Returns is about me, my family, my home, my loved ones, the village of Chl’aba, and the changing relationships I have with each and all of them. The project, perhaps never truly innocent, ultimately turned into an identity search; a search not only for myself but for my parents and closest relatives, and for people who are not there anymore. And it became not just a search for the past but a search for the present moment by people who are separated on two different continents.
As an immigrant to the United States, Gabriela Bulisova has a complicated relationship with her native Czechoslovakia, returning at least once a year to visit her family in her mother’s hometown, a small village of 800 people in southern Slovakia called Chl’aba. Along the way, she began a very personal project documenting her family’s life – and the village around them – in what is by far the most personal of her documentary projects.
After the project was underway, she met and married Mark Isaac, also a photographer, and they began to collaborate on the project. The result is a complex portrait of Chl’aba called Returns – drawn from the dual perspectives of Gabriela, who grew up spending summers there, and Mark, who was viewing it for the first time. Returns is now a decade long project that comprehensively documents family members and village life, including: the penetrating beauty of the vineyards, wheat fields, and the nearby Danube River; the lingering simplicity and longstanding traditions; the complex relationships among family members; and the tragic loss in recent years of several loved ones, including Gabriela’s father. For this exhibit, Bulisova and Isaac chose to place a special focus on Gabriela’s mother, Olga, who is still acclimating to life without Pavol, her husband of 49 years.
Returns has defined my summers for the past 7 years. To a great extent, my expanding freedom to photograph alongside Gabriela marked my acceptance into her family. As I met each of them, I was linked to a fascinating past that included encounters with World War II, with Communism, and a post-Communist reality that is not entirely rosy. Chl’aba has become a second home, one in which I still communicate better with images than words. (But I’m working on it.)
-- Mark Isaac
Returns is on view at the Montpelier Arts Center from November 6 to December 31, 2016, along with Atlantika Collective member Bill Crandall’s project “Fairy Tales from the Fault Lines.” The opening reception is on Friday, November 18, from 7 to 9 pm. For more information, see the e-post card, below.