Our Years, Our Words, Our Losses, Our Crimea

19 december, 2023

Valeriia Prylypko

The inauguration of Jam Factory Art Center on November 18th was accompanied by the exhibition “Our Years, Our Words, Our Losses, Our Searches, Our Us” — the first large-scale project on the premises of the restored “Jam Factory” which had operated in Lviv since the second half of the 19th century. In 2015, the building was purchased by Harald Binder, Swiss researcher and patron, with the aim of setting up a contemporary art hub in the city. After a lengthy renovation, the Art Center came forward with its first statement — an exhibition shaping the global narrative about modern Ukraine, possibly asserting that the new space is bound to become a new hub for contemporary art in Ukraine. As for the exhibition itself, it searches through Ukrainian art for common words about the war — a bleeding wound on our collective body.

Curators of “Our Years, Our Words, Our Losses, Our Searches, Our Us” Kateryna Iakovlenko, Natalia Matsenko, and Borys Filonenko have collected reflections on the continuity and chronology of the fight for the Ukrainian identity. Even back in the day, just as now, there were “our losses.” The exhibition featuring works by more than 70 Ukrainian artists embodies the whole plurality of our historicity from which stems the Ukrainian sense of self — the Cossack myth, the 20th century with its wars, repressions, and russification and finally, the contemporary Russian-Ukrainian war, which makes up the biggest portion of the exposition. The theme of Crimea is important for me within this heterogenous storyline as its inclusion in the nation-forming narrative evidences our remembrance of a part of us. The national identity puzzle cannot be assembled without the peninsula’s history. Works about “land beyond Perekop,” using the expression of the writer Anastasiia Levkova, are indicative of internal national solidarity.

It shows itself as soon as in the first exhibition piece — on the entrance tickets. They feature images by Sevilya Nariman-qizi, a Crimean Tatar, from her series “I have no other homeland but you.” Some tickets depict a young girl wearing a qalfaq (traditional headgear), some have an image of a man and some — of a mosque. My ticket, the one with the mosque, also has an inscription: “I will sing until my land is free.” The reverse side features probably one of the most significant curatorial texts of the exhibition as it explains why contemporary Crimean Tatar art is not represented within the space: “The answer to the question (…) is in the peninsula’s colonial history, deportations and prohibition of everything that is Crimean Tatar… This work is about the art of Qirimli being still threatened in occupied Crimea.” Sevilya Nariman-qizi’s “I have no other homeland but you” is a thread linking Lviv and Crimea, divided by 1400 kilometers, and is an eloquent gesture of solidarity with the Crimean Tatars. It reminds us of those who are not present at the exhibition but are also “our us.”

Sevilya Nariman-qizi, from the series “I have no other homeland but you,” 2023. Photo by Asia Pavlenko.
Two other threads between the West of Ukraine and the peninsula are the works “Defense of Sevastopol” by Oleksandr Hnylytskyi and Oleg Holosiy and “Cube” by Yuri Yefanov. The painting “The Defense of Sevastopol,” created in the first year of Ukraine’s independence, refers to the times of the Crimean War (1853–1856). Placed in front of the main entrance to the exhibition hall, the piece picks up the Crimean theme after Sevilya Nariman-qizi’s “I will sing until my land is free.” Five massive canvasses making up a panorama depict fighting in the defense of Sevastopol in 1854–1855. When approaching the work, viewers are as if immersed directly in the vortex of events.

In the mid-nineteenth century the peninsula’s territory became a launching ground for the political ambitions of empires — Ottoman and Russian ones. The latter allegedly started a war because Crimea’s Orthodox Christian population was oppressed by Muslims and asked for protection. Almost two centuries after that, Russia repeated its propagandistic narrative of protection needed by the Orthodox Russian-speaking population, thus justifying territorial encroachment. Having failed to withstand the onslaught of the Ottoman Empire and its allies, Russia lost the Crimean War and signed the Peace Treaty of Paris.

It was Crimea where Russia’s invasion of Ukraine began in 2014 — an invasion for which neither the Ukrainian society, still vulnerable after the Maidan, nor the army was ready. Ukrainian defense of Sevastopol did not happen this time. Now we believe that the surrender of Russia is sure to happen. The war started in Crimea has to stop there.
Oleksandr Hnylytskyi and Oleg Holosiy, “Defense of Sevastopol”, oil on canvas, early 1990s. Photo by Vita Popova.
Yuri Yefanov created two videos about Crimea under the same title, “Cube.” Born in Zaporizhzhia, the artist had grown up and lived in Hurzuf, a resort town close to Yalta city, up until the annexation. His first work (made one year prior to the Russian invasion) is an overview video of an unremarkable, even dull concrete cube situated on the seashore. The artist personally shoots the object from different angles, slowing down on its décor in the form of drawings and inscriptions by self-pronounced street artists. This research of an inanimate item, of its form, dynamics, and voice within the space, constitutes a reflection on the ideas of the actor-network theory (ANT), wherein non-humans are considered active agents in social relations. The theory aims to animate nature, both organic and non-organic, and to dehumanize agency. The artist’s attempt of that time to interact with an inanimate agent is perceived as working with purely human and dynamically live things: memory, pain, loss, recollections.

And that’s what Yuri Yefanov’s second work speaks about: recollections wrapped in a fragmented memory and painful losing — the artist re-enacts the cube landscape digitally. Using his dreams and memories as the core material, the author tries to return to the domain of his childhood, to touch it at least virtually. In a monologue accompanying the video, Yefanov contemplates the fragility of memory and the impossibility of return. For him, this work is about personal recollections and connections with the space which cannot be approached. This is a concentration point of loss. “Cube,” however, can also be about meeting the peninsula in person for those who might not have any reminiscences of Crimea. Looking at the mountain coast, seascape, cube, and concrete pier with the eyes of a young boy from Hurzuf, one gets an artificial, or somewhat imaginary connection with the place.

Immersive and emotional exposure to the artist’s experiences produces a nostalgia similar to the one described by Svitlana Alexievich in her book “Second-hand time. The end of the red man.” The author explores those whom she calls “homo sovieticus” — people of the Soviet era who are nostalgic about things that can never be reaccessed. Nostalgia for the USSR, in my circles, was widespread even among young persons born after 1991. There is a specific term for this phenomenon — anemoia, which means yearning for a time or place with which one does not have personal contact. The anemoia for Crimea, created particularly through the works of Yuri Yefanov, provides for continuity of the perception of the peninsula as a childhood space, a carefree life, and a warm summer sea. Thus, a myth is created — that of a sweet Crimea to which people who had never been there wish to return.
Yuri Yefanov, from the series of works “Cube,” digital video, 2023. Photo by Valeriia Prylypko
By including Crimea in the polyphony of statements and experiences, the exhibition “Our Years, Our Words, Our Losses, Our Searches, Our Us” at Jam Factory Art Center produces the continuity of memories thereof and makes those memories shared. Three pieces of work are certainly insufficient for a comprehensive representation of losses. But this inclusion is important to keep us focused on the loss, which is constantly driven out by new ones. It will have been ten years since Russia occupied the peninsula in 2024. For some, this will mean that the memory of it dissolves, just like watercolor drawings left under heavy rain. And others do not even have anything to remember, like me who had never had the chance to visit Crimea. My sole connection to the peninsula is my parents’ stories of their honeymoon spent in Yalta. Crimea is a part of our years, it permeates our words, and it is our loss. We search for it among ourselves because it is also us. Through artworks about the peninsula, the exhibition “Our Years, Our Words, Our Losses, Our Searches, Our Us” makes the collective Ukrainian body which was stripped of its essential part nine years ago, more whole.

“Our Years, Our Words, Our Losses, Our Searches, Our Us” will continue at Jam Factory Art Center (124 Bohdana Khmelnytskoho Street, Lviv) till March 10, 2024.

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