Not anyone has the chance to continue his life after death. We try to defeat this fear with a feeling of persistence. In some cases, we exert it through our children or whatever we leave, written or built, during our lifetime. For Ramya, something more than a simple memory has been left. The recollection of her entire life has been condensed in a book.
Ramya is neither a simple book of memories, nor a photographic or storytelling book like the ones in fashion today. It is not a collection of stories that just explain, it is a mix of feelings, the result of two souls that meet in the flow of their lives, Ramya and the author, Petra Satvast.
Ramya is her landlady in Amsterdam. One of those strange cases in which forced cohabitation becomes comprehension between two women from different generations. From 2001 until 2012 when Ramya died, the camera represented for Stavast the instrument to understand the life of her cohabitant.
The book seems divided in different sections that do not flow simplistically in a temporal and diachronic way but seem to follow much more the gradual phases of Stavast’s knowledge of Ramya, like it was a benevolent attempt of letting the reader understand her path and motivations that led to transform the story of this lady into an artistic project.
At the beginning of the work, we find portraits of Ramya at home, together with views of her house in which the characteristics of the owner are equally revealed. Later, pages flow through pictures of places taken with the machine at low yield, very different from the first ones that were so precise and accurate, then through archival footage and video frames we get to the publishing of the real memories of Ramya, how to say: ’til now I’ve taken you by the hand into knowledge by pictures, giving the chance not to have preconcepts. Now it is Ramya to reveal herself and put all the pieces of the framework in place.
This complexity, together with the construction of different reading levels is due to a turning point as part of the understanding of Ramya by Stavast and it is the death of the woman that led the author to get in a deeper touch with the world of her former landlady. As weel as we are used to do with our relatives after their death, Stavast brought order in the personal effects of the woman discovering an archive that has shed much more light on her life.
From there, a real trip towards an other dimension began, almost a black hole that draws us into Ramya’s world and let us live her experience in the Rajneeshpuram in Osho, Oregon (US), where the mystic indian used to greet his followers during his Rolls Royce promenades along Big Muddy Road, her further experience of analysis with another guru who scanned her past and her future expectations, Ramya’s last pictures taken by a neighbour (not clear whether hidden or not, provoking in the reader a sense of anxiety) and, at least, the scroll of Ramya’s ID photos in different period of her existance.
The absolute feeling is a mix of sadness and sweetness, melancholy and delicate comfort because in the end Ramya’s wandering in her lifetime recalls our daily pursuit of something that can make us satisfied and happy, the pursuit of love and the search of someone who loves us and that somehow makes us feel again the sensation of protection and well-being experienced in the womb. Here we can find the universal of a piece of art, the ability to internalize and make universal benefiting also from a story so unique and intimate. It is real true, every story deserves to be told, it’s all about knowing how to do it and in the way we decide to to it. Without heart and empathy, the heart becomes a mere instrument and the universal will not be able to reveal itself.
Valentina Trisolino: The most fascinating and shocking thing that comes out from the reading of Ramya is the attempt to imagine the intimate and personal relationship you built with the protagonist. Can you tell us how you met and in which way your relationship grew?
Petra Stavast: While looking for a room in Amsterdam, where I was an intern in 2001 for a period of 5 months, a mutual acquaintance of both Ramya and me got us connected: she had a small spare room in her attic she was willing to sublet. The morning she would hand me the keys – first time we met – she came walking down the street half an hour late, totally drunk. She showed me my room, the shower in her apartment that I could use since my room didn’t have one and left. I didn’t see her again for almost a month. During that period, I started a project on my temporary environment, including her apartment. Observing her house, her things, I grew fascinated, curious. It was exciting, voyeuristic. Suddenly she returned and I would run into her in her kitchen. We both were quiet, not at ease. I asked her if it was OK for me to depict her apartment (which I secretly already did) and she agreed. I was a student at the time, getting to know new camera’s and films, and the light was beautiful so she didn’t think it was a strange question. Sometimes she entered the frame, in the background. After some visits she offered tea, we sat opposite each other and I asked her if I could portray her. Although I was afraid of asking, I wanted to overcome this fear. She agreed and we sat there, very uncomfortable. Her body language showed that she was fed-up with me but for some reason I continued. From that point on, I portrayed her more often, handing her small contact pictures from the previous visit. She became more open, seemed more happy in general and we had interesting conversations by the time I left Amsterdam after 5 months. The contrast between us was huge: we differ 30 years, I’d lived in a small town all my life until then, where she had traveled the world, doing all that God had forbidden. She truly lived her life to the fullest, something I just recently understood as a possibility and longed for. When living with her, I didn’t think I would use the images for art-school, they functioned more as practice material and as some sort of excuse to get to know Ramya. But eventually, some months later while enlarging some of the images in the darkroom, I saw the development in time, in her appearance in general and the growing relationship between her and me, it stroke me as very honest getting-to-know-someone. I went there one more time before my final exams, to ask for her permission to use the images for an exhibition and booklet and she thought it was a cute yet silly question: those were my images and her depiction on them didn’t mean much to her. Also, when I stuttered that she seemed vulnerable to me on some of the images, she told me that she didn’t need my pictures to know herself. It turned out, she had been admitted to a psychiatric institution during her absence in my first month in Amsterdam and, without me being aware, I had depicted her during a period of rehabilitation. We’ve stayed in touch ever since. I started to travel a lot, sending her letters from all my journeys, she’d send me beautiful crafted cards, pictures, articles. I visited her often, she could tell the most funny and bizarre stories, scattered in time and place – she was quite fuzzy at times. We became good friends, we enjoyed and recognized each-others drive and curiosity. Mine more in the future, hers more in the past. Fall 2012, in her late 60’s, her landlord found her laying on her sofa, where she passed away 5 days prior. First thing I did after the news was portray her appartement one last time, as a goodbye. it was like in 2001, in silence, without her being there. I ended up emptying her house together with her old landlord. He was a vivid amateur photographer that secretly took pictures of Ramya over the years, crossing the street opposite their house. He gave me a DVD with images that gave me a new insight on her daily life. Together we discovered beautiful photos and video-material from a series of self-help-courses she took in the 80‘s. Also, friends I met at her funeral told me stories of her past that often were the total contrary. After a while, I decided to take all this material plus what I’ve collected over the years and try to make it into some sort of biography. I made one importent journey to conclude this: to the place where she ‘turned’ into Ramya, which was at Oregon in a commune that was built by followers of Bhagwan (Osho). The commune was there from 1981 till 1986. There was hardly anything left nowadays but the place felt sacred to me in a way. Combined with archival images of the commune I completed the story into what I considered my version of a biography of Ramya, my memory of her in all its contradictions.
VT: Recurring themes of your artistic research are the memory and the pursuit of identity, whether of places or men. We understand, in fact, that they are inseparable and one the consequence of the other. Can you please explain how this need takes places inside you?
PS: Memory for me is something scattered, different pieces that change in shape and order over time. So is identity, and I assume that identity is based on memories. Both are superimposed, complex and hard to untangle. The process to untangle has my interest – my works mainly are attempts to do so.
VT: Ramya is a project that has points in common with your previous publication, Libero, like stock research and found pictures. A common characteristic is their long gestation, so long that seems not completely finished like in Libero. Do you think that this can be considered to be a prerogative that marks every work of yours?
PS: (laughs) It’s both a prerogative and a burden: when something is part of me for such a long period it gets more complete and layered but indeed it opens up so many sides and possibilities hat it is hard to end the process, the relationship with the subject. It never really closes so yes, you are very right and I don’t know but I do hope that my weakness is my strength.
VT: The publishing looks like the perfect conclusion of all your artistic research. Is this a choice that you have done regardless of the work or has this been proposed during construction?
PS: While gathering information and going through the material, I started thinking in separate ‘story-lines’, ‘chapters’. So a book as a document fits the material very well, I realized from an early start. But some parts of the story sometimes where better to be told in other media so contemporaneously, I’ve made an exhibition where video and posters tell some parts of the story that aren’t in the book. But from an early stage in the proces on, I knew a book would be part of the project.
VT: Are you currently working on any new project? If so, can you anticipate anything?
PS: Yes, I’m working on a project that derives from my project Libero. He had a sister that was a photographer, her name was Concetta, living next-door the house of Delia (one of the main characters of Libero). She was single and ran a very popular photo studio at the time. One of her services was portraying people for their travel documents that they needed when migrating to the USA or Canada. Her archive is missing but I’ve got in contact with some children from people that had their portraits taken by Concetta just after WWII and I found some hand painted backdrops from her studio. I’m investigating possibilities to tie that specific region of Calabria to the regions the’ve migrated to. It’s still very vague but I’m starting to find a direction.
Petra Stavast (1977) is a Dutch visual artist. Through the media of photography, film and text Stavast unravels and structures complex social issues often departing from an seemingly insignificant personal observation. In her books ‘China/S75’ (Roma Publications, 2008), ‘Libero’ (Roma Publications, 2009) and ‘Ramya’ (Fw:Books / Roma Publications, 2014) she brings different fragments of research together and translates them into a compelling visual story. Her work has been exhibited in museums, galleries, cultural institutions and festivals worldwide such as the New York Photo Festival, Fundazione Giuliani Rome, Lishui Photographic Festival China and the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam. Stavast received her BFA with honours form the School of Fine Arts St.Joost, NL. She currently teaches at the School of Fine Arts Utrecht, NL and lives and works in Amsterdam.