Where the Wild Things Are: Portraits of Island Traditions by Alys Tomlinson | Photography

In 2007, while Alys Tomlinson was photographing in Venice for a tourist guide, she took a vaporetto across the lagoon to the cemetery island of San Michele. “It was a cool, misty morning,” she recalled, “and there were groups of mourners dressed in black on the decks, many of whom carried flowers to lay at the graves of their loved ones.”

The image stayed with her, and after researching the island’s history, she returned, intending to do a project about them. Things didn’t go as planned. “It was 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 only my original idea, but my integrity. “

From that moment of self-doubt came another very different idea, which came to fruition 15 years later. Initially, Tomlinson turned to the religious festivals that take place in Venice during Holy Week and the days of saints but his curiosity was regularly drawn to more remote places where the ritual celebrations were more atavistic and mysterious. The most of the portraits and landscapes that make up Gli Isolani (The Islanders)his new book, and exhibition, were made in the mountain towns and villages of Sardinia and Sicily, where participants often don animal skins and grotesque masks as they parade through the streets. Their costumes are reminiscent centuries of the fantastical creatures of local fairy tales and further still of pre-Christian rituals that marked the changing of the seasons or acknowledged the power of the natural landscape and the animals within it – devilish oxen, deer and goats.

East Sonaggiaos, Ortueri, Sardinia, from Gli Isolani. Photography: Alys Tomlinson

“Even between the villages themselves, there is no real agreement on the origins of the festivals,” says Tomlinson, who spent two years traveling back and forth between 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 to the streets and there is an obvious dichotomy between the religious context and the often loud and boozy celebrations.

This wildly communal dynamic, however, is nowhere to be seen in Tomlinson’s portrayals. Instead, she isolated her subjects in empty village streets and rural landscapes and photographed them in monochrome using a large-format plate camera mounted on a tripod. The results are, on the contrary, even more disturbing and disturbing: young men covered in animal skins, their faces hidden by wooden masks; women draped from head to toe in funereal black; stocky figures adorned in rough woolly hides, their backs adorned with rows of giant bells that usually hang from the necks of cattle.

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

These are known as is sonaggiaos and represent flocks of sheep in a Sardinian feast which also includes s’urtzu, the boar demon that wreaks havoc by attacking onlookers and scaling trees and buildings. In Sicily’s mountain town of Prizzi, the collision of pagan and Christian is even more dramatic as demons dance through the streets in nightmarish masks, scaring children and threatening adults, before surrendering to Jesus and the Virgin Mary. “With their gaping teeth and ragged manes (crowned with two horns),” writes art critic Sabrina Mandanici in her essay in the book, “they are more like Wild Things in search of their jungle.”

Man with outstretched arms wearing huge devil mask
Il Diavolo, Prizzi, Sicily, by Gli Isolani. Photography: Alys Tomlinson

Tomlinson balances otherness with moments of calm beauty, not just elemental landscapes, but portraits of striking young women dressed in more traditional clothing, like the nun-like black damasks and intricate white lace costumes of Tempio Pausania in the region of Gallura, in the north of Sardinia. As with landscapes, they provide respite from the strangeness and wonder.

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

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

Her style and the depth of her commitment to her projects – she recently studied for a master’s degree in anthropology to enrich her way of thinking about her subject – has paid off.

In 2019, his mixed media project The faithful earned him the Découverte prize at the Arles photo festival. In 2020, she won the Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait Award for three youth images of her been lost series. It includes 44 portraits of school leavers in their gardens, all of whom are formally dressed for prom night celebrations which never took place due to Covid pandemic restrictions.

If the Gli Isolani series has a precedent, this is Charles Freger’s now classic 2012 photobook, Wilder Mann: The image of the savagefeaturing fantastical folk creatures from across Europe and beyond, including the Urati (ugly people) of rural Romania and the Burry Man of Scotland.

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

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

The people behind the masks are, she says, often very young men. “Their daily lives are fairly ordinary but they are transformed when they don these elaborate costumes that were usually handmade by their mothers or grandmothers and stored like treasures in near-sacred crypts.” The act of dressing and embodying these ancient and archetypal figures is central to their identity and sense of place. “Tradition is in our blood,” as a young Sardinian told Tomlinson. “It’s who we are.”

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

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