"God is diversity": How the artist Tamara Turliun makes paper cutouts and paints a faceless god

20 листопада, 2023

The artist Tamara Turliun is afraid to jinx. Therefore, with the beginning of a full-scale invasion, she avoids images of rockets, explosions, and violence, unlike many of her colleagues. Instead of realistic war scenes, she chose a more restrained way — abstract paper cutouts, simple gouache drawings, and text statements, in which, despite everything, the language of war comes through clearly and unambiguously.

Turliun graduated from the Monumental Painting department at the National Academy of Fine Arts and Architecture in Kyiv, before that, she studied at the Dnipro Theater and Art College in the workshop of Leonid Antoniuk. She took a course in contemporary art at the Kyiv Academy of Media Arts curated by Lesia Khomenko. Now, she works as an independent artist, curator, and teacher in the educational program of the PinchukArtCenter.

In a conversation with Lisa Korneichuk, the artist opened up about rediscovering folk art due to the impact of the war, her decision to remain in Kyiv amidst the full-scale invasion, and her quest to redefine the image of god(s) in art.

With this publication, ArtsLooker continues a series of informative essays and interviews in partnership with the Museum Of Contemporary Art NGO and UMCA (Ukrainian Museum of Modern Art) about Ukrainian art during the full-scale war in the framework of the Wartime Art Archive preparation.

Tamara Turliun. Courtesy of the artist.

About Herself

I was born in the village of Pavlivka near Zhashkov in Cherkasy region. But Dnipro is also my hometown because I lived there as a teenager, and now my parents live there. For me, the places where I come from are very important.

My father was a military man all his life. However, he did not serve in the ATO (antiterrorist operation is the term used to describe military actions in the east of Ukraine from 2014 to 2018 — ed.) because his contract expired, and now he is serving again. My mother worked in a dive (I want it to be recorded that way). She worked there cause her goal was to save money for an apartment. Perhaps my parents influenced my artistic choice precisely because they bought such an apartment where I had a room of my own. I had a place where I could do something and be alone.

Works by Tamara Turliun at the exhibition "How are you?," Ukrainian House, Kyiv, 2023. Photo: Yevhen Nikiforov.
If I were asked to introduce myself, I would say I'm an artist, a teacher, and a bit of a gardener—also a half-time curator. I have a self-organized space depot12_59. We opened in 2020 and worked until February 24, 2022, then took a six-month break, and now we are open again. depot12_59 organized in the apartment of my partner, Andrii Lyashchuk. This apartment, which was our workshop and home, is located in Darnytsia, on the left bank of Kyiv. It is important for me to develop the left bank not only because I live there but because there is an art potential there; unfortunately, it is consensually depreciated in Kyiv.

Our recent exhibition at depot12_59 is a project by Karina Synytsia about Darnytsia and her personal experiences of the place. This exhibition arose out of our conversations and shared interest in the borough. We will close the space for the winter because it will be difficult for us to maintain it in the cold season, but we will open again in the spring.

On the Time Before the Invasion

After the full-scale invasion, I never went abroad, this was my principled position. However, many tried to take me out [laughs]. I was in Kyiv. I don't know what I would have done if the threat had been closer to us. At the beginning of the invasion, I was most afraid of dying in the [Kyiv] basement, not in my village. At that time, a strong longing for the earth woke up in me, I immediately understood all those wills of people who asked to bury them at home. I could not go because it is morally difficult to be separated from my relatives, I wanted to support my loved ones by being here.

Before February 24, my dad worked as a manager of our condominium in Dnipro and equipped everything in case of war because he kept repeating that there would be a full-scale invasion. And I replied: "You have an army trauma, and you don't understand anything." However, I am very grateful to him: Dad constantly gave me thematic brochures on how to prepare. He always dreamed of herding sheep in the village. We imagined that I would be drawing, my mother nearby doing something, and my father herd the sheep. On February 14, 2022, I anxiously packed my suitcase because I decided that this would be my best romantic gift to myself.

Tamara Turliun, Untitled (“I want to confess that today I invented torture for my enemy”), paper, gouache, 2022. Courtesy of the artist.
The fact that your relatives are at the front, defending the country, greatly affects your civic position. The fear of losing them gives a clear understanding of who is the enemy and who is the friend. Like most, I have something to be ashamed of to think I have not done much.

On the eve of the full-scale invasion, I had an exhibition at The Naked Room gallery. This is one of those exhibitions that have become very important for me professionally, I am very grateful for it. With the beginning of the invasion, the works from the exhibition remained in the gallery, I know they were evacuated somewhere later. But at that time, I thought that even if my artworks were used to glue windows or heat the stove, it didn't matter to me. It's good that they were rescued, but I probably wouldn't have saved these works myself. I would think: "I'll create more."

In 2021, in my works, I talked about love, equality, and coexistence between animals, plants, and people, I tried to imagine possible ideal worlds. Now, I can't create something like that, but I think a lot about the rights of currently oppressed communities.

When the war started, we did not go to the village, as we had planned before, but woke up in Darnytsia to a call from our friend from Kharkiv, he was the person who informed us about the war. That morning, we still had time to drink coffee in the neighborhood, thinking "Maybe this is our last coffee." Then we heard loud explosions and went home, and from there, they moved to a relative's house and spent the first weeks of the war in the basement. Such close coliving with family required some time to adjust to each other, but we had wine [laughs].
Tamara Turliun, Untitled (“— We will be happy. — I don't understand you.”), paper, gouache, 2022. Courtesy of the artist.

About paper cutouts, creative searches, and jinx

At that moment, I was thinking about teaching and how to support my students, who are also hiding in shelters. It seemed to me that chatting on neutral topics about how to draw something might help. But painting in shelters could be difficult because not everyone had access to materials. That's why I came to paper cutouts. Folding a sheet of paper in half and tearing off the ends, forming patterns is much easier technically. First of all, it helped me — I was distracted because I was preparing lessons and making a visual selection of references. I didn't work with cutouts before the invasion. I only started them because I sought mediums to work with children. And then I started selling them for donations.

Tamara Turliun, Untitled, paper cutout, 2022. Courtesy of the artist.
Now, in art, I am interested in simple subjects related to the theme of care. For a long time, I was afraid to create something visualizing war. I'm definitely not a witch, but several times, what I depicted in the works coincided with what was happening. Of course, it is not difficult to "provoke" an explosion with a picture of it when there is a war in your country. But it was uncomfortable for me to craft this image in my art. I still don't do it now; for me, documentary photos and videos are enough.
Tamara Turliun, Untitled, paper cutout, 2022. Courtesy of the artist.
After a full-scale invasion, I returned to naive art, spent a lot of time on the Ivan Honchar Museum of Folk Art website, and looked at images there that I rediscovered for myself. It seemed to me that these visuals are relevant today. With my partner Andrii, I started creating small wooden birds. On one of the walks, we found a big log, and I said: "This will be a cool swan, let's carve it for me." Andrii cut it out, but he cut off his thumb in the process. The hospital could not sew it up. It's such a stupid loss because we were at home, in relative safety. Fortunately, Andrii is an engineer, so he made himself a prosthesis. It was ironic because the day before at the exhibition at The Naked Room, I presented a series of works that included a drawing that read: "When you grow your fifth finger, we will take over the world with love." Then I asked myself why I was even bringing that finger up. We think that it was a jinx, so now I avoid all such things.
Tamara Turliun, "When you develop a fifth finger, I will capture the whole world with our love," gouache on paper, 2020. Courtesy of the artist.

About god as a character and the Black Forest series

I really miss the past life. 2021 was my best year: everything turned out as best as possible. We were not wealthy or anything, but humanly, I was happy because I was surrounded by everything I wanted. And it's terrible because the war was going on even then.

Tamara Turliun, Untitled (“What are you dreaming of?”), paper, gouache, 2022. Courtesy of the artist.
I don't know if there's room for the magical in my life and work now, as there was before the full-scale invasion. Some mystery remains, but not in the same form as it once was. I am not a very religious person, but in my art, there is a god as a character, I turn to him both in works with text and in visual works. I like to think about what it could look like. I don't want my vision of religion to be misconstrued in any way or to offend anyone's feelings, but now I'm thinking about a new image of god — can it be colored? I have yellow, blue, red, and purple, with and without a beard, with or without a mustache, sequined. I treat this character like a friend and enjoy seeking different looks that differ from his canonical visual form. God is neither a woman nor a man, but diversity.
Tamara Turliun, from the series "Rainbows", paper, gouache, glitter, 2023. Courtesy of the artist.
Tamara Turliun, from the series "Rainbows", paper, gouache, glitter, 2023. Courtesy of the artist.
Tamara Turliun, from the series "Rainbows", paper, gouache, glitter, 2023. Courtesy of the artist.
I am also now more interested in the LGBT+ theme in my works. An acquaintance of mine, a member of the community, recently died in the war. This topic is important to me because I have devoted many artworks to the topic of love before. But not exclusively heteronormative love. And this is not because this topic is popular now but because the LGBT community in Ukraine is not protected, and I am interested in talking not only about my love and my experience but also about other love experiences.

I am now moving away from working on series and from large formats. Sometimes, A4 sheet is enough for me, I sketch something and think: "Well, I said everything I wanted." Is it worth doing large-format works? After all, now all my drawings are stored in food containers; if they fit there, this is the perfect format.
Tamara Turliun, Untitled, paper, gouache, 2022. Courtesy of the artist.
I made the series of drawings "Black Forest" after we expelled the Russian troops from the Kyiv region. I was doing these works with very gloomy thoughts about death, about handmade crosses on graves that communities made for their murdered neighbors, and at the same time, about the image of the tree of life in folk art. However, now I feel that the meaning of rebirth and hope for the future life are embedded in these works as well.
Tamara Turiun, from the Black Forest series, paper, 2022. Courtesy of the artist.
The war changed my worldview. I used to have a romantic idea about self-sacrifice. I thought: to receive, you have first to give something away. Now I don't think like that: we don't have to give anything to anyone, it's all ours.

Research and development of materials, Wartime Art Archive website development, and media partnership with Suspilne.Kultura and Artslooker are implemented by the Museum of Contemporary Art NGO with the support of the Fritt Ord Foundation (Norway) and the Sigrid Rausing Trust (UK).

The text in Ukrainian is available on Suspilne.Kultura

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