In a Friendly Manner: an exhibition of Crimean artists at Imagine Point

10 january, 2024

At first glance, the "State of Constant Tension" exhibition at the Imagine Point Gallery in Kyiv seems to be at odds with its title. Vivid landscapes, colorful objects, and paintings featuring characters in the style of cartoons for children are completed by an audio installation of kids’ laughter. Fantasy, fun, carefreeness — where can tension come from? In fact, the joint exhibition of Crimean artists Leonora Yanko and Lera Litvinova touches upon the complex issues of identity and art in the realities of our time.

Leonora Janko, "Pregnant Blue Dog Howling at the Moon" from UFO project in the urban space of Berlin, 2023. Courtesy of the artist.
Art is communication, and the work of an artist is a message. The development of social media gives a voice to billions of people, encouraging more and more ease and frankness in individual expression. Nowadays, it seems to be a golden age for artistic directness. But, as always in periods of global cultural metamorphosis in human history, change is met with opposition from the established mechanisms of the past, which prefer to maintain their own power, privilege, and ways of control. Appropriating the innovations of the digital age, these forces are also using the proven arsenal of violence from past centuries — military aggression and state terror — against the emancipatory development of humanity.

However, war, annexation, and occupation as a discourse of artistic speech can no longer standardize art in the Manichean practices of twentieth-century ideologies. The project "How are you? Exhibition and Discussion" at the Ukrainskyi Dim in Kyiv in June 2023 demonstrated the stunning diversity of artistic discourse on the experience of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. The curatorial view in "How Are You?" is devoid of hierarchy. The similarity of their emotional messages unites the works of established and emerging artists. One of the exhibition curators, Halyna Hleba, notes in her text that the displayed artworks can be perceived in many ways. "For those for whom art still has a sense of the perfect or, God forbid, the beautiful, the exhibition may seem like a cacophony. But if you are ready for polyphonic art without pedestals, you will find your thing here," said journalist Dmytro Oliynyk.

Timely in capturing the general state of society, the polyphony of the "How are you?" project cannot become a method of artistic representation. The anesthesia of shock after the full-scale invasion has worn off, and there is a need to adapt to war as a long-term reality. Remaining a threat to everyone, the war plunges people into different circumstances and harshly actualizes responsibility not only for oneself. Thus, it is time to pay attention to the message of the individual.

"What topics can you talk about when your family and friends are in the occupied territory? One year, two years... ten years. What can you do if your profession is related to self-expression and honesty of statements? This is how I perceive art. But what can you talk about out loud?" asks Leonora Yanko. Together with her colleague Lera Litvinova, also a Crimean Tatar, Yanko faced this challenge back in 2014.
The exhibition "State of Constant Tension." Photo courtesy of Imagine Point.
Leonora Yanko uses contrast as a method in her artistic practice. In her series "UFO. Ultra Friendly Object," funny colored creatures appear in her sculpture and painting, living on a planet of benevolence and joyful childlike openness. Perhaps, as in the story of the Crimean Tatar writer and statesman Noman Çelebicihan, swallows sing prayers in this world. They offer a temporary refuge from the sounds of air raids and the unrelenting anxiety for those who have lost their homes at the frontlines or in occupation.

“UFO” objects also fulfill a special diplomatic mission. Expressive and playful, they attract a wide audience abroad, allowing the artist to remind them of Crimea, of Ukrainians of different nationalities, and of their right to happiness, freedom, and the future. "Not everything bright is unambiguous. I wanted to literally take advantage of this, to draw attention to the fact that we exist, we remain ourselves, cool people, worthy of attention and dialogue," the artist says.
Leonora Yanko, "It's good because I'm here," 2022. Photo by Kostyantyn Doroshenko.
The most successful UFO ambassador is a three-meter tall giant inflatable "Pregnant Blue Dog, which is just howling at the moon." It is so spontaneous and cute that it makes you want to hug it. In October-November 2023, Leonora Yanko traveled with it across Germany, exhibiting it in unexpected places in public spaces in Berlin and at the A.C.U.D. art location. Yanko will expand the family of objects and travel with them to other countries.

Lera Litvinova addresses the topic of identity in interaction with the world around us. Her work “Dissolution. Self-Portrait” is a stereoscopic self-portrait created using lenticular lens rasters. This type of printing was used to produce "stereo-vario" postcards and pocket calendars that were popular in the 1970s and 1980s. It allows you to get an image that is perceived as three-dimensional and changes when viewed from different angles.

"Dissolution. Self-Portrait" is a game of exploration of the manifestation and abolition of personality. Standing in front of this work makes seeing the image difficult and almost impossible. While interacting, we often attribute good or bad traits to others according to our own vision of society and the universe. However, the different views on the same subject do not change the essence of the subject of observation. Analyzing ourselves, according to the artist, we also become observers while remaining the object of observation.
Lera Litvinova. "Dissolution. Self-portrait", 2021. The photo shows the image from different angles. Courtesy of the artist.
Litvinova's abstract landscapes reflect upon a subjectivity that needs to be searched for and sometimes reconstructed. In the series "The Way Home," the author captures Ukrainian landscapes devoid of details that remind her of her native Crimea. The consonance of the landscapes helps to reassemble the components of her own identity. However, the duration of the journey, the overcoming of the distance that separated her from her homeland and her relatives there, was extended by the war for an indefinite period of time.

The Black Sea occupies a special place in Lera Litvinova's works. It is depicted, again, without visual specificity. It reflects on her homeland and, at the same time, on the cradle of life, which is the world ocean, on understanding oneself in the immensity of the world. "The theme of eternity is intriguing because eternity is a permanent category, while human exists in the reality of fleeting time, and yet it is human beings who explore the determinism and limitlessness of time and space, who comprehend eternity as a concept," the artist says.
Lera Litvinova, "Slowly", 2020. Courtesy of the artist.
"Who am I, who am I now? These are crucial questions today. Instead of focusing on ourselves, we focus on the news because it is loud. But the war traumatizes everyone personally, and the salvation, the resource for resilience, is to balance yourself," Kateryna Dobrovolska, the owner of Imagine Point, comments on the exhibition. A practicing psychologist, she works with support groups for displaced people in the gallery space.

This is not the only change in Imagine Point's operation caused by the war. The space is located in an underground room of an apartment building in the Holosiivskyi district of Kyiv, which often suffers from Russian air attacks. On February 24-25, 2022, an exhibition was supposed to open there in a new hall. Instead, the gallery turned into a shelter for neighboring residents. In the first days of the full-scale invasion, up to a hundred people lived in the middle of the exhibition. Children and adults slept on carpets. "Everyone was very careful with the installations, thanking us for the opportunity to switch their attention [from war] to art. Several neighbors still come to the gallery during air raids," says the gallery owner.

"Everything seemed black, empty, no one said anything, and only one swallow in the garden was saying a prayer. I thought to myself: "Poor swallow! Keep reading! It seems that soon you will not be allowed to read the prayer, your little beak will be tied," wrote Noman Çelebicihan in 1913, recalling the closure of Crimean schools with Crimean Tatar language instruction by the Russian authorities. At a time when identity, language, and the very ability to speak freely are threatened, artistic expression takes on a special significance. Art develops through freedom; without it, it becomes a decoration. And it also speaks to people, so it uses different intonations. The gentle one has its own exceptional impact.

"State of Constant Tension" will be on view at Imagine Point Gallery (86/1 Holosiivskyi Avenue, Kyiv) until January 20, 2024.

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