SONIAKH (Khomchenko and Buradzhyieva): "In the first months of the invasion, we had to choose our words, but now we want to be honest"

15 july, 2024

The SONIAKH platform was launched in October 2022 in response to the lack of Ukrainian voices in the English-language cultural environment, publishing a series of articles on the intellectual and artistic practices of Ukrainian artists. This year, the platform relaunched, dropping the word "digest" from its name and choosing "Erasing & Recalling" as its focus theme. ArtsLooker asked the platform's co-curators, curator and critic Milena Khomchenko and curator and performance researcher Valeriia Buradzhyieva, about the motives behind the relaunch, the challenges of the platform's existence, and how to talk about the war with foreigners now.

Curators of the platform SONIAKH. From the right: Milena Khomchenko and Valeriia Buradzhyieva. Photo: Mariia Sosnovska.
ArtsLooker: You launched SONIAKH digest in October 2022 in response to the need for louder Ukrainian voices to be heard in the English-language discourse. Now you have relaunched. How has this relaunch changed the nature of the platform?

Milena Khomchenko: We were officially launched in October 2022, but in fact our activities began in the second month of the full-scale invasion. All of us, Ukrainian cultural workers, left for Europe via Warsaw at that time, stayed at the Warsaw Museum of Modern Art, and took part in the brainstorming session to launch a new platform, which was initiated by the museum team and Polish academics and activists involved in the museum team. Initially, there was no clear understanding of what this platform would be, no clearly defined team, but during the discussions, we realized that Valeriia, Clemens Poole, and I would be the main editorial team responsible for the site's content. The museum team provided institutional support and helped with grant writing and administrative support for the project while we worked on the conceptual part.

At the time, a collaborative approach was important to us because we were trying to invite all the writers into a conversation to discuss with them the issues that were important to us in the context of a full-scale war. We were under the pressure of events, and so the goal was to be reactive, although at the same time, we were publishing slower, more reflective formats. We had essays and research texts, but we also featured artworks. We invited artists to show works made before the full invasion, to show the range of issues that exist in Ukrainian discourse, and to look at them through the lens of the events that were happening at the time.

Valeriia Buradzhyieva: At that time, it was a rather reactive format, but it was not curated thematically. We didn't have time to think and realize what we were doing — we were constantly moving, in the throes of migration, publishing texts that were relevant, presenting Ukraine. It was also an English-language platform, which had never existed in Ukraine before.

Instead of interviews, we did profiles on initiatives with a cultural background that raised money to equip the army. And then we took a forced break, and it helped us a lot because we were able to understand what it was. At that time, there were already a lot of writers and artists who were beginning to work with the theme of decoloniality. Now it became clear that reactivity alone was no longer enough. So we came to the theme of memory and formulated it as Erasing & Recalling. Here we can afford a more thoughtful and slower approach.
Cover of the Erasing & Recalling project, 2023. Photo courtesy of SONIAKH.
Milena Khomchenko: It's important to say that the focus before was anti-Westplaining, and at that time we discussed with the Polish team that there were not enough Ukrainian voices, many Western voices commenting on events in Ukraine, and we lacked agency. Now, like many Ukrainians abroad, we are confronted with the leftist communist discourse of Western academia, which cannot fully understand the Ukrainian reality. We are working with a broadening of the framework of decolonial studies, and by broadening I mean a situation in which the Western academy dominates, but the international discussion lacks voices from the east of Europe and other regions. Can we speak within the framework of colonial studies if we have not been historically included in this discourse? SONIAKH is working to look at this theory not only from the perspective of how it can be attached to us, but also to question or develop it in light of our context.

After two years of work, Lera and I discussed that honesty is now an important point. In the first months of the invasion, we had to choose our words and take into account the political mood in the Western context, but after two years of war, we realized that we no longer had the strength to serve it under a "convenient" sauce, we want to be honest. Our audience already knows and trusts us, so we are looking for people who will understand us, not try to please them, and show this issue from the right side.

Valeriia Buradzhyieva: This sometimes gives us the feeling that we are writing for ourselves, for Ukrainians, because in the texts we are developing we are raising a lot of issues related to the internal Ukrainian context. That is why we are thinking about becoming bilingual (or trilingual and adding surzhyk, which Milena is researching).

ArtsLooker: When you started, you had a big team. Now, there are only two of you. Where have your co-organizers disappeared to, and are you comfortable working as a duo?

Valeriia Buradzhyieva: To be honest, we don't understand how it happened that we were left alone...

Milena Khomchenko: We had a great team that helped us get our foot in the door and get some initial visibility for the platform. The co-founding team is listed with us on the website. They helped us a lot and gave us the initial impetus, but they had a lot of volunteer initiatives, including the SŁONECZNIK SDK, which is maintained by Julia Krywicz, Taras Hembik and Maria Beburia, so I can assume that they did not have the opportunity to support all the initiatives they started.

The project is valuable to us, so we started thinking about how to continue it. While I was studying in London and Lera — in Stockholm, we thought about how to resume our existence and looked for grants. We were supported by the Ukrainian Emergency Art Fund.

We love working as a curatorial duo at the moment, but we lack people to help us manage the project. Our editor, Ada Wordsworth, the head of the charity KHARPP, which rebuilds destroyed houses in the Kharkiv region, helps us a lot with literary editing. Now, with the new Russian offensive in the Kharkiv region, she has a lot of work to do.

Valeriia Buradzhyieva: She speaks Ukrainian very well and understands the context, so she greatly helps our texts. So we actually have three people in the team, but institutionally we are unstable.

ArtsLooker: With the relaunch, you dropped the word "digest" from the platform's name. Why did you do that?

Milena Khomchenko: It was a fixation of the transition from an online media format to a curatorial platform.

Valeriia Buradzhyieva: Now we have media formats, but we are not exclusively media — we are fluid and show that we can transform and go beyond the format of texts.

ArtsLooker: You started with a focus on memory and memory erasure. Will the focus be permanent, and what other themes are you planning?

Valeriia Buradzhyieva: When we were planning the relaunch, we chose themes that interested us and realized that most of them, in one way or another, were about memory and the past that is visible in the future and in the present. During these two years, we personally began to remember the forgotten, so this theme was in the air. We also thought about telling personal stories, especially about life under occupation, diary formats. Perhaps this will be the focus of the next program.

Milena Khomchenko: Yes, Erasing & Recalling are two opposite words that convey the branches of the topic that we are interested in. In particular, the theme touches on the psychoanalytic direction of our work. In the previous iteration, we published a text by the psychoanalyst Olena Hruzdieva on "ordinary racism." This time, we have published a text by the artist and psychoanalyst Teta Tsybulnyk on the unconscious of the landscape. In psychoanalysis, we understand that memory can be repressed, come back retrospectively, and be very liberating. This aspect is interesting to us — how memories are forgotten and returned to us. We see this as a great potential for decolonization. Today, according to Madina Tlostanova, the decolonial process does not take place in physical space; colonial patterns are still reproduced at the level of politics, and empires are expanding, but decolonization takes place at the level of art and research.

The second aspect of this theme is our identity and positioning. Erasure is an important concept here. Valeriia and I have crossed paths thematically here because I study surzhyk and Valeriia studies mimicry. Drawing on the work of Frantz Fanon, I resonated with his idea of the mask that black people put on when they begin to integrate into white society. It was interesting for me to look at Ukrainians through this metaphor and to see this mask as transparent and double. This mimicry is not as visible as in traditional postcolonial studies. This erasure may be unconscious, but it is there, and in this way, we begin to reproduce the colonial framework ourselves. We are interested in how we can unconsciously contribute to the production of colonial patterns.

Valeriia Buradzhyieva: Erasure is a critical term here, we are exposing ourselves.

ArtsLooker: Currently, Ukrainian cultural and intellectual projects focus a lot of attention on the past and its reinterpretation, and on thinking about the future. There is a feeling that the present, with its suspended state, is something that has escaped our attention.

Valeriia Buradzhyieva: Attention to the past is also a desire to compensate for what should have happened earlier but did not.

Milena Khomchenko: Together with Clemens Poole and Yulia Krivich, we organized an exhibition at PLATO Ostrava in the Czech Republic and then at home at DCCC, dedicated to the concept of destiny and the future — "Let the long. Road. Lead. To. Stairs in. The Heavens," a line from a poem by artist Anna Sapon. Although the program's theme at SONIAKH is focused on the past, the future is also present. That is, the retrospective memory speaks more about the future, the past and the future begin to change places. In general, I am interested in the concept of non-linear time, where different aspects influence each other. Ukrainian culture and art show great potential for imagining a non-linear future. It's not like Russian cosmism, where the focus is on space and technology, but on co-creation, solidarity, coexistence, and organic processes that happen to us.
The launch of the SONIAKH platform at the Museum of Modern Art in Warsaw. Photo: Julia Krivich.
ArtsLooker: In our work, we think a lot about the lack of feedback. How do you understand the readers of your platform? Your texts are quite academic and this shapes the understanding of who reads SONAKH.

Milena Khomchenko: During the two years of our existence (including the founding process), we realized that we had produced many important texts, but we did not receive proper feedback on them, did not understand the readers' reactions. In the context of Ukrainian cultural discourse, this is particularly indicative of the lack of continuity in cultural criticism. During a full-scale war, we produce many texts, all working on the same theme, and this is very important, but there is no discussion, no interweaving of statements.

Valeriia Buradzhyieva: There is a pile of texts and a vacuum of discussion. Since the pre-COVID days, we have been very burned out on our management jobs, and this is our first independent attempt to run the project and even institutionalize it. We are not afraid to take breaks and slow down. That's why we're not a media outlet because SONIAKH is now the result of our reader group with each other. We enjoy this process, this partnership.

The initial idea of the platform was to work exclusively for a Western audience. At some point, we realized the performative nature of the language you use to address foreigners. I don't want to say it's hypocritical, it's what political diplomacy should be. But we are tired of it and want to transform it in our next texts. Actually, it has been changing for two years. Most of our readers on the website are from Ukraine, Poland, the UK, and the US. We are looking for ways to analyze the audience and present the platform abroad.

ArtsLooker: The language of the website is English. Why are you not interested in Ukrainian readers?

Valeriia Buradzhyieva: They began to interest us. That is why we are initiating a series of parallel publications, where texts will be published in Ukrainian on friendly platforms. For example, a text about Lada Verbina's work was reprinted in Ukrainian in the newspaper Naddnistrianska Pravda, a regional media outlet in the village where Lada's grandmother came from and which is the subject of her work. We are interested in continuing such interventions in newspapers, which is a certain communicative and stylistic challenge for us.

Milena Khomchenko: We are trying to use a variety of platforms and media where SONIAKH can get into bubbles that would otherwise not know about it. This coincides perfectly with the fact that the artworks we have chosen for the program are related to different regions of Ukraine.

ArtsLooker: Have you thought about new methods of attracting foreign readers to the topic, since new conflicts are now taking attention away from Ukraine and there is a feeling that we have already said all we can on the subject?

Valeriia Buradzhyieva: Western audiences are different. Recently, we published a story about Wall Evidence, which got a lot of reposts from the audience that came from outside.  But we don't have an answer to how to reach disinterested people, and maybe this is not the task of SONIAKH. Our platform will help those researchers and professionals who are already in solidarity with Ukraine and are looking for materials. Maybe SONIAKH will become a center where people will gather, find each other and cooperate in the future.

ArtsLooker: The institutionalization of your project is fragile, which is typical of such projects. It is a grant project that is constantly forced to look for forms of support to continue its existence. How do you plan to deal with this challenge?

Milena Khomchenko: We are now in the process of opening our own NGO, which will help us continue to exist. In this situation it is important for us to say that we are looking for partners, independent donors or sponsors who could support us. Because grants are not stable and have certain restrictions and time limits. For example, in this project, research statements are important to us and it is difficult to get them within a few months of the project. It is also a thematic framework, a focus on clear quantitative results, which also contradicts the nature of research.

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