18/2 - 12/3 1998
ERMOU 59 / 277-582
MO - FR 11.00 - 14.00, 18.00 - 21.00 S 11.00 - 14.00


In the days of the Ottoman empire, regular visits to the hamam or turkish bath represented one of the few occasions on which women, rich or poor, were permitted the indulgence of social interaction outside the confines of their family. By the mid-1990s, the ancient bathhouse photographed by Lala Meredith-Vula in a remote town on the Albanian-Montenegrin border may well be the last functioning specimen of its kind in the Balkans; now, however, her Bathers are the poorest of the poor - the homeless, gypsies, those with little or no access to water and bathing facilities of their own. The place itself is magical: a vast, steamy, echoing champer, walls a palimpsest of streaked and cracking plaster dripping with condensation, fitfully illuminated by shafts of light falling from openings high in the dome above. Within this space, Meredith-Vula's flash isolates and highlights the unselfconciously naked bodies of women young and old at their ablutions. Miraculously indifferent to the photographer's activities, since over the course of time she has herself become part of the scene, the women wash their hair, scrub their children, pour hot water over one another, shave their legs or simply relax and gossip. Her record, depicting a very evident comradeship, undership, underlines the importance of the bath-house as a physical and even psychological necessity, rather than exotic, slightly louche luxury; as the artist notes, "for these women... the baths offer not only a practical means of keeping clean, but also a temporary refuge".
Some of the women photographed are, by contemporary standards, strikingly attractive; others are tough, corpulent matrons or elderly grandmothers. Meredith-Vula succeeds in doing something very rare in photographic depictions of the nude: without depersonalising or unsexing her subjects, without reducing them to either slabs of meat or abstract stereotypes, her camera treats them all with the same unconditional and courteous delight. The results, in a genry which all too often lurches uncomfortably from coyness to grotesquerie when it does not skirt (or embrace) the pornographic, have a liveliness and innocent sensuality reminiscent of Bonnard.

John stathatos