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Ukraine: The Path to Freedom in de Akerk: exhibition overview. Photo by Sander van der Bij

In the Akerk, in Groningen’s city centre, the work of 27 Ukrainian photographers are placed on exhibit. Responding to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Noorderlicht and the foundation for the Groningen churches decided to showcase artists from the last fifty years, all working within Ukraine. Maia Paduraru gives an extensive and critical report of her visit of the exhibition. 

In the medieval city centre of Groningen, an imposing 15th century church, the Akerk, stands. The gothic-style building, made of bricks with vertical windows, is misleading: the church currently functions as a cultural venue. Now, the edifice accommodates a peculiar photo exhibition with a non-frequent theme for the Netherlands: a view into Ukrainian photography over the last five decades. Undoubtedly, the recent war of Russia on Ukraine brought new attention to the country, which naturally led to an increased interest in Ukrainian culture. The exposition is one of the initiatives of cooperation between a local Ukrainian curator, Katerina Radchenko, and Noorderlicht, a Groningen-based institution focused on images. The exhibition shows photos, collages and videos, by 27 different Ukrainian photographers and artists.

The exhibition captures the development of the photographic medium from the 1970s to this present day. This ranges from experimental photography to photojournalistic representation – a strange mix of artistic, historical and journalistic approaches. 

The exhibition starts with the 1970s period, in which the creation of a photo club in Kharkiv named “Vremia” (“Time”) was welcomed. This photo club strove to represent the reality of Soviet life, stripped from the propaganda veil. Consequently, Kharkiv became a place for the new generation of experimental photographers that reached the contemporary Western artistic scene.

Sasha Kurmaz, from the series "Wasted Youth" (2009-2019)

The black and white photos of ordinary Soviet life are coloured in bright nuances, which reminds of children’s colouring books. On an everyday picture of Lenin’s monument by Yevgeniy Pavlov , a bright yellow sun is drawn alongside blue clouds, mocking the well-crafted persona of Lenin as presented by Soviet propaganda. The bright patches of colour evoked the ‘luriki’, which is a traditional technique of hand-colouring of family portraits that is done by using aniline dyes. Pavlov’s Total Photography series represents an intrusive, almost destructive technique in the photos through the addition of bold nuances. In the case of a photo depicting what seems to be an examination of a student by assessors, the image is barely discernible underneath the mixture of black, red, yellow and blue in the picture.

Pavlov’s Total Photography series represents an intrusive, almost destructive technique in the photos through the addition of bold nuances

In the same tone of an ironic Soviet life, artists such as Boris Mikhailov, Oleksandr Suprun and Victor and Sergey Kochetov presented a counter-photography of the propaganda machine photos. Suprun’s collages are composed of monochromatic hyper-realistic pictures of people, shot in dramatic angles and in high contrast. They show the horrific and gruesome life in the Soviet Ukrainian kolkhoz. A collage photo by Suprun, taken from a low angle, features a farmer, who holds onion braids on his shoulder. He faces us and smiles amongst the other farmers. It showcases the non-idealised glorified version of Soviet village life, which is dramatic, plain and flawed in the eyes of the photographer. Pictures of USSR passports stubbed in a metal fence and portraits of brutalised protesters with posters during the independence movement of the early 1990s are captured by Valeriy Miloserdov. These examples of this period sadly present only a one sided version of Soviet Ukraine: a version of oppression, struggle, and of illusionary utopia. It alludes to trauma of the Soviet past, which undeniably exists to this day in Ukrainian society as across other former Republics. However, the period of “oppression” and persecution from 1970 until 1990 can also be characterized as the most comfortable, stable, relatively peaceful and hopeful in the Soviet Union, due to the rise of export in gas and oil and the softening of the penalties. If it had been a period of only persecution and struggle, the cultural sector in Soviet Ukraine would not have flourished in the wide range of experimental photography of Kharkiv Photography School that’s shown in Noorderlicht’s exhibition.

Left: Oleksandr Suprun, From the series "Collages (1970s-80s)"


These examples of this period sadly present only a one sided version of Soviet Ukraine: a version of oppression, struggle, and of illusionary utopia

Moving from the fight for independence to the transition period of the 2000s captures an amalgam of varied topics: a rethinking of the Chernobyl tragedy; the sexualised and scandalised body, with the focus on the female body; and a reprocessing of the past and the political struggles in asserting its independence from Russian influence. For the artists, it is a period of experimentation in finding their true voice with Western influences. Some photos recall Nan Goldin’s The Ballad of Sexual Dependecy but with a Soviet twist. The range of photos by Sasha Kurmaz, called “Wasted Youth,” features a naked woman with her legs up in an erotic position, wearing a leather choker; a naked portrait of two gay men kissing; a medium shot of a woman with bruises and a naked woman climbing a massive Soviet sculpture.

A much more unique view into postmodern Ukraine was presented by the works of Elena Subach: Grandmothers, On the Edge of Heaven (“Babusi”). The collages feature bright-coloured patterns of flowers and landscapes, juxtaposed with grandmothers wearing head scarfs and carrying their handbags, dressed properly, as if they are going to an Orthodox church on a Sunday. The collages reflect on the place of the religious grandmas with their superstitious beliefs in the contemporary life of Ukraine. Another series of works pops out in the exhibition, depicting the impromptu constructions of the Maidan revolution by Kiril Golovchenko. It is an architectural view into the event, where the human is absent in the photos but implied through the objects such as stocks of bricks, helmets, Molotov cocktails, flowers, cans and Ukrainian flags taped on sculptures. 

At the end of the walk through the exhibition, a warning sign that figures “Sensitive content!” stands in front of a separate room. The space shows recent photos from the Russian invasion of Ukraine. The aestheticised photos of dead bodies from the ongoing war bring a shocking element forward. The pain is depicted graphically through dead bodies of Ukrainians and Russian soldiers: Azov Stali’s wounded soldiers in Mariupol, Russian dead soldiers hanging upside down on a tree, partially exhumed cadavers of civilians.

The monumental space of a former church brings gravity to the gruesomeness depicted in these photos. The suffering gets a dimension of heroic, almost saintly, martyrdom for those in the pictures. The level of pain is high, but unavoidably too overwhelming to be processed fully by the Dutch audience, who share a slightly different recent past.

While the war unfolds in real time, with real consequences, viewing an exhibition on this theme has the potential to fall into voyeurism for those outside of the frontline

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Attempting to capture the photographic history of Ukraine in an exhibition is a bold act for any art institution. While the war unfolds in real time, with real consequences, viewing an exhibition on this theme has the potential to fall into voyeurism for those outside of the frontline. The noble attempt of sensitising the public through images of raw graphic pain may cause a reverse reaction: it may normalise the people in pain as the “Others.” 

The exhibition falls into the old narrative of Western hierarchy above other parts of the world. Ukrainian historical development in photography is presented mainly through struggles fused with suffering, ashes and blood. It represents the Western internalised perspective on Ukrainian photographic history as a peripheral part of Europe, forever re-emerging as a new democracy in protests and wars for its independence; the Soviet past presented as well as a disruption from the normal development towards a free country. Noorderlicht’s exhibition missed the opportunity of showing Ukraine’s path to freedom through photography as culturally diverse, unique  experimental and rich. Trying to encapsulate five decades of Ukrainian photography is too much for the restricted space of a church.

The exhibition Ukraine: The Path to Freedom is still on view in the Akerk, Groningen, until the 22th of January 2023. 

Contributing artists: Alexander Chekmenev, Andrii Dostliev & Lia Dostlieva, Andriy Lomakin, Boris Mikhailov, Dmytro Kozatskyi, Elena Subach, Evgeniy Pavlov, Kirill Golovchenko, Lisa Bukreyeva, Maxim Dondyuk, Mila Teshaieva, Mstyslav Chernov, Mykhaylo Palinchak, Mykola Ridnyi, Oksana Parafeniuk, Oleksandr Suprun, Paraska Plytka-Horytsvit, Rita Ostrovska, Roman Khimei & Yarema Malashchuk, Sasha Kurmaz, Valeriy Miloserdov, Viacheslav Poliakov, Viktor & Sergiy Kochetov and Vladyslav Krasnoshchok.

Kochetov and Vladyslav Krasnoshchok.

Maia Paduraru

studies journalism at the University of Groningen

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