In a new book of photographs by artist Anna Ehrenstein, Tales of Lipstick and Virtue, intersections of class and pseudo-luxury are conspicuously unpacked in striking works that reconcile changing notions of female identity emerging in contemporary Albanian life.
The photographs—mostly fake-stills Ehrenstein composed on the streets of Tirana—depict women confronting global spectres of capitalism in post-communist Albania.
“My work deals with a global phenomenon in which Albania and the woman [depicted] form the stage of a discourse that could take place in every country of the world,” she explains. “But I chose Albania as a stage because Albanian society was confronted by post-communist capitalism and globalization at the same time. Because of that, some global phenomena tended to intensify.”
That Albania, like most post-communist countries, has reacted to the introduction of Western capitalism by opening the door to luxury brands is a key theme in the Ehrenstein’s work. After 45 years of isolation, Albania was “confronted with the appearance of globalized capitalism and digitalization at the same time,” Ehrenstein points out. “Equally important is that the people in post-communistic countries have a different history in ‘trademark education’ and material culture, so an object can be judged by materiality and meaning in many cases without having to be genuinely linked to the registered brand.”
On the other hand, Ehrenstein’s photographs lay bare complex economic and social issues around the proliferation of popular global brands. “For me, the act of appropriating a certain kind of symbol, one that usually belongs to a class you don’t have access to, is also a political act of saying: ‘I am just as good as you.’”
Of Albanian descent but brought up in Germany, Ehrenstein presents a new take on capitalist values and their integration within post-communist social and domestic Albania. However, rather than simply objectifying these values and projecting them onto her subjects, Ehrenstein arranges them in a way that foregrounds a deterournement of them. By appropriating logos taken from popular Western brands, such as Rolex and Burberry, Ehrenstein consciously integrates their luxurious symbolism with stereotypes of Eastern European women.
“Considering luxury as well as sexuality I tried to highlight these phenomena in working with woman that show a hyperfeminine, but not submissive form of self representation and relation to material culture that tributes contrast to the repeatedly propagated patriarchal and communist ideal of femininity,” she says.
“This phenomenon affects women differently than it affects men,” she suggests, “because the constitution of gendered identity is constructed differently in Albanian society.” In Albania, ideas of patriarchy still dominate both public and private life. Historically, this is linked to the 500-year occupation of the country by the Ottoman Empire, which relegated the role of women strictly to roles of motherhood and reproduction. With the introduction of communism, however, gender equality was espoused in theory but not in practice, and women were again mostly forced into reproductive roles in the domestic sphere. This means, for Ehrenstein, that “sex-positive, luxury affirmative kinds of lifestyles or self representation threaten the conservative ideals of the female identity reduced to the role of the mother and economic rationalism based on purpose.”
In total, the project took over two years to complete and was made with the explicit intention of arousing ideas of pseudo-luxury within the discourse of post-communist female identity.
“Sometimes the women brought different outfits with them, and then I chose the ones that had clear references to popular culture, for example through a certain kind of hairstyle, accessory, symbol or brand,” she explains.
By deconstructing tired and overly stereotyped images of women in post-communist Albanian society, Ehrenstein’s photographs project a fresh and empowering feeling, one that is often solely missing from the visual culture and aesthetic language of many post-communist societies. Instead of depicting women as poor and destitute, Ehrenstein’s work deconstructs representations of gender beyond these overly abundant cliches. In doing so, her photographs question and unpack values of Western consumerism by touching on the often contradictory nature of luxury, authenticity, class and gender in an absolutely brilliant and unique way. The resulting series of eye-catching photographs evoke a conceptual substance much deeper than simple superficial conformity to Western consumerism. Instead they expose how ideas of femininity in post-communist societies are coming to terms with the introduction of new discourses and ideas around representation and female empowerment in post-communist countries.
Tales of Virtue and Lipstick costs €46 and is printed in a limited edition of 250 plus a c-type print.