© Maria Kapajeva

The unspelled desires beyond women's labour

The productive work of women in the textile industries has been of greater importance than in any other trade. As soon as the textile industries for commercial production and distribution strengthened, women’s control of the manufactory gradually lessened. Sill, their work in different branches continued to be of enormous importance all through the days of the manual labor industry. Despite that, women were engaged mainly as wage earners. For much of their work before the Industrial Revolution, women themselves received no wages. Among the industrial classes, the earnings of wives and children were often included in the sum paid to the head of the family. But wherever women were unable to assist in their husbands’ work, it was necessary for them as a rule to become wage earners themselves.

Exploitation or emancipation? Wives of day laborers and others paid at a fixed rate of wages, and no task was considered too bulky or distasteful, being employed in some form of domestic industry. For so long women had worked as assistants to their husbands and fathers, and this could be considered a responsible aspect for their wrong economic position. Indeed, their labour was subsidiary therefore cheap, and they could perform useful service in many ways without technical training. So long as they were participants in a family wage, this system was not necessarily oppressive. Still, as soon as women became dependent on their own exertions, the hardship on their position was at once apparent: wages tended to remain at a supplementary level, and they found themselves excluded by lack of training from skilled and better-paid work.

  • Foto Femme united image
  • Foto Femme united image
© Maria Kapajeva

As a daughter of a textile designer at a textile mill in Narva, Estonia, the artist Maria Kapajeva (@mkapajeva) spent her childhood at the mill, drawing fabric patterns and dreaming about the same job her mother had. The whole textile mill, the most important company from the mid 19th century, was destroyed during the Second World War, and then bought by the Swedish. This was a slow and painful process, a social catastrophe for the town and the community itself. It was in 2016 when Maria Kapajeva had the chance to be an artist in residence at the retrained mill and started building up an archive that had never existed before: a collective and personal memory of the community surrounding the textile mill in Narva, of which her family was a part.

Dream Is Wonderful, Yet Unclear is a multi-layered project existing in many forms and visually made up of different aesthetics and voices. It’s the story of one small community and specifically of Soviet women seeking their identities. The title is borrowed from the lyrics of March of Enthusiasts, from the Soviet movie The Bright Way (1940), starring Lyubov Orlova in the role of a peasant, depicted as Cinderella making her way to be a heroic worker, a stakhanovite. Dreaming of being a textile worker at the mill was common, and so Maria Kapajeva dreamt of being like her mother, who became a designer to be like the protagonist of the movie. The idea of a dream as wonderful is of collective thought, distancing from the lack of clarity characterizing past memories.

quote What did women really go through every day? Nobody ever asked.
Maria Kapajeva
  • Foto Femme united image
  • Foto Femme united image
© Maria Kapajeva

Here's where the personal becomes the collective: in the personal diaries given to the artist by a former worker, is the possiblity to hear one of those voices living the mill. Here's where the personal becomes the collective experience of being women in work, feeling like heroines but still facing those little and genuine struggles to be both a textile worker, a wife and a mother at home. Beyond history, Maria Kapajeva’s project is more about working-class women in the post-industrial ages, drawing desires lying underneath the aspiration of being successful and achieving dreams.

Maria's book, Dream is Wonderful Yet Unclear, is available for purchase here

Ilaria Sponda
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An Italian visual artist and poetess based between Milan and Dublin. With a background in arts, medi... [read more]