultural anthropology? Despite the seeming esoteric subject matter, Klinke’s gaze is never clinical or desultory; rather, she holds her subjects in the same reverence and esteem with which they carry out their annual rituals. One could say that photography is Iwajla Klinke’s own ritual, one whose results she generously shares. Even her method is quasi-ritualistic. In her travels, Klinke produces her photographs using the same method she practices in her home studio in Berlin’s fashionably shabby Kreuzberg district. Eschewing unnatural light, her photo shoots always take place during the day time next to a window. Given the relative poverty of sunshine in Germany throughout most of the year, the light is usually soft, dim, and pale, as though to allow her subjects’ “inner glow” to fill the frame. Deceptively simple and straightforward in appearance, the photographs are actually produced in sessions that can last up to several hours, during which hundreds of shots are taken, from which the artist will select one single image to serve as the finished portrait. Her subjects, then, must enter into something like a meditative state and wholly submit to the process as the work is being done, which perhaps accounts for the sense of serenity that emerges from nearly all of the figures in Klinke’s photographs.

It is no mistake that Klinke prefers photographing children. One cannot conjure a future worth living in without a cognizance of the past that entails at least some engagement beyond the superficial. Iwajla Klinke’s practice, after all, also extends beyond contemporary photography’s limited concerns and is perhaps best seen situated among the paintings of the Old Masters that continue to inspire her, with the chiaroscuro endeavors of Jean Barbault and Caravaggio immediately springing to mind. Excavating some of the most unlikely sources of our contemporary fabric and forcing us to turn our gaze on them in an intense consideration, Iwajla Klinke effectively re-invents the sublime and gives us a new politics of reality.

With a cast of colorful characters who would do justice to any repertory stage, Iwajla Klinke infuses portrait photography with the magic and elegance of its early years, when one of its primary goals was to document and celebrate ritual moments in an individual’s life. The snapshot aesthetic of the last century and the ubiquity of digital images today has diminished the ceremonial aspect of picture-taking in favor of what William Eggleston once termed the “democratic camera.” In contrast, ceremony is at the core of Klinke’s approach. Her camera records subjects whose very clothing points to individuality, even to eccentricity, and where ritual is implicit. All of these studies are presented in a formal manner that sometimes recalls the conventions of the painted portrait. (The fact that Klinke’s works are printed with pigments on handmade paper further strengthens this link to classical traditions of picture-making.) With minimalist means, she achieves results of immense visual authority.

The elegant serenity of these compositions belies the haphazard circumstances that frequently surround their production in remote Carpathian villages or in Germany’s Black Forest. In 2013 alone Klinke was under way in Europe, Canada and Brazil. Her work can be seen in the tradition of the artist-traveler seeking and recording new impressions – much like those German artists who visited the New World in the 19th century in order to create visual records of vanishing tribes of Native Americans. For a single image in her own “Settimana Santa” series, Iwajla Klinke once traveled for 20 hours by bus to reach a small community in Sicily on Easter Sunday morning. By the time she located her young subject, less than a minute remained before mass began – time enough, though, to fasten a simple piece of cloth to the vestry door and photograph a young boy dressed as an angel. Such three-quarter studies, with a neutral background of black or brown, use natural light to create sepia-like effects strikingly reminiscent of a Vermeer painting. Yet what also seems to radiate here is an inner light, a kind of epiphany deeply rooted in rituals whose origins may well have been forgotten but whose spiritual energy persists.

While Klinke has also produced theatrical studies of young people with bizarre accessories or in the contemporary “costumes” of fencers and American-style footballers, her signature pieces are studies of children dressed in elaborate traditional garb, often richly embroidered. For these studies the artist only works within the context of the religious ceremonies in which such attire is actually employed. There is no studied “posing” or extra dressing-up. This, she feels, would undermine the authenticity she seeks. Often a project may seem a race against time, since the use of a particular elaborate headdress in a single mountain village may be the last, fragile vestige of ancient ceremonies otherwise forgotten. Such work has an obvious documentary dimension, though Klinke sees this as secondary. “I don’t choose subjects for their anthropological value,” the artist insists. “I choose them for their beauty.” Nonetheless, the search for a motif may well involve considerable research and cross-cultural savvy. Serendipity, however, can also play a role – as in the recent discovery in Toronto of old-fashioned display mannequins wearing “communion suits” and lace ribbons bearing the name “Jesus” alongside a chalice.

In attempting to decode Klinke’s multivalent oeuvre, it is interesting to note that she grew up in East Germany, where her mother’s family moved after World War II for ideological reasons, hoping to fulfill the dream of a better world. Her father, a Bulgarian opera singer, died when Iwajla was only six years old. “I had no religious upbringing,” Klinke explains, “ but I was fascinated by religious rituals, especially those involving children. These always have something to do with the conquering of death, and they are often accompanied by fertility symbols like the crown.” The fascination such rituals exerted was deepened by the discovery of The Golden Bough, Sir James Frazer’s comparative study of mythology and religion. In what would prove one of the most influential texts of the last century, the author approached religion as a cultural phenomenon, not from a theological perspective.

Virtually all religions, he argued, derived from fertility cults revolving around the worship and periodic sacrifice of a sacred king. As such ceremonies evolved, the figure of a child – as martyr or as bridegroom – might replace the ancient heroes. It was in Berlin’s rough-and-tumble, multicultural Kreuzberg district that Klinke started photographing interesting figures she encountered in local parks and bars. She was particularly fascinated by subjects with all-over tattoos – with “magic texts,” as she called them, thus echoing a phrase from Frazer’s opus. In addition, she might ask young people to pose for her, clothed only in scraps of antique lace, necklaces of paper doilies, shuttlecocks or white mice, even with epaulets of dripping candles. More recently, she has created three studies of young men with body painting that imitates the blueand- white “Musselmalet” pattern introduced by Royal Copenhagen Porcelain in the 18th century but loosely derived from Meissen’s blue-and-white onion pattern. The slender figures of the three young men who “model” the cobalt-blue ornamentation have a touching fragility – like fine porcelain itself. (They are also a reminder that among tribalist cultures body painting frequently accompanied rites of passage, hunting and warfare.) The delicacy of the “Musselmalet” figures is even more dramatic if compared to the rugged cadets, in full Scottish dress regalia, who make up the series entitled “White Crowned Sparrow.” (As pupils at a Canadian boarding school, the cadets depicted here suggest that the outward trappings of ritual can also be effectively “transplanted.”) What such works have in common and share, indeed, with the portraits of Deaconesses in crisp white caps and bows is that all the protagonists wear a sort of uniform. That uniform, in turn, signifies shared values and goals. Far from suppressing individual identity, here the uniform actually enhances it.

In the case of Klinke’s startling portraits of “Bee Kings,” the helmet worn is not only alive but also potentially lethal. Despite the impressive range of her more recent works, Klinke’s true trademark emerges in her stunning portraits of children dressed in ceremonial garments. Many of these date to the 19th century, symbolizing beliefs “that live on in the form of rituals,” according to the artist. Despite the speed a sitting may demand, one senses a very special relationship between the artist and her models. Whatever their age, the latter seem to surrender themselves gladly to the inquiring eye of her camera, while she in turn imbues her sitters with a compelling dignity.