Where the wild things are: Alys Tomlinson’s portraits of island traditions

British photographer Alys Tomlinson explores faith and community in her austere and unsettling portraits of the extraordinary ancient folk characters of Sicily and Sardinia

In 2007, while Alys Tomlinson was photographing in Venice for a tourist travel guidebook, she took a vaporetto across the lagoon to the cemetery island of San Michele. “It was a crisp, misty morning,” she recalls, “and there were groups of black-clad mourners on the decks, many of them carrying flowers to lay on the graves of their loved ones.”

The image stayed with her and, having researched the history of the island, she returned, intent on making a project about them. Things did not turn out as planned. “It was just so difficult to ask people who were in different stages of grief and vulnerability if I could photograph them, so much so that I began to question not just my original idea but my integrity.”

Out of that moment of self-doubt grew another, very different idea, which has come to fruition 15 years later. Initially, Tomlinson turned her attention to the religious festivals that take place in Venice during Holy Week and on saints’ days but her curiosity was steadily drawn to more remote places where the ritual celebrations were more atavistic and mysterious. Most of the portraits and landscapes that comprise Gli Isolani (The Islanders), her new book, and exhibition, were made in the mountainous towns and villages of Sardinia and Sicily, where the participants often don animal hides and grotesque masks as they parade though the streets. Their costumes hark back centuries to the fantastical creatures of local fairytales and further back still to pre-Christian rituals that marked the changing of the seasons or acknowledged the power of the natural landscape and the animals therein – oxen, stags and devilish goats.

One man wearing rough woolly skins with two rows of bells; another with his back covered in giant bells
Is Sonaggiaos, Ortueri, Sardinia, from Gli Isolani. Photograph: Alys Tomlinson

“Even among the villages themselves, there is no real agreement on the origins of the festivals,” says Tomlinson, who spent two years travelling back and forth to Sicily and Sardinia. “But the different rituals and traditions are all very specific to the villages in which they take place. They draw hundreds of people on to the streets and there is an obvious dichotomy between the religious context and the often raucous and boozy celebrations.”

That wildly communal dynamic, though, is nowhere to be seen in Tomlinson’s portraits. Instead, she isolated her subjects on empty village streets and in rural landscapes and photographed them in stark monochrome using a large format plate camera mounted on a tripod. The results are, if anything, even more ominous and unsettling: young men covered in animal hides, their faces concealed by wooden masks; women draped head to toe in funereal black; squat figures bedecked in rough woolly skins, their backs arrayed with rows of giant bells that usually hang from the necks of livestock.

Masked man with a lariat in one hand sitting on a hillside
Issohadore, Mamoiada, Sardinia, from Gli Isolani. Photograph: Alys Tomlinson

These last are known as is sonaggiaos and represent flocks of sheep in a Sardinian festival that also features s’urtzu, the boar-demon that causes havoc by attacking onlookers and clambering up trees and buildings. In the mountain town of Prizzi in Sicily, the collision of the pagan and the Christian is even more dramatic as devils dance through the streets in nightmarish masks, frightening children and mock-threatening the adults, before surrendering to Jesus and the Virgin Mary. “With their gaping teeth and raggedy manes (crowned by two horns),” writes the art critic Sabrina Mandanici in her essay in the book, “they look more like the Wild Things in search of their jungle.”

Man with outstretched arms wearing a huge devil mask
Il Diavolo, Prizzi, Sicily, from Gli Isolani. Photograph: Alys Tomlinson

Tomlinson balances the otherness with moments of calm beauty, not just elemental landscapes but portraits of striking young women in more traditional dress, like the nun-like black damask and intricate white lace costumes of Tempio Pausania in the Gallura region of northern Sardinia. As with the landscapes, they provide a breathing space from the strangeness and wonder.

Since 2018, when she won the Sony photographer of the year award, London-based Tomlinson has been acclaimed for her defiantly traditional style of formally austere, monochrome portraits that resonate with silence and stillness. She cites the American photographer Judith Joy Ross’s moving series, Portraits at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, Washington DC (1983-84), as a key influence, particularly on her earlier series Ex-Voto, which comprised portraits of modern-day pilgrims made at religious sites in France, Ireland and Poland.

Woman in a traditional Sicilian black dress with white embroidery
Traditional dress, Piana degli Albanesi, Sicily, from Gli Isolani. Photograph: Alys Tomlinson

Her style and the depth of her commitment to her projects – she recently studied for an MA in anthropology to enrich her way of thinking about her subject matter – have paid dividends.

In 2019, her mixed media project The Faithful won her the Discovery award at the Arles photo festival. In 2020, she won the Taylor Wessing photographic portrait prize for three images of young people from her Lost Summer series. It comprises 44 portraits of school leavers in their back gardens, all of whom are dressed formally for prom night celebrations that never took place owing to the Covid pandemic restrictions.

If the Gli Isolani series has a precedent it is Charles Freger’s now classic 2012 photobook, Wilder Mann: The Image of the Savage, featuring fantastical folk creatures from across Europe and beyond, including the Urati (Ugly People) of rural Romania and the Burry Man from Scotland.

Three women in black cat masks with white scarves, seated on the ground in a courtyard with their skirts arranged in a circle around them
Maschere a Gattu (cat masks), Sarule, Sardinia. Photograph: Alys Tomlinson

In contrast, Tomlinson concentrates on two island communities, both of which have separatist political traditions and share a palpable sense of otherness that is amplified by her deftly composed black-and-white portraits. “I like the sense that black-and-white film gives of not knowing if the images of the devils or the oxen are from now or 100 years ago,” she says. “There are no signs of modernity in the photographs, which is in keeping with the arcane and ancient nature of the festivals and costumes.”

The people behind the masks are, she says, often very young men. “Their day-to-day lives are quite ordinary but they are transformed when they put on these elaborate costumes that have usually been handmade by their mothers or grandmothers and stored like treasures in almost sacred crypts.” The act of dressing up and embodying these ancient, archetypal figures is central to their identity and sense of belonging. “Tradition is in our blood,” as one young Sardinian man told Tomlinson. “It is who we are.”

Gli Isolani (The Islanders) is at Hackelbury Fine Art, London, 7 September-29 October; the book is published by Gost, £40, in November


Sean O’Hagan

The GuardianTramp

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