Behind the mask: Alys Tomlinson captures the spirit of Italian rural tradition and identity

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This article is printed in the latest issue of British Journal of Photography magazine: Tradition & Identity. Available to purchase at thebjpshop.com.

In her latest book, Gli Isolani, the British documentary photographer travels to the countryside of Sardinia, Sicily and the Venetian Lagoon, taking portraits of locals adorned in traditional costumes and masks of the region

 

A woman gazes into the camera, the corners of her lips curling gently upward in a half-smile. Wrapped across her white lace camisole is a velvet blouse with billowing sleeves, lined with a thick lapel of silk embroidery framing her décolletage. A polished metal belt with a detailed clasp fixes the garment over a long skirt. Her diamond-shaped earrings dangle and glisten in the sun, matching the intricate pendant secured around her neck with a thin black ribbon. The exquisite dress is a traditional costume from Piana degli Albanesi, a commune in the mountainous region of Sicily, home to the largest community of Arbëreshë (Italo-Albanians) in the country. The women in her family have passed it down for generations; it once belonged to her mother and her grandmother before that. She usually wears it during La Pasqua (Holy Week during Italian Easter). On this day, however, she is having her portrait taken by British documentary photographer Alys Tomlinson.

Ceremony Traditional dress, Piana degli Albanesi, Sicily from Gli Isolani © Alys Tomlinson.

At the start of 2020, Tomlinson spent four weeks travelling around rural villages in Sicily and Sardinia, working on her latest series Gli Isolani (The Islanders), of which this image is part. The trip was by no means her first to Italy. The photographer visited several times during the decade prior and had observed the pride of the Italian people in retelling folk tales and upholding local traditions. She had been waiting for an opportunity to explore this idea for years, having made images in Venice that were also ultimately included in the project. Now, she was ready to take it further. 

Tomlinson is well-known for the striking black-and-white, large format portraits with which Gli Isolani is replete. In the earlier series Lost Summer (2020), she framed high-school students dressed in the glamorous outfits they would have worn to their end-of-year proms – cancelled due to Covid-19. Meanwhile, her widely recognised work, Ex-Voto (Gost Books, 2019), is a portrait and documentary series picturing pilgrims on spiritual journeys through the religious sites of Lourdes, Ballyvourney and Grabarka. The photographer is now working on an extension of that project – a film about the life of an Orthodox nun called Vera, whom she met while creating the original work. 

However, unlike her previous series, with Gli Isolani, the increasing restrictions of the Covid-19 pandemic meant Tomlinson had limited time in the country before she returned to the UK. The initial plan was to photograph people during La Pasqua, when the spirit of Italian culture and mythology comes alive through celebrations across the country. But the pandemic saw the cancellation of more and more events. Instead, Tomlinson – with the help of Giovanna Stopponi, an Italian documentary film-maker familiar with the region – contacted the associations in each village responsible for organising the spectacles. From Ottana, Ortueri and Sarule in Sardinia, to San Fratello, Militello Rosmarino and Prizzi in Sicily, and more – Tomlinson spent just a few days in each place, photographing a few key characters, dressed in costumes specific to their locale and worn at various religious festivities throughout the year. 

Is Sonaggiaos, Ortueri, Sardinia from Gli Isolani © Alys Tomlinson.
Sos Corriolos, Neoneli, Sardinia from Gli Isolani © Alys Tomlinson.
Maschere a Gattu, Sarule, Sardinia from Gli Isolani © Alys Tomlinson.
Il Diavolo, Prizzi, Sicily from Gli Isolani © Alys Tomlinson.

The result is a series of quieter figures, isolated from the chaos of their usual context. The esoteric portraits, which are collected in a new book published by Gost, and which will also be on show in a solo exhibition at HackelBury Fine Art, London, from 07 September 2022, are veiled in mystery. Moving from image to image, we almost forget that these are pictures of people in costume as each subject begins to embody the personality and mythicism of their character. Some stand quietly, while others leap, contort or interact. The boundaries between reality and fiction blur. “There is a playfulness and performative aspect to [the images],” says Tomlinson. “I’m pushing what a portrait is a bit more with this series… and trying to connect with the person behind the costume, so you see a little of who they are.” 

“Who [the villagers] are is tied up in the characters they embody. It’s about pride and identity, but it’s also about birth, death and redemption. There’s some darkness there too.” 

 

The subjects are not actors. However, each year, on selected days of festivities, they perform complex and meaningful roles. In many instances, the same person wears the same costume for years, until they are ready to pass the baton to someone from the next generation. The personas and their garments are symbolic of communal and national heritage. But they are also a form of self-expression. “Who [the villagers] are is tied up in the characters they embody. It’s about pride and identity, but it’s also about birth, death and redemption,” says Tomlinson. “There’s some darkness there too.” 

On Good Friday, for instance, in the Sicilian village of Militello Rosmarino, Le Maddalene – women, some as young as 16 – dress in black, covering every part of their body including their face. They confess their sins to the local priest during the days prior and, in an act of penance, they walk along the streets carrying a small crucifix in front of their faces. Even their families do not know who they are. Elsewhere, during the Carnival in Sardinia, which begins in January and ends on Ash Wednesday, the hunchbacked Sa Filonzana – usually a man dressed as an old woman – walks among the crowds, holding a spindle of wool. The character is based on the goddess of fate and destiny, Clotho. The threads represent human life and can be cut at any time.

During the same festival, photographed by Tomlinson in the village of Ottana, villagers await the arrival of the Boes and Merdules– characters dressed in thick sheepskins with painted faces or carved, wooden masks. They represent the farmers’ relationship with their lands and the hardships that come with it. 

Sos Merdules, Ottana, Sardinia from Gli Isolani © Alys Tomlinson.

Each village in the region has a strong sense of individual identity – “they often don’t consider themselves Italian and they speak their own dialects” – but their combined festival calendars align with that of the Christian faith and pagan customs. The folklore forms strong connections with stories of the land, agriculture and the seasons, particularly in the villages where the farming practices have percolated through generations.

To reflect this, the backgrounds of Tomlinson’s portraits are as evocative as the characters themselves, moving from century-old city walls, to sun-bleached rocks and grassy plains. “I suppose in a subtle way I was trying to show the power of the landscape,” says Tomlinson. “I didn’t want it to overwhelm the portraits, but I wanted to show that it mutates, changes and crumbles sometimes. It’s always there and very much a part of who they are.” 

 

“In the same way that I’m an atheist who spent a lot of time in Lourdes and other pilgrimage sites for Ex-Voto, I suppose a part of me is recognising something that is lacking in myself and my way of living. For me it’s an investigation and exploration of why this ‘something’ that I don’t have is so important to other communities.” 

 

Indeed, themes of time, ritual and spirituality dovetail the project, but also Tomlinson’s wider practice. It is a curious subject for someone who is a self-proclaimed “anti-traditionalist, in many ways,” she observes. “But in the same way that I’m an atheist who spent a lot of time in Lourdes and other pilgrimage sites for Ex-Voto – it was definitely a surprise to my family when I embarked on that project – I suppose a part of me is recognising something that is lacking in myself and my way of living. For me it’s an investigation and exploration of why this ‘something’ that I don’t have is so important to other communities.” 

These days, there is a tendency to mourn the past, paired with a sense of urgency to safeguard traditions, particularly when they lean on the oral storytelling of our ancestors. Young people leave village life for better opportunities in the cities, technology replaces artisanal craftsmanship, and while in some ways we are more connected than ever, we are often at odds with the natural rhythms of land and heritage.

This is echoed in rural Italy, says Tomlinson. “But then you see [the young villagers] get in an open truck, [the sounds of their props and costumes] clanging and crashing, and the banging of their sticks. There’s a great sense that these are their traditions too, and they are embracing them.” After spending time in the villages, Tomlinson “began to understand that this is where their pride came from, and how integral it was to their family and community. There’s a sense of ‘this is who we are, and we’re coming together to do it all again’.” For now, these traditions are still very much alive.

Gli Isolani by Alys Tomlinson is published by Gost Books in November, priced £40.

A solo exhibition of the work is on show at HackelBury Fine Art, London, from 07 September to 29 October 2022. 

Izabela Radwanska Zhang

Starting out as an intern back in 2016, Izabela Radwanska Zhang is now the Editorial Director of British Journal of Photography in print and online. Her words have appeared in Disegno and Press Association. Prior to this, she completed a MA in Magazine Journalism at City University, London, and most recently, a Postgrad Certificate in Graphic Design at London College of Communication.