Mystic Mari El in Albina Shaimuratova’s Project
Born in Moscow, since 2012 studied in Igor Mukhin’s workshop of Rodchenko School.
Many of us are superstitious — some stay away from black cats, some sit down for a bit before a journey (to have a good journey), some always go round a post on the same side as their friend (the post being in between them symbolizing a quarrel in the future, not to quarrel). l wanted to visit a place where the concentration of this magic reaches its peak. In winter 2014, my friends and I went to Mari El Republic. We were looking for pagan settlements, where the locals knew ancient enchantments.
We found ourselves in a different world, living by its own laws. I heard: do not sit on the doorstep — you will scare your fiance off or get sick; do not stand with your arms crossed. Some people told us stories about how they drove the spirits away from their homes with juniper branches or how they hung pig noses around the house to safeguard their family. Some people had needles scattered under their doors — it means the person who did it wished them ill. I heard a lot of stories about love spells and malefices.
This was all like the Russian fairy-tales, but with the element of some dark poetry. I wrote some of the stories down, here is my favorite:
There was a time in our family when bad things happened one after another. My son died, I was hospitalized, my brother’s house burned down. That month I found the stump of a candle in my house. I have never had candles, so it definitely was not mine. So, I threw it in the stove. A couple weeks later, I told my friend about it, and she said: “What did you do? Your house was jinxed, someone planted a candle stump in your house, and you only made it worse, put it in the stove! Put the ash from the furnace in a jar, and bury it in the wood!”. I collected the ash and put it in a cupboard in the kitchen, but I forgot to bury it. In another week the friend asked me: “Did you do as I had told you?”. I replied to her that I had forgotten. She said again: “What have you done? Take that jar, come to the crossroad when it is a new moon, throw the ash on all four sides, and run home.
If you hear that someone is stomping and breathing behind your back, that someone is running behind you — do not turn around.
When you come home, lock the doors and the windows, and go to bed. If you hear someone knocking on the window — do not look out of the window.” This time, I did everything as she had told me. I threw the ash away at the crossroad, and I ran home. Indeed, I heard heavy breathing behind me the whole time, I was scared, but I never turned around, I came home — and heard that very knock on the window… After that, things started going better for my family.
It is difficult and expensive to travel around Mari El alone — the distances between villages are big, you have to take a car, and I was lucky that all the three times that I was there I came with my friends.
We had a local assistant. We explained to him what kind of people we would like to meet, and he found them for us. Many refused. When you are making a project on this topic, it is obvious that many of your heroes are difficult people. If the neighbors find out that someone local is a shaman, they will stay away from them, so such people often hide.
Besides, one superstition says it is not good to have your photograph taken, because it takes away a part of your soul.
Sometimes, before taking a single photograph, we would spend two days talking to prepare the hero for the shoot.
The first time we went to Mari El, it was specifically for the Christmas carols. Christmas is a traditional holiday, when everybody dresses up and walks around the village. This all looks very impressive: people cover their faces with masks — this is both a powerful and a scary image. But the really scary part were local stories. You are talking to grown-ups, and they are telling you how their neighbor hates them and wants to kill them with spells.
Many photographs were taken under the influence of what I had heard. It is impossible to turn a story into a photograph without making it into a feeling, into an image.
For instance, based on some stories I had the image of a girl with a hen in my head. So during my last trip I tried to find a girl like that. Some refused to have their photos taken. some agreed, but did not want us to photograph their hens, or they would stop laying eggs.
Mari El is a place where what I was looking for concentrates. My project is not about the people or the customs, but about the place, which sacral and surreal things have in our lives.
I want to complete this story with a book that I am currently working on. It takes a lot of energy. You spend a lot of time thinking, reinterpreting yourself and your attitude to this kind of mysticism. To be honest, I am tired of it by now.