In anthropology there is a term called “grandmothering” used to describe the evolutionary value of grandmothers for our development as a species. Some scientists, including the University of Utah’s Kristen Hawkes, proposed that the menopause (something that we do not share with our primate relatives) came about because of all the incredible tasks our nans could do. We’re not talking pillowy soft Yorkshire puddings or the jibes made about eternal singledom that sound like a loving compliment, but in Kristen’s words, grandmothers have had “a whole array of social capacities that are the foundation for the evolution of other distinctly human traits, including pair bonding, bigger brains, learning new skills and our tendency for cooperation.”
It was this concept that piqued Ukrainian photographer Elena Subach’s interest and has led to her series Grandmothers on the Edge of Heaven. The project aims to explore the lives of grandmothers, especially within the context of Ukraine’s recent history. “The situation has turned out in such a way that our grannies’ lives in the Soviet Union – even though traumatic and important – are actually no longer applicable nowadays,” Elena tells It’s Nice That. “The times have changed globally and very quickly, and it seems this causes acute feeling of helplessness among older people. They can’t share their accumulated wisdom, they seek for solace in religion. Their grandchildren would more likely search for answers on the Internet than ask them, and the gap between generations is just increasing.”
For the project, Elena wanted to explore this generation gap by meeting her elders, talking to them about their experiences, routines and their faith, and photographing their lives. The inspiration for the style of the portraits came from the Proto Renaissance epoch (from around 1300-1400), when “icons gave way to painting, but it still remained a part of a religious composition,” explains Elena. “Ukraine is chaotically colourful and I work with this chaos using a flash, which helps me to ‘organise’ the image, making it more graphic, more flat and closer to the iconographic traditional image.”
Just as in Proto Renaissance painting, symbolism is very important to Grandmothers on the Edge of Heaven. A lot of the colour in the series follows the symbolism of this era of painting, tapping into the religious tendencies of many older Ukrainians. “There is a lot of blue in the series, it means the infinity of the sky and is also a symbol of a different and eternal world,” she explains. “Red is a symbol of the life victory over death. Sometimes red backgrounds were used in icons as a sign of the triumph of eternal life. I also use this technique when changing the background behind the figures of the grandmothers, ‘resettling’ them in the paradise gardens.”
Inspired by the tradition of the vanitas (paintings intended to remind us of the transience of life and the inevitability of death through the inclusion of skulls, rotting fruit or spent candles), Elena incorporated still lifes into the series. “My grandmother and her friends thought in symbols and were often telling each other their dreams and searching for their meanings using dream books, where all these candles and mirrors were definitely,” she says. For Elena the most important still life in the series depicts Ukrainian dishes on her grandmother’s table. “This whole series is dedicated to her. In my collage, I moved the dishes to a blooming garden to signify a transition; the way our memory transforms into a kind of a welcome dinner in heaven. I think she would have liked it.”
About the Author
Laura is a London-based arts journalist that has been working for It’s Nice That on a freelance basis since 2016. She currently covers the news desk on a Friday for news editor Jenny. Send her all your big stories, projects and exhibitions. You can reach Laura directly on email@example.com or via our news channel at firstname.lastname@example.org.