Kyiv art chief: Russianization of Malevich example of imperialist ideology

Olesya Ostrowska-Lyuta.
Olesya Ostrowska-Lyuta. Source: Mystetskyi Arsenal

The exhibition "Futuromarennia: Ukraine and the Avant-Garde," which was on display in Kyiv's Mystetskyi Arsenal until the outbreak of the war, is currently on display at the Kumu Art Museum in Tallinn. The exhibition showcases works from four Ukrainian museums that exemplify the Ukrainian avant-garde of the early 20th century.

In an interview with an ERR correspondent in Kyiv, Olesya Ostrowska-Lyuta, director of Mystetskyi Arsenal Art and Culture Museum Complex, discussed the importance of critical assessment of post-colonial cultural heritage.

"Futuromarennia" could be translated as "futuristic reverie" or "daydreaming about futurism," but why futurism?

This exhibition looks back at the phenomenon of futurism in early 20th century Ukraine. It tells the story of this movement, its development in Ukraine and explains what kind of historic period it was. It should be noted that the phenomenon was very wide in scope, encompassing literature, music and visual arts.

This exhibition includes famous futurists like as David Burliuk, Vasil Yermilov and Kazimir Malevich. All of these artists had intimate ties to Ukraine: they were born and raised here. Burliuk was a descendant of an ancient Cossack family and his father's estate in the Kherson Oblast was at the heart of practically everything that transpired in Ukrainian futurism. However, due to the war we are unable to travel there; I am saying this to highlight that Kherson lands are not only historically and economically important to us, but also culturally significant. It is the birthplace of many aspects of Ukrainian culture.

In the exhibition, which is on display in Tallinn now, we examine futurism not only as an artistic style, but also as an attempt to transform the world, to offer a vision of the future and a yearning for it.

"Futuromarennia: Ukraine and the Avant-Garde." Source: Siim Lõvi /ERR

We displayed this exhibit in Kyiv and closed it just before the Russian invasion. It was very well received by the Ukrainian public and was still on in February 2022, at which point we were faced with a decision: do we want the exhibition to run throughout the spring, or is the threat serious enough that we must first think of the safety of the artworks and close the exhibition? We chose to close for the sake of the artworks. In this way, the exhibition in Tallinn is a little bridge for us between that relatively peaceful period before the war and the present day.

What does futurism movement represent for Ukrainian culture?

This is a good question — what is futurism for us and specifically what did it represent at the beginning of the 20th century for Ukrainian culture? In Ukraine, we believe that it was the most prolific period in Ukrainian culture up until our times.

In our cultural community it is commonly referred to as "our twenties." It was a time of a potent cultural explosion and growth in Ukraine that ended in what is known as "condemned Renaissance," when nearly all of the authors were sentenced to be shot, repressed or exiled and many works were destroyed.

The next period in Ukrainian culture that could be compared to the beginning of the 20th century in terms of its fertility and strength of the cultural upsurge, was the 2020s. Ukrainians have a perception that we are experiencing a cultural revival and at the same time Russia launches attacks against us again.

How do you, art professionals, work during the war?

Yes, when evaluating the potential risks in March 2022, we considered not only the current situation, but also our history — what happens to artists and cultural figures when our cities are occupied. So we were aware that it could be catastrophic.

When you think about the people whose works you see at the exhibition in Tallinn, it is easy to realize that also the people working in culture in Ukraine today are in real danger.

We have already seen the confirmation of our fears. During the occupation of Kharkov region the writer Volodymyr Vakulenko was killed, in occupied Kherson the conductor Yurii Kerpatenko was killed, and the list goes on.

"Futuromarennia: Ukraine and the Avant-Garde." Source: Siim Lõvi /ERR

In terms of our daily lives, we live under continuous stress. On the one hand, you understand that there are objective threats to security, but on the other hand, the situation is constantly changing, and this oscillation also affects our operations.

Tonight there might be shelling, tomorrow there will be no electricity or water or people might simply not be able to commute to work. You really do not know if there is going to be shelling tomorrow or not. We have to adjust to the fact that we must live and work in a highly fluid world, which essentially means making multiple concurrent action plans all the time. We are managing our jobs, but people are extremely tired.

Are there any exhibitions in Kyiv since the beginning of the full-scale war? Do Ukrainians visit them?

Absolutely; the city still lives. The first exhibition at Mystetskyi Arsenal following the withdrawal of Russian troops opened in June. It was titled "An exhibition about our feelings," because we realized it was important for us: the Mystetskyi Arsenal staff, our visitors and our artists to talk about what is happening to us. It was such a powerful and traumatic experience that people were compelled to speak up and express themselves about it.

After the Russians' retreat in April, the concept for this exhibition as a kind of unified space emerged. We focused primarily on contemporary art, as it is much easier to deal with than museum objects during wartime. Simply from a safety standpoint. In the case of contemporary art, the artist decides whether or not a work can be exhibited, as they take the same risks with their work as they do with their lives. This decision cannot be made in the case of museum objects, as museum objects must always be secure by default. So we chose contemporary art and launched the exhibition as a place to exchange our experiences, thoughts and impressions; cultural sites in times of war are places where people can connect with each other.

Our most recent exhibition, "Heart of Earth," was a unique experience working with art in the absence of electricity and in circumstances where even opening hours cannot be determined in advance. Visitors understood this; everything here changes daily. The exhibition explored the relationship between the land, humans and the food that this land produces. It was about the significance of foods produced in Ukraine for other, often distant, nations, and how the threats, including environmental threats, that we see and experience here are mirrored in the far south or Asia.

Let us return to the avant-garde and futurism. In my understanding, Vasyl Yermylov and Kazimir Malevich have always been among the greatest Russian artists. Malevich's iconic Black Square hangs at the Hermitage and he is regarded as the pinnacle of Russian avant-garde around the world. Now you say they are Ukrainian artists, which means I have to abandon my preconceived notions about them. Why?

This is the result of the work of the Russian Empire, and since you are a person of Russian imperial culture, these representations have significance to you. Labeling an author or artist as belonging to a particular culture is always a political construct. The decision to refer to Malevich, Burliuk and Exter as Russian artists is a political one, not a scientific or art-historical one. For a long time the Russian Empire used and still uses the myth of the "great Russian culture. And to maintain this myth, they need to appropriate the most prominent figures and artistic practices. As a result, many people know Kazimir Malevich, David Burliuk, Vasil Yermilov and Alexandra Exter as authors associated with Russian culture. How is it that people in many countries know very little about Ukraine? Because those with political and military power control the discourse, which in the Soviet Union was Russia.

"Futuromarennia: Ukraine and the Avant-Garde." Source: Siim Lõvi /ERR

How do you know which artists are Ukrainian and which are not? We cannot call Malevich back from the dead to ask, "Kazimir, are you a Pole, Russian or Ukrainian?" If we should not think of Malevich, Burliuk and Yermilov as Russian, we cannot, by analogy, ask them, "Are you Ukrainians?"

This will always be a contentious issue. How we define and describe the birthplace and workplace of these people is also something to think about.

Not too long ago, for instance, it was customary to write "year of birth - 1948, place of birth - Tallinn, Soviet Union." We cannot agree with that practice. In Ukraine, we believe that associating Kyiv with the Soviet Union is analogous to associating Berlin with the Third Reich. It implies that one is a prisoner of certain worldviews. And we insist on naming the birthplaces of artists by their current countries.

If the location is Ukraine, we write "Ukraine" rather than "former Russian Empire" or "former Soviet Union." The fact that we are also discussing the Soviet era is a secondary and relatively unimportant aspect. You would not write "India, former British Empire," would you? Such a post-colonial or anti-colonial perspective could reframe this entire colonial construct, which is still imposed on authors.

Ivan Aivazovsky has been identified recently as a Ukrainian artist by the American Metropolitan Museum of Art, which has infuriated many Russian cultural figures. According to their perspective, it is Ukraine that is appropriating Russian and Russian cultural heritage. Is the distinction between "Russian artist" and "Ukrainian artist" so crucial?

Yes, this is an extremely important subject, as it concerns political and cultural autonomy. It is crucial to define what constitutes each culture. I would like to remind you of a quote by Vladimir Mayakovsky about the Soviet passport, in which he refers to Poland as "geographical news."  What kind of Poland is that? Is there such a country? Until not long ago it was Russia, the Russian Empire.

My point is that all these political perceptions are not God-given. They are created by certain groups of people with certain goals. And this notion is created to support the imperial identity. And the problem with this identity is that it is aggressive, it leads to the killing of people. So, apparently, this notion should be reconsidered.

"Futuromarennia: Ukraine and the Avant-Garde." Source: Siim Lõvi /ERR

Here, in Ukraine, we honestly hope that Russian intellectuals will finally begin to rethink what Russia is. We expect them to be able to formulate what Russia is if it is not an empire: Russia really needs to undergo an internal transformation and articulate the type of nation and society it is. Consequently, include their culture and cultural figures in this work.

If we presume that one of the functions of culture is to prevent humans from becoming beasts, then the "great Russian culture" has failed in this regard. And how should we, the West, conduct ourselves? Should we today, for instance, prohibit the performance of Tchaikovsky's works? How should we treat Dostoevsky, who, based on his writings, diaries, and letters, would probably endorse a "special military operation"?

To begin with, we have to understand and analyze the very concept of "great Russian culture" and realize its political artificiality. It was created for a political purpose, it is not an organic extension of culture itself. It is a political construct. And this is why Russian intellectuals must do this work; it is their responsibility to understand what mythology they live by, why it is so pernicious and how it leads to aggression. And if intellectuals do not perform this task, they are failing to fulfill their role as intellectuals. That is one part of the question.

Now as for working with members of Russian culture. I support the view that no cultural institution that shares the value of human life and human dignity can cooperate with any cultural institution that has even the slightest connection to the Russian state.

"Futuromarennia: Ukraine and the Avant-Garde." Source: Siim Lõvi /ERR

Neither Russian state museums nor Russian state orchestras can be accepted where support for human life and dignity is declared. In Russia, culture is weaponized. And as for the Russian museum community, it has suffered an enormous ethical catastrophe due to its participation in the plunder of Ukrainian museums in occupied territories, such as Kherson and Melitopol. Ukrainian artifacts wind up in Russian museums, where they are handled by Russian museum employees who do not object.

We do not see a single protest on this issue in Russia. Okay, it may be dangerous, but there is not a single protest of this nature in countries where it is safe to do so. Where are the protests by Russians in Britain or in France against their government's policies, including cultural ones? In Russia, culture is part of the war, which is why we say you cannot help them fight in this war by cooperating with them.

But you can also say about Ukraine that here culture is a weapon, language is a weapon.

It is true that everyone in Ukraine is at war. And any cultural figure or laborer is a member of Ukrainian society that fights to the best of their ability. Keep in mind that we are defending ourselves and not attacking others.

In Ukraine, Pushkin's works are being removed from the school curriculum and his monuments are being destroyed. Why? After all, one can find both "pro-imperial" and "anti-imperial" works in Pushkin.

This author is not so important that we should spend so much time studying him. As a cultural phenomenon, opposition to Pushkin is obviously inconceivable. However, we are deliberating removing Pushkin as a representation of imperial control and dominance. Please explain why a Pushkin monument ought to stand in a small Ukrainian town. It has nothing to do with Pushkin's cultural significance. It is a sign of authority that demonstrates who is in control. The struggle is against this, not poetry per se.

"Futuromarennia: Ukraine and the Avant-Garde." Source: Siim Lõvi /ERR

I will ask you once more about the Russian classics and how we anti-war activists should approach them. Have we the decency to listen to Tchaikovsky and read Tolstoy? Where is the threshold at which culture consumers assume the "imperial" position themselves?

It is always a matter of intent — why do you read, listen to or watch something. If you are a conductor working with a particular composition by a particular composer, you have to consider what you want to convey to the audience.

In general, your question is not unique; it has been addressed many times in other cultures, such as between Britain and India. How do you read Rudyard Kipling nowadays? Is it possible to read him without judging him? It appears that you can no longer.

The same applies to Dostoevsky. Every third page contains a derogatory description of people from other cultures, including Germans, Poles and Jews. You must have a critical mindset. So the question is, how and why do you read? Or, for what purpose, and with what commentary, do you present this or that cultural phenomenon? And this is a critical task right now. For the first time, anti-colonialist perspectives are being applied to Russian culture. And this is already a significant accomplishment.


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Editor: Kristina Kersa

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