Without soil: artist Katia Aliynyk on her ongoing dialog with occupied Luhansk

5 грудня, 2023

Luhansk-born artist Katia Aliinyk tried many ways to get an art education: she read Henri Perruchot’s books about Toulouse-Lautrec, Cézanne, and Gauguin, bought at a flea market in Luhansk, studied drawing with the wife of a local priest in Rivne, where she lived in evacuation, and graduated from the National Academy of Fine Arts and Architecture cause she needed a room in a dormitory. She also listened to online lectures about contemporary art on YouTube. "After these lectures, I thought: "So there is really no future in lying in a snowdrift near the academy in a dirty jacket and painting bushes?" the artist comments on her turn to contemporary art. After that, she took courses at KAMA and the MethodFund.

In 2021, Aliinyk worked on the topic of the Luhansk region and created a series of medical and political fantasies about the region — paintings depicting the local soil in the section, revealing plant mutations underground. "It's a metaphor for the invisible bad processes that are happening in the east, on the other side of the border, processes that we can't witness, we can only imagine," Aliinyk explains. Since the full-scale invasion, the series has received a lot of attention from cultural professionals, and Aliynyk's work has been shown at exhibitions in Warsaw, Krakow, Berlin, Vienna, and Bucharest.

In addition to painting, Aliinyk works with fiction writing as an art form. In 2023, together with curator Natasha Chychasova, she released a zine titled “Collective Fantasies and Eastern Resources,” which touches on the topic of personal experience of displacement.

In a conversation with Lisa Korneichuk, the artist talks about the long journey home and Luhansk as a place that is always with her. 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.

Katia Aliinyk. Courtesy: the artist.


Before Covid-19, my mom, sister, and I used to go to occupied Luhansk every summer. My grandparents and my father's family remain in the occupied territories. In the early years, there were a lot of checkpoints on the route, the road was torn up, it was hard, but then we somehow got used to it. To travel, we received an official pass from the state. Some people went through Russia, but we went through Stanytsia Luhanska. The train went to Rubizhne, and from Rubizhne, there was a bus that took a very, very long time to get to Stanytsia, that’s where the queues started. Usually, everyone with huge bags and belongings would stand in line at the Ukrainian border, then the same thing at the border of the 'Luhansk People's Republic,' and then from there, we would take a bus home. It took a little over a day, about 28 hours.

For many years, I thought that it hadn't affected me in any way. Only recently I realized that I was stuck in that time. It seems to me that when I went to Luhansk, I dissociated myself from my life — the city was frozen in time, it was not renovated in any way, nothing was built, and the asphalt was cracking. It was dusty, abandoned, and deserted. When I returned there in the summer, it seemed that I was 13 again and that life in Kyiv was a dream.

Katya Aliinyk, from the series “Medical and Political Fantasy About Luhansk,” acrylic on canvas, 2021-2022. Courtesy: the artist.
When the rallies started in 2014, people did not realize something terrible could happen. They went on with their lives, went to work, and did not even pay attention to the fact that something was happening in the city center. And then the occupation occurred. We were at sea at the time and could not return to Luhansk for a long time because of the shelling, so we were stuck in the village of Belbasivka near Sloviansk for several months. We lived through this time with our relatives — ten people sleeping on the floor in one house. At the time, it seemed to me that this was some kind of extended “adventure,” that I was the heroine of some action-packed book. I thought that soon this interesting setup would be over, and everything would get back to normal, so I had to live this period in some exciting way.

When we returned to Luhansk and were hiding in the basement among the pickle jars, I read “The Count of Monte Cristo” aloud to my grandfather, and he said: “Real adventures are always very uncomfortable.” We all did not believe until the end and did not want to understand what was happening. I realize it's terrible to call these events an “uncomfortable adventure.” Still, it was a defense mechanism, and it helped us survive that time a little bit.
Katya Aliinyk, “Neglected Part of the Garden,” acrylic on canvas, 2022. Courtesy: the artist.
I realized that my life had changed irrevocably when we left for Rivne to stay with my relatives, and I went to school there. It was a change of mentality, a change of place, a change of climate. In Luhansk, the air was dry, the steppe I was used to. In Rivne, it's a wet winter, so I got a terrible apathy. Since then, all the time in Rivne, I felt that life was on pause while in Luhansk, and I was still waiting to press the “play” button.

Since 2014, I have had an inner fear that I will have to leave everything again. In Kyiv, I never settled down anywhere I lived and hardly ever bought things or books. I lived in a background mode of tension and expectation. So when the full-scale war started, I exhaled a little bit: "It's a good thing I didn't collect this library, it's a good thing I don't have anything." Of course, I wasn't happy, but I was relieved that this fear had found a logical conclusion. Since then, I no longer feel like my life is on hold.
Katya Aliinyk, “We Got Front Row Tickets,” acrylic on canvas, 2023. Courtesy: the artist.
On the eve of February 24, I learned from my relatives that the Russians were bringing equipment to Luhansk, I cried and realized that the war was definitely coming. When the invasion began, my friends and I moved to the shelter of the Institute of Automation (a Soviet site that is being rented out for artists’ studios). For the first week, we lived there, making Molotov cocktails for the territorial defense of the neighborhood, reading the news, and living in dirt and dust. After a week, we realized we couldn't go on like that, so we went to Ivano-Frankivsk, where I worked for three months at the “Working Room” residency.

During the war, I discovered the nomadic lifestyle, which turned out to be very comfortable for me despite the fact that I had been suffering all these years from being unable to go home like an average person. During the first months, my colleagues and I were surfing on a wave of adrenaline, so we worked pretty well. And I don't need much to paint: acrylic, canvas, brushes and some room. Since 2014, I had time to think about the occupation, so I started working very hard when I got the space and materials. Instead of panicking and bursting into despair, work saved me and gave me a sense of subjectivity.

I feel compelled to share my experiences due to my background and family history. The portrayal of Donbas is often inaccurate, so my texts are aimed at destroying myths about Donbas. It almost feels like a duty, as if I'm on a mission. I hope that through my efforts, I am baking a brick that will form a solid foundation that will reshape the image of Donbas. Perhaps I'm shouldering a hefty responsibility (laughs).
Katya Aliinyk, “What Else to Bring to the Table?” acrylic on canvas, 2023. Courtesy: the artist.
Since the beginning of the full-scale war, I have spent a lot of time at residencies in the EU, and this helped me realize that art made in wealthy and more prosperous societies is very distant from me. Of course, it is great there in Europe, I like how everything is organized there, which makes me sad about our Ukrainian fate. But I still want to come back here, I only go there to work, and then, as a migrant worker, I collect my money and return home.
Katya Aliinyk, “Ukrainian River,” acrylic on canvas, 2023. Courtesy: the artist.
I have a long relationship with writing: at home in Luhansk, everyone reads a lot. In 2018, I started writing short texts and collecting notes. I call my way of writing “bottom-up processing.” This is when you concentrate on details, collect them into patterns, and look for paradoxes between them. Because I went to Luhansk after the occupation, my images were organized into groups “before the occupation,” “after,” and “eternal,” which were not affected by the war.

I wrote the text “Who Else Eats Life with Spoons?” for the zine “Collective Fantasies and Eastern Resources” in Russian with a touch of dialects from Donbas. In the texts, I try to convey my fear that the physical destruction of places and people entails the destruction of intangible heritage — family history, regional history, dialects, knowledge of soil cultivation, and so on. Such things can be lost forever, and there is no way for me to go back to them to check them. That's why I chose this form of writing, where I tell stories in the language and tone I used to speak when in Luhansk, so it sounds familiar. People who read this text pointed out that it really sounds very “Donbas-like.” I really wanted to preserve this language quality, at least for myself, because I'm afraid that these memories will dissipate and I will lose them.

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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