Alys Tomlinson’s (b. 1975) projects are often research-led. Alys is most interested in the relationship between people and place, exploring themes of environment, belonging, and identity.
'Gli Isolani' (The Islanders) is the latest project by Alys. She has spent the last two years exploring the lives of islanders in modern-day Italy, capturing little-known rituals and traditions inspired by paganism, fables and folklore. These almost theatrical images document traditional costumes and masks, preserved and handed down for generations, worn during festivities and celebrations in Sicily, Sardinia and islands of the Venetian lagoon. The project provides a meditation on place, faith and identity.
Previous body of work - ‘Lost Summer’ began during the Covid lockdown when the artist was frustrated that she couldn’t travel to work on her existing projects. Once lockdown eased, she began to move around her neighbourhood, photographing the teenage children of local friends from her street and the surrounding area. The portraits show these young adults dressed and ready to attend their proms which were cancelled as a result of the pandemic. Instead of the usual setting of the school or hotel halls, the portraits were taken in their gardens and backyards in North London. The prom portraits capture the poignancy of a lost summer for teenagers who were unable to sit their school exams or mark this significant step in growing up and leaving school. Three works from ‘Lost Summer’ – ‘Samuel’, ‘Jameela’ and ‘Jack’ – won the 2020 Taylor Wessing Portrait Prize.
An earlier body of work ‘Ex-Voto’ explores Christian pilgrimage sites in Lourdes (France), Ballyvourney (Ireland), and Grabarka (Poland). Often placed anonymously and hidden from view, ex-votos are left by pilgrims as expressions of hope and gratitude, creating a tangible narrative between faith, person, and the landscape. ‘Ex-Voto’ encompasses formal portraiture, large format landscape, and small, detailed still-life shots of the objects and markers left behind. Shot on 5×4, large format film, the images evoke a distinct stillness and reflect the mysterious, timeless quality present at these sites of great spiritual contemplation.
‘Ex-Voto’ was followed by ‘Vera’ based around the Orthodox Christian nun whose portrait was a key image in ‘Ex Voto’. ‘Vera’ explores, in film and photographs, Vera’s life, giving a close account of the daily routine and rhythm of living in faith in the unseen world of the Saint Elizabeth Covent in Belarus. Filmed in black and white and narrated by Vera, the film gives a lyrical account of Vera’s story of finding faith as a young woman and the emotional and spiritual impact which it had on her life.
A mix of works from ‘Ex Voto’ and ‘Vera’ along with the short film ‘Vera’ were shown at the Rencontres d’Arles 2019. This exhibition won the Public Prize of the New Discovery Awards. Recently Alys (and her co-director Cécile Embleton) have received a development grant from the Sundance Institute Documentary Fund to expand Vera into a feature-length documentary.
Alys Tomlinson grew up in Brighton, UK, and currently lives and works in London. She studied photography at Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design and has an MA (Distinction) in Anthropology from SOAS, University of London.