The Markéta Luskačová exhibition at Tate Britain, part of the Spotlights programme, invites the visitor into moments between waiting and watching, action and pause. The black and white photographs are arranged frieze-like in an ongoing passage around the room. From pilgrims to street musicians and holiday makers, the people that populate Luskačová’s work are often caught in the act of observing an activity or waiting quietly for it to finish.
The exhibition is divided into five photographic series dated 1964 to 1990. Pilgrims (1964-1971), is Luskačová’s documentation of traditional forms of religion in eastern Slovakia. The calm in these images belie their turbulent context: photographing pilgrims was dangerous as public expressions of faith were suppressed under communism. The series was not exhibited until after the 1989 Velvet Revolution. Figures shrouded in black sit in rows on carved wooden pews, their faces still as they listen to Mr. Ferenz singing, Obišovce, Slovakia (1966), his eyes raised sorrowfully. In Woman passing the procession near Košice, Slovakia (1968), a solemn group walks away along a rural track with a ceremonial banner as a woman comes towards us carrying flowers.
The latter was photographed in the year of the Prague Spring when Warsaw Pact forces (Bulgaria, Hungary, East Germany and Poland) invaded Czechoslovakia to supress reformist trends. The rituals of rural Slovakia seem a long way from political unrest. Luskačová captured an isolated area that was relatively undisturbed by the state, where collectivisation was not economically viable and people still owned their farms. The series Šumiac, The Mountain Village (1967–1974) documented a rural community over seven years. Woman work in fields, babies on their backs, or sit slouched and tired at a wake, leaning on one another to endure the long hours. This endurance is captured in Funeral of Starka Gordonová (1971), which shows four women looking towards the camera, their pale faces caught in the light against the darkness of their clothes and background. The light captures every line, their eyes look intensely into the viewer’s. Both series show Luskačová’s exploration of ‘lives lived under threat from larger forces, and a celebration of the enduring strength of community’.
Luskačová left Czechoslovakia for England in 1975 and continued exploring these themes in Britain. Alongside Martine Franck, Paul Caponigro and Henri Cartier-Bresson, Luskačová photographed North East England for Amber, a Newcastle film and photography collective. In Seaside, North East England (1978–1980), she captured hardy holidaymakers in North Shields, South Shields, Redcar and Whitley Bay. Instead of wide Slovak mountain landscapes, sandy beaches provide the backdrop of figures determinedly enjoying their time off. In Lovers at Whitley Bay (1978) a couple stretches out together in the foreground whilst children play, ride ponies and bicycles, busy against a murky view of the sea that is more suggested than seen. In Cullercoats (1978), an older woman in a heavy overcoat, tartan rug over her knees, sits in a makeshift beach tent, a look of forbearance on her face while a girl climbs some rocks nearby, her white skirts making an oyster shell around her bare legs. An ubiquitous Wall’s ice cream sign sits beyond. We can feel the damp air and cool wind of a British beach.
Two series of photographs taken in London complete the exhibition. Spitalfields (1974-1990) and London Street Musicians (1975-1990). In the first, fascinated by the markets and their competitive prices, so different to the state distribution of products with set costs in Czechoslovakia, Luskačová captured a series of sellers with their goods. This was also a community on the precarious line of hardship and threat from corporate developers. The protagonists of the images are captivating, but their goods are also given careful consideration and respect. A teapot on the ground, a coat hanging on a brick wall, a white plastic clock and rows of trousers.
London Street Musicians is an incredible series of performers poised mid-song or playing an instrument. The images are frequently accompanied by Luskačová’s stories of the performer and her encounters with them. As such, the exhibition ends (if viewed in chronological order) with a sense of Luskačová in London streets, her loneliness in a foreign city ‘lessened’ by the musicians, who ‘themselves were often quite lonely men’. We are left with her words, ‘There were no street musicians in my childhood in Czechoslovakia in the 1950s …I think that one of the things that made a difference for me and helped to make London a home, not a place of exile was the music in the streets.’
Curators Kate Bush and Zuzana Flaskova’s exhibition layout allows Luskačová’s narratives to overlap and circulate. The viewer can keep going around, and indeed I did, until these very different communities become layered over one another. The blurriness of human biography is apparent, where memory and the present collide. We are left with an important sense of the connectedness of human experience, across communities and borders.