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Book Review: Sworn Virgins


Book Review Sworn Virgins By Teresa Eng Reviewed by Adam Bell Thanks to blood feuds over still-sacrosanct ancient laws and an imposing geographical isolation, there are fewer men than there used to be in the Accursed Mountains of northern Albania. Where a patrilineal culture is undermined, a most extraordinary tradition has emerged. In the absence of a male head of household, women subsequently known as "Burrnesha," or "sworn virgins," choose or are chosen to take a vow of chastity and live as men.
Sworn Virgins. Photographs by Karen Jenkins.
 MACK, 2013.
 
Sworn Virgins
Reviewed by Karen Jenkins

Sworn Virgins
Photographs by Pepa Hristova.
Kehrer Verlag, Heidelberg, 2013. Hardbound. 228 pp., 71 color and 63 black & white illustrations, 8-1/2x10-1/2".


Thanks to blood feuds over still-sacrosanct ancient laws and an imposing geographical isolation, there are fewer men than there used to be in the Accursed Mountains of northern Albania. Where a patrilineal culture is undermined, a most extraordinary tradition has emerged. In the absence of a male head of household, women subsequently known as "Burrnesha," or "sworn virgins," choose or are chosen to take a vow of chastity and live as men. As it is surely not an antidote to a diminishing bloodline, this role rather provides a certain foothold in the family legacy, allowing these women-men to be land owners and bread winners where there were otherwise none. Pepa Hristova has both created and collected their portraits in Sworn Virgins. Title and artist name are transparently debossed in the book's cover image – a mountainous landscape that leads to several more sweeping views; all suggesting an immutability to this place and these lives, governed by codes that are both cause and consequence.

Sworn Virgins, by Pepa Hristova. Published by Kehrer Verlag, 2013.
Sworn Virgins, by Pepa Hristova. Published by Kehrer Verlag, 2013.

Thirteen individuals are depicted in Sworn Virgins, in multiples images and short texts, written by Danail Yankov or quoting the subjects. Representing the original iteration of this practice, Hakije and Qamile have lived as men since birth and early childhood respectively, in answer to their family's need for a male heir. Others like Diana, chose the role of sworn virgin for themselves, as an empowering act of autonomy and adventure. For Drande and Have, whose physical disabilities seemed a liability within proscribed female roles – it was a chance to beat some twist of fortune. In many portraits, the family home is a well-worn, complicated symbol of their legacy – a nod to the domestic for those whose choices have both preserved this realm and shifted their expected role within. Many of the sworn virgins are also depicted in a series of sequential images – less formal portraits than slice of life moments of smoking a cigarette, or walking down a mountain path. For subjects who are ostensibly hyper-aware of pose and affection, these sections – sometimes set out on gatefold pages – are an effective counterpoint of more unstudied gestures and aspects.

Sworn Virgins, by Pepa Hristova. Published by Kehrer Verlag, 2013.
Sworn Virgins, by Pepa Hristova. Published by Kehrer Verlag, 2013.

Each section of Hristova's color photographs is preceded by a smaller inbound insert comprised of black and white reproductions of existing portraits of the sworn virgin (and sometimes others) on pink, less substantial paper stock. While on one hand they have the ephemeral feel of photocopies, they are nonetheless an obstacle to getting directly to Hristova's contemporary views. These inserts insist that the viewer first reckon with how the Burrnesha have been seen in the past before taking on their latest depictions. They are a dynamic conflation of the theme of inevitability that runs through this cultural tale and a demonstration of each sworn virgin's pride and active authorship of her own story. Where so often vernacular imagery is used in a way that suggests a naivety on the part of its makers or subjects – as if the selector alone can understand its visual power – here it suggests that the sworn virgins understand the visual language at play and what it means to craft an image. While my thoughts surely turned to contemporary considerations of gender identity and sexual politics as I wonder at this practice and these lives, Hristova's project has also made me suspend my disbelief in the face of those who so confidently and knowingly wear their defining life choice on their sleeves.—KAREN JENKINS

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KAREN JENKINS earned a Master's degree in Art History, specializing in the History of Photography from the University of Arizona. She has held curatorial positions at the Center for Creative Photography in Tucson, AZ and the Demuth Museum in Lancaster, PA. Most recently she helped to debut a new arts project, Art in the Open Philadelphia, that challenges contemporary artists to reimagine the tradition of creating works of art en plein air for the 21st century.

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