Kateryna Aliynyk & Natasha Chychasova. How the artbook Collective Fantasies and Eastern Resources was created.

13 june, 2023
Natasha Chychasova (on the left), Kateryna Aliynyk (on the right). On the background: Collective Fantasies and Eastern Resources book spread.

"This is a book for everyone who is ready to change their mind about Donbas."

This is how Kateryna Aliynyk, artist, and Natasha Chychasova, curator and contemporary art researcher, describe their first collaboration. Kateryna combines painting and text in her works. She mostly works with the problems of war and occupation through landscape and images of nature. Natasha works at Mystetskyi Arsenal and studies Soviet industrial heritage. Their native region unites them. Both were born and raised in Donbas. Kateryna is from Luhansk, and Natasha is from Donetsk. They both went through the experience of forced relocation in 2014.

When they met, they decided to refine their texts about their hometowns by combining their memories. They lead a dialogue via telegram. The authors described the experience of losing their homes, traveling to the occupied territories, and digging through the lost landscapes. Consequently, it turned out that the authors had many unspoken questions that have been bothering them for 9 years of war. As a result, the reflections have turned into a joint art book.

The final artwork was presented at the exhibition A Tree Behind a Tree in Ivano-Frankivsk. The next edition is currently being prepared for printing. The plan is to distribute the book abroad. However, as the authors say, more context needs to be added for non-Ukrainian readers. However, the Ukrainian readers can also discover familiar places from a new perspective. Artbook Collective Fantasies and Eastern Resourses was. published with the support of the Assortment Room gallery.

Artbook Collective Fantasies and Eastern Resources

This is our first experience of working in a duo

Natasha: Katia and I met for the first time in person last winter, at the residence When Was the Narrative Interrupted? in the Carpathian mountains. We had crossed paths before, but never talked. Katia took part in the project of the Contemporary Art Laboratory at the Mala Gallery of Mystetskyi Arsenal, Ukraine Ablaze. She sent us her works for the online archive. I was already following her work, and the images that Katia created were striking. 

When the two of us started discussing what we would like to do at the Khata Maisternya (the Workshop House – residency venue), we immediately thought of texts. A couple of months before the residency, I had already written a text about Donetsk and decided to continue elaboration on it. Katia also had notes about Luhansk. We exchanged notes and saw that many images overlapped. Our experiences reinforce each other. So we became interested in exploring how the idea of a hometown changes over time, how memories and imagination work.

We were just sitting next to each other with our laptops in a warm, cozy space, texting. We asked each other questions. We shared our memories and comparisons. Gradually, the replicas in the messenger formed reflections that became the basis of the art book.

Kateryna: I have long wanted to do something other than painting. This is a medium in which you can't really collaborate with anyone. And considering our unfinished texts then, creating a joint book was the best solution. Honestly, the full-scale war started to rush me with everything, and this work is no exception. I started taking notes two years ago, but everything was so slow... And then it became clear: now this story will make the most significant sense. And for some reason, there had been a renewed hope that Luhansk would be liberated soon, and it would be good to finish the text by then.

We wanted to understand the contexts we grew up in and what shaped our current attitudes 

Kateryna: We started with the questions that came up most often in our lives. One of these questions is still relevant for me: am I ready to return home when Luhansk is de-occupied? Or why do I feel the need to excuse myself when I mention to someone that my family remained in Luhansk, even though they have never had pro-Russian views and still expect to return to Ukraine?

Page and a photo from the Artbook Collective Fantasies and Eastern Resources

Natasha: A sense of home not always has to be aligned with political views. Some people realized this only at the beginning of the full-scale invasion. For my friends, the question "Why have some people stayed in the occupied territories?" has vanished by default. Many people tell me: "Now we understand you."

I want to reference Svitlana Oslavska's book of reports about Severodonetsk, the city she came from. In her book, Svitlana describes her relationship with her hometown, her perceptions of the town, and its complicated context. She talks about various political influences and trends that affected the city. At the same time, she describes a public action in 2014, when two Severodonetsk citizens installed a Ukrainian flag in the occupied city. Occupation forces could not remove this flag for a long time. It is important to talk about such episodes in the history of Donbas all the time so that people do not think that everyone in Severodonetsk (as well as in the other cities) was waiting for Russia to come. No, they weren't. There were many people there who did not want this to happen. It was the same in Donetsk and Luhansk. But it is crucial to speak these stories over and over again.

I wrote my text influenced by Oslavska's book. I thought about my childhood and youth in Donetsk, and I wanted to understand the contexts I grew up in. For example, I have never considered Russian culture my culture, but its superiority and positioning as "high" were noticeable. This narrative has been propagated for decades. I remember when I was in the 10th grade, we were sent to celebrate Russian Language Day by dancing a waltz in front of Pushkin's monument. None of us reflected much on it then, but I can't say we believed in it either. It was just another holiday. Only by distancing do you realize how significantly such things influence one's worldview.

Kateryna: There are many such questions without specific answers in the text. But we are not trying to find a solution; we are more focused on our feelings. And even if we discuss well-known things about Donbas, we do it from a non-stereotypical perspective when we talk about some stereotypes we face. For example, we don't touch on industrial districts because we don't have a close connection to them, therefore this image cannot be sensual. The industrial landscape evokes sentimental feelings for me, but it doesn't help me to gain empathy.

I work a lot with "close-ups" both in painting and in text. I meant the attention to the details of everyday life in civil society before 2014 and what it became afterward, and the subsequent decomposition of these details into patterns and paradoxes that work with the reader in the required manner. And it works best in the images of ordinary life, where war penetrates and changes its entire structure. Everyone can experience, understand, and live it through the text, especially when this is a first-person narrative.

Photos from the artbook Collective Fantasies and Eastern Resources

People write us that they “personalize” Donbas through our texts 

Kateryna: I tried to make the language of the narration as simple as possible, almost freestyle, sometimes with exclusively "Luhansk" colloquialisms, typical phrases. And in general, I wanted to bring out the humor and tone of voice that are usual for my homeland. That's why I wrote in Russian with a touch of local vernacular. It was not an easy decision, but I felt that I had to do it this way, because this form is the essence, the concentrate of Luhansk experiences for me. 

It was important for me to show that my experience of displacement from Luhansk is the same as it is today for many Ukrainians from other regions. For example, many people in the East had a summer house where they would go to plant potatoes or something else. This is not an exclusive experience but a familiar picture that makes it easier to communicate with readers. But behind all these descriptions of material things and losses had been lying my biggest fear, which showed up years later.

The physical destruction of towns, fields, people, and cottages causes the loss of intangible heritage: family and regional history; knowledge about the cultivation of certain types of soil; local dialects; some recipes of preservation and tastes typical for the region; even access to memories. All this can be lost due to destruction or abandonment; all options other than peace lead to further losses. This is the paradoxical situation I wanted to convey.

Photos from the Artbook Collective Fantasies and Eastern Resources

Natasha: For me, the most crucial thing in this text is a re-evaluation of the nine years of occupation of the parts of Donetsk and Luhansk regions. I used to feel awkward saying that I am from Donetsk. About four years after moving to Kyiv in 2014, I tried not to tell anyone where I’m from. Because back then, it was like this: as soon as you mentioned that you’re from Donetsk, you could be accused of being pro-Russian, or something like that. There had been a widespread belief that the people of the regions in the East of Ukraine "wanted this", but after the start of full-scale invasion, it became obvious that it happened because of Russia.

A lot has been said and written about Donetsk and Luhansk regions since 2014. At some point, these stories became a background for me. The experience of displacement just existed, and I preferred not to talk about it, but to hide it in the depths of my mind. But after February 24, this experience came to the surface again, both because of the active battles and new cases of occupation in the East and South. It is hard to imagine what we will see there after the victory. And even imagination is not enough, because it is hard to be prepared for horrors.

This book is for people who would like to personalize Donbas in their imagination. For those who have had a biased attitude towards people from this region for years. We are already receiving feedback on the book on Instagram. People write that they are rediscovering Donbas, "personalizing" it through our texts and looking at cities from a different perspective. As for the authors, it is also important for me and Kateryna to understand what Donbas means to us. This is a story that you can dig into all the time. And every time, something new and unexpected will emerge. The experience described here is our own. It may be similar or very different. But it's good to see how the audience takes these notes, which are very valuable to us.

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