Highlight Ukrainian Artist-Women Practices: How to Make the Story Visible?

Highlight Ukrainian Artist-Women Practices: How to Make the Story Visible?

Each archive has its own features, challenges and limitations in regard to materials collected, processed and analyzed. Ukrainian edition of the Secondary Archive project is no exception. Furthermore, any other list of names of Ukrainian artist-women or artistic archive – whoever would compile it, and whoever would enter it – will unfortunately, never correspond to reality. In both cases, as we have witnessed this time, there is the problem of Ukrainian artist-women1 being invisible and stigmatized in the local and global artistic field: according to age, nationality, choice of identity, gender, and sexuality, place of birth, place of living, presence or absence of exhibitions, living conditions, attitude to topics, declaration of social and political views, etc. This fragile representation of Ukrainian artist-women is supported by the lack of Ukrainian written art history, and dominant masterpieces approach in art criticism. Feminist art critics and researchers connect the invisibility with the context of women’s labor, access to education, social possibilities, economic factors etc. Regrettably, there is a need to confess that after more than 50 years of the first publications of the text by Linda Nochlin, there is still an ongoing essential discussion about what it means to be an artist-woman today23.

Still and all, let us have an in-depth look into the topic and examine what features and perspectives it reveals within the context of the Ukrainian artist-women practice. After having asked artist-women to prepare their statements and manifestos, our curatorial team stereotypically imagined that we would be reading complicated visionary texts about art and the future of artists. Also, at the beginning of the project, more often than not, Ukrainian artist-women were opposed to the idea of a manifesto per se. For them, nothing speaks louder than their works. Furthermore, they argued that the form of a manifesto itself is patriarchal. However, after being engaged in long conversations with all the artist-women and having discussed their practices, our curatorial team discovered different genres of artistic statements and voices that, after all, reflect their ideas in art and life. This hybridity of various artistic texts gave us an understanding of diverse artistic positions and approaches. In these manifestos, we uncovered fragile, insignificant, everyday experiences, or/and oppressed ones – like personal memory and forgotten history, the topic of domestic violence as well as any other forms of violence, war, motherhood, everyday life and routine, indigenous life, and local communities, displacement and migration, health and mental care, ecology, and climate changes, sexuality, and gender identity, sex-work, sisterhood, and support of communities. These artist-women’s statements and manifestos, in fact, open discussions about a dozen silenced topics within Ukrainian art. 

Invisibility as artistic strategy

This invisibility is both the reason for a struggle to find your own voice and an artist’s strategy. For some artists, this invisible position becomes an artistic strategy through which they voice out important topics relevant to them, allow other people to be visible and gain power:

It seemed that an artist should not speak about their own “I” but give voice to the other. Not speak for others but observe carefully through her own artist’s eye and reveal what was seen. I think that at first I would hide behind my artworks. I was sure that I was giving another—but not myself—a voice.

Anna Zvyagintseva

In search of the absurd, I often collide with the documentary, with the aspiration of photography to speak out and even call for justice. As if in the muteness and immobility of the photographic image could be concentrated in complaints, claims, reproaches, quiet voices.

Yevgenia Belorusets

My work as an artist is focused on visuality — on the regimes of visibility and invisibility. A characteristic of visual images is that they form and discipline their viewers’ perception. 

Lada Nakonechna

Inaccuracy, fragility, and uncertainty — these are the commonalities between the authors, though at first glance it seems that there is nothing that unites them. For example, for many Ukrainian women artists, uncertainty becomes an artistic strategy, along with their search for new topics, struggle with oneself, the art scene, surroundings, and dominant opinions. Yes, paradoxically, the search alongside the strength and the vigor to get to the bottom of the truth are the most important things within the unstable nature of an artist’s uncertainty:

Me personally, I am interested in fragile, unstable, every so often low-profile collective practices as well as introducing the feminist optics into anything: leaping out of binary oppositions, redrawing of space, shifting of power dispositions. 

Anna Shcherbyna

Invisible as ashamed past 

Out of all the variety of the topics with which the artists work, a topic of suppressed history is one of the most important ones. A suppressed history is not just being hidden for ideological reasons. It is being ashamed of, meaning that even if it is acknowledged, it is being ignored, consciously transforming memory and re-shaping the overall history. This hidden and embarrassing past has not just vanished, yet it still exists and reminds on every occasion of guilt, fear, and responsibility. No doubt that these powerful emotional topics are associated with the historical episodes full of trauma, unspoken and unresolved topics that are being silenced, yet still have a strong effect and influence. These experiences are not always violent. Oftentimes, such an unspoken topic is descriptive of a role and position of an artist in harsh and repressive times, a symbol of a quest for a compromise and a wish to survive.

Everyday life itself becomes a repressed and silenced topic. The artists bring such topics into light by pointing out the specific features and details. In their manifestos, Ukrainian artist-women draw viewers’ attention to the history and archive through the lens of their personal attachment. Trying to be objective, they emphasize their subjectivity in relation to each theme and their sensitivity to it. In contrast to the views of the British art historian, critic, and curator Mark Godfrey who rethinks the methodology of the artists who work with history and archives, and argues that the artist might work as a historian, the Ukrainian women artists constantly avoid any robust formulations4. They carefully move along the artistic trajectory, setting thoughtful questions and encouraging discussions about the problem. Most of their projects are not called scenarios or permit paths; for them, the therapeutic process of questioning is more crucial than the result itself. However, they do their dialogue around these topics in a therapeutic way for both themselves and viewers, for example, through work-related discussions and conversations. Such forms of collective voice make it possible to acknowledge the problem, outline ways to solve it and form a context. 

Invisible identity

The invisibility of identity is still an important topic for many artists. It includes the invisibility of sexual identity and that of a choice (e.g. there are two artists who identified themselves as men while working on the project), as well as the identity based on nationality, place of birth, and a place of official residence and tax payment This notable issue is raised in the manifesto of Yana Bystrova, who speaks of her multinational roots and migration:

Being born in Kyiv of Jewish, Ukrainian, Polish, and Russian dissidents, having artists as parents, are all still my ‘factory settings’. But the change in the cultural background, the parting with the point of origin was a pretext for changing perspective and reviewing the scale of values. In particular, the practice of art. In the process, I discovered new parts of my identity, but also some unpleasant truths about things like the loss of professional and social status because of being an immigrant, the expectations of women in a patriarchal society, the degree of sacrifice and commitment they need just to be considered as colleagues by male peers rather than being bluntly ignored.

Yana Bystrova

Alina Kopytsia poses another essential aspect of the invisible identity and that of being the outcome of participating in a closed community. Being contained in a small community means risking to lose the sense of other realities and to neglect significant changes and symptoms of the time:

I live in a “bubble” where diversity and individuality are respected, and toxic masculinity is condemned, and where any sexual practices based on safety and consent of those involved are the “norm”. A community is formed through individual meetings, workshops and parties.

Alina Kopytsia

In the process of engaging with art and creating artworks, artists form their own Utopia, in which they come up with their own rules of action and redistribute social roles. This invisible Utopia allows them to establish freedom and the feeling of security, as well as promote community support:

In the world of my dreams, things will cease to be dangerous. They will become objects for research and pleasure. The world of my dreams resembles a museum.

Kateryna Lysovenko

Art has always been a kind of a “safe place” for me where everything is possible and there is no wrong answer. Therefore, the biggest difference between art and non-art for me is the complete absence of a purpose.

Kateryna Lesiv

Invisible as non-articulated

When analyzing the Ukrainian art environment and its presence within Western art history, it is noticeable that the problem of invisibility is directly linked to the fact of actual lack of articulation. Therefore, this archive project has become even more valuable, as it enabled us to articulate the themes and issues with which the Ukrainian artists work and to integrate them into the European and world’s art context. The matter of articulation and self-articulation in today’s world is also intensified by the need to present yourself and appear on various platforms, juggle terminology, manifest your talent, charisma, and success. The problem of articulation is raised by Valentina Petrova in her manifesto:

My chosen words are ideal for organizing the process of marginalization: they make me invisible, insignificant, uninteresting, unpleasant. And that is somewhat paradoxical, as those very same words have helped many white cisgender men attain fame and success.

Valentina Petrova

As demonstrated by Valentina Petrova’s example, Ukrainian artists feel uneasy about manifesting their work and articulating the issues they work with. A format of an artistic text appears to be the most challenging for them. At the times when their Western colleagues master the skill to prepare a statement or a grant application, Ukrainian artists learn to delicately choose the words, as any type of writing becomes tedious for them. It requires a tremendous effort, and many of them are writing an artistic statement or a manifesto for the first time in their lives ever.

The case of Natalia Bazilevich, a “shadow artist”, is illustrative evidence of such an unwritten biography and an unvoiced brick of art history. She is the artist whose career was largely formed within the confines of her own room. Sadly, the limited opportunities of the 1990s and her early departure from life made the artist unnoticeable for her contemporaries.

Coincidentally, I wrote this text in my Brooklyn-based apartment that I share with the other two Ukrainian-born artists. One of them never showcased her work, despite the fact that I asked her for a studio visit several times. Working primarily with textile and graphics, she made a career as an emerging fashion designer in the past. However, after several successful projects, she lost attention to her belief in her talent and fell into the shadow. Today, her story is full of ghosts, it is never clear and never fully true. Each morning she goes to her studio with the intention to create art which she never shows to the public. Nevertheless, she is an artist – and no one can argue about that. The only thing that is always genuine in her story is fear. She cannot overcome it and step over her anxiety, and starts doubting after her tryings are unsuccessful. Such an issue of creativity clashing with the artist’s uncertainty, and invisibility as an outcome, is highlighted by Julia Cameron in her book The Artists Way5. A relatively recently published text by the Ukrainian art critic Anna Filippova “The story of one’s apartment” (Ukrainian: “Istoria odniei kvartyry”) depicts the same angle of the problem. In her essay, Filippova examines a story of an artist who has never showed their work6. The story unfolds further about a media that breaks the law of creative rights issues and publishes the artist’s images – without a permission. How many of such undiscovered and yet unknown artists lock themselves in their apartments and feel scared? How many artists create their art through storytelling and myths? How to document this intangible experience, so the artistic value is acknowledged and approved?

The hesitancy for articulation is often caused by many reasons including economic reasons and the need for survival. Oftentimes, artist-women combine their artistic practice with the “real” paid work in order to survive, thus art becomes the domain of unpaid leisure time. In other words, the absence of governmental and institutional support for artists fosters this state of invisibility, and their artistic work becomes therefore invisible. Rethinking the concept of job invisibility, Erin Hatton focuses on cultural, legal, and spatial mechanisms that put labor work under the shallow7. Interestingly, the cultural conditions still prevail. The unfair living and artistic situations have drastically changed with a robust capitalist idea of a “real” success which is dominant as a practical life strategy today.

To illustrate with an example, the artist Uliana Bychenkova in her ironic video “Where do you get the money and what do you do all day?” (2015) raised the question of how financial needs are matched up with the life of an artist. This irony is based on real challenges that millions of artists face: institutional criticism, capitalists’ values, overproduction, etc. Bychenkova argues: “I need money to read books, take walks, take a bath, surf the Internet …”. 

The same question is disputed in Olan Mamay’s and Anna Shcherbyna’s manifestos: 

During the pandemic, I hardly launched new projects. I did dishes, washed, lived off my partner and felt worthless. This is a hefty fee to be able to live in silence. Moreover, this is not silence at all. It is filled with the voices of the enemies: sexists, homophobes, misogynists. They mumble that my work will never pay off and that I will not build an artistic career, that I will always rot in the kitchen, catch flies and cut off dying leaves from my house plants.

Olan Mamay

The economic conditions of being an artist makes me doubt that this is my profession. The lack of support and a system of professional circle involvement through the educational institutions in Ukraine places the responsibility onto our shoulders for not only a conscientious work, but also for an independent acquisition of resources and skills needed for an artistic practice.

Anna Shcherbyna

To a certain extent, the issue of artist’s earnings is addressed by the artist Martha Rosler, she wonders whether critical political art can survive8. I would expand and rephrase this question: what kind of art can survive and by whom? Let me dare to assume that only that art that is being created as a product, as a systematic product that an artist systematically creates within a certain interval, perhaps will survive. Art institutions are more likely to start cooperating with artists who have a solid, consecutive portfolio or – carelessly create their work.

Women health care and art

Political, economic, and environmental crises increasingly affect society, and it is no surprise that artists respond to this with a sensual reaction. The war intensifies the global processes of the economic crisis in Ukraine. In recent years, anxiety has increased significantly under the influence of the pandemic and the quarantine, when suddenly, many artists found themselves in confined spaces and lost their sources of income. All of these factors ​​escalate inequality and the range of forms of violence.

As a feminist activist and writer Gloria Steinem argued, “the greatest indicator of the world’s stability, wealth, and safety is the status of women”9. Mental health care and depression are silenced topics within Ukrainian society, as well as threats. Uncertainty and the quest for creativity may be oftentimes inspiration or strategy for some artists-women, whereas for others – they turn into a prolonged, persistent, and chronic depression. The harsh economic conditions mentioned above contribute and nurture the anxiety.

The war went on, the media kept on broadcasting, and all I felt was my own helplessness facing the circumstances, incompetence and reluctance of the state and the officials to resolve the conflict. Rapidly, I began to lose myself as an artist, as a person. I fell into a long-lasting depression. Surprisingly, this led me to experimenting with images and metamorphosing.

Kateryna Yermolaeva

Depression is the only adequate strategy in a situation where it is impossible to influence real political processes, where we are deprived of the right to vote. This thought led me to create a project about Liola Efremova – a fictional heroine who commented suicide, whose story I narrate through the installation-reproduction of the room in which she lived.

Dana Kavelina

Invisible feminism

Artists often provide a voice to others and construct an environment or a supportive community around themselves that can resist the established traditional form of institutional support – by violating all possible institutional rules. However, they prefer not to call their art as feminist one. This feminist paradox, as Guy Madison, Ulrika Aasa, John Wallert, and Michael A. Woodley call it, becomes a new trend and exists even in more progressive, liberal, and economically developed countries10

The uniqueness of the feminist stigma in contemporary Ukraine is rooted in the Soviet stereotype about the role and place of women1112. The state created an ambivalent situation: on the one hand, it promoted women’s social liberation; on another, it did not provide equal rights for all Soviet women. Furthermore, the USSR exploited women as cheap labor and supported the invisibility of their work. It is no coincidence that feminism here also becomes invisible, or, as Olha Zhuk claims, becomes a touch13. This fragile set-up is primarily the result of discussions and bias prevailing about feminism, the political art, and the absence of debate on the approach and the knowledge:

My artistic practice is a possible fragment in the dotted line of Ukrainian art history — but not the one that is marked by the logic of the national representation, but the one that has been written inconsistently in Ukraine. Without calling my art a «feminine» one, I am not deviating from the political position and feminist discourse. It is rather an attempt to move in reverse direction: to find out what feminist elements my practice contains.

Anna Shcherbyna

Oftentimes, my artistic practice is called feminist art. But I never aimed at making “feminist” art. Although I myself sometimes use these concepts depending on the context, I am skeptical about such a categorization of art. At the same time, I consider nonconformist practices within the feminist art to be important and necessary for gaining strength and creating a safe space for a discussion.

Iryna Kudria

One of the possible causes for such an attitude is the lack of a safe space. While creating comfortable conditions for others, artists themselves get into difficult life situations characterized by economic and ethical oppression.

Invisibility and museum criticism 

The texts of Ukrainian artists-women depict the problem of invisibility from different viewpoints. The central and dominant issue remains the artists’ invisibility within the Ukrainian and international context. Therefore, it is paramount to ask:

What is the place of the Ukrainian artist-women?

What is the place of the Ukrainian Soviet artist-women?

How to denote the art made by the artist-women during the Perestroika and the collapse of the Soviet Union? How to manifest the art of those who could not continue practicing their art as a result of economic and social challenges?

How to rank those Ukrainian female artists who have been living and working outside Ukraine for many years? How to label this displaced identity? How to include those artists in both “there” and “here”?

Can the work of female artists be considered feminist if the artists themselves do not articulate their position or are even ashamed of feminism? What is generally the feminist art today, and does an artist have the right of not attributing her artistic practice to anything at all?

This list of questions can be even longer. The present research opens up a debate with an important question: what is the way to represent the practice of artists-women within art institutions, to identify all the sensitive topics they work with, and to bring all the challenges they face into light? Moreover, what is the way to construct the art history, so the revealed names appear there?

In her book, Radical Museology, Professor of Art History Claire Bishop examines contemporary methods and topics of collecting and representing art history in museums of contemporary art. Rethinking the category of ‘the contemporary,’ she argues that art institutions are trying to reflect on the current political and historical agenda under the influence of the neoliberal market and the power of local elites, and according to her, “we seem hopelessly unable to devise an alternative value system”14. She assumes, however, that only strong belief and support of arts and humanities can create a powerful, secure intellectual grip for articulating cultural values. Following her ideas and examining today’s exhibitions and representation in the big international museum’s collections (like, for example, MoMA or Whitney Museum), there is no doubt that feminism and “women topics” have become an important issue. Within the Ukrainian context, what does that mean for the Ukrainian museums to include women’s names and works into their permanent art collections? Would it change the status-quo for artist-women? Or would they become a regular replacement for museums in their wish to simply try and be “contemporary”?

One of the main museum methods that Claire Bishop illustrates in her research is a giant collective exhibition that reflects on vulnerable historical events, political and colonial topics, and even institutional and capitalist criticism, where “rather than a highly individualized artistic epiphany, viewers to these galleries encountered a euphoria of space first, and art second.” Let us look at the texts of Ukrainian artist-women and their ideas. Many of their works concentrate on large-scale historical events and work through traumatic experiences. However, how artists refer to the past is slightly different from how museums and art institutions think of “the large-scale of the artistic perception.” Their artworks are not aimed at impressing with their size or choice of artistic methods, they are not intended to evoke a wow-effect and remain just a visual memory. Instead, on the contrary, the themes and methods of Ukrainian artist-women are often aimed at educational interest, defining the context and creating a field for thought. It does not mean that artists are not capable of large-scale statements. But this marks what is equally essential for them to create the environment and space around the work. Such artworks became an exposition and representation challenge for museums and art institutions and required more attention from the viewer. Strictly speaking, this change of perspective shifts the conversation about art from its representation to its comprehension. Here, I agree with Martha’s Rosler that “criticality can be a modern phoenix15. “However, there is a risk of museums/art institutional wokefishing, where critical is only positioning and articulating but not representing this position in actual practice. 

As many art critics and theorists emphasize the need to reconsider methods and collections of art institutions and museums according to feminism and the decolonial approach, however, claim, despite the proposed models, the idea of such a reformation to seem utopian16. Nevertheless, as Time editors mentioned in their lead paragraph to Gloria Steinem’s essay What It Would Be Like If Women Win: “Utopias pass from dream to reality, but it is often an illuminating exercise to predict what could happen if they did”17. It is worth recalling the examples described above from the manifestos of Lysovenko and Lesiv, in which there is an urgent need for the formation and implementation of Utopia and comprehension of art as a Utopia itself. So, if the utopian idea of museums is already present, perhaps the very form of such an art institutional formation will soon become more visible. Thus, it’s a time to imagine and act.

This article raised the issue of visibility and invisibility. However, the limitedness of the participants made some artists more visible and left the others in the shadows. Moreover, any lists and ratings, even if they claim that there is no hierarchy, will, in any case, have a patriarchal nature. As much as we would like to overcome this system, this system will turn out to be standing against any researcher or curator who will face the problem of selection. Therefore, we have to call on Ukrainian artists – the ones presented and especially the ones who are not presented in this archive – to continue working and manifesting their positions as an ongoing project.

Kateryna Iakovlenko – born in 1989. A contemporary art researcher, art critic and writer. She earned an MA in journalism at the Donetsk National University. For six years she has been researching the transformation of the heroic narrative of Donbas through new media as a postgraduate thesis at the Ivan Franko National University of Lviv. She worked as deputy web editor for The Day newspaper (2013–2014), curator and program manager in the Donbas Studies Research Project at Izolyatsia, a platform for cultural initiatives (2014–2015), and researcher and curator of public programs at PinchukArtCentre (2016–until now). Her current research interest touches on the subject of art during political transformations and war, and explores women’s and gender optics in visual culture. She was the editor of the books Gender Studies by Donbas Studies Research Project (2015), Why There Are Great Women Artists in Ukrainian Art (2019), Euphoria and Fatigue: Ukrainian Art and Society after 2014 (special issue of Obieg magazine, co-edited with Tatiana Kochubinska, 2019), and Curatorial Manual (co-edited with Oleksandra Pogrebnyak and Dmytro Chepurny, 2020).
1Term promoted by Griselda Pollock. See: Griselda Pollock, Action, Activism, and Art and/as Thought: A Dialogue with the Artworking of Sonia Khurana and Sutapa Biswas and the Political Theory of Hannah Arendt. in e-flux. 2018, June 2018, Issue #92 https://www.e-flux.com/journal/92/204726/action-activism-and-art-and-as-thought-a-dialogue-with-the-artworking-of-sonia-khurana-and-sutapa-biswas-and-the-political-theory-of-hannah-arendt/.
2Linda Nochlin, Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists? in ArtNews, 1977. See: https://www.artnews.com/art-news/retrospective/why-have-there-been-no-great-women-artists-4201/.
3Mignon Nixon, Women, Art, and Power After Linda Nochlin. in October, 2018, No.163, pp. 131–132.
4Mark Godfrey, The Artist as Historian. in October, 2007, No. 120., pp. 140-172.
5Julia Cameron, The Artists Way. A Spiritual Path to Higher Creativity. Souvenir Press, 1992, 237 p.
6Anna Filippova, Istoria odniei kvartyry (“The story of one's apartment”), in ArtsLooker, December, 13, 2021. See: https://artslooker.com/istoriya-odniei-kvartiri/?fbclid=IwAR1Xqa_wzyFWW4RmD4foWE9tYbIhp91b-BhmfAWpk9okJ_5-2jYPqGgso34.
7Erin Hatton, Mechanisms of invisibility: rethinking the concept of invisible work. in Sociology; Work, Employment & Society, 2017, Vol 31, Issue 2. pp. 336-351. https://doi.org/10.1177/0950017016674894 
8Martha Rosler, Take the Money and Run? Can Political and Socio-critical Art “Survive”? in e-flux, January 2010, Issue #12. See: https://www.e-flux.com/journal/12/61338/take-the-money-and-run-can-political-and-socio-critical-art-survive/.
9Gloria Steinem Links Violence Against Women With Global Instability. The Takeaway podcast. May 10, 2016. See: https://www.wnycstudios.org/podcasts/takeaway/segments/gloria-steinem-violence-against-women-and-constant-push-equality.
10Guy Madison, Ulrika Aasa, John Wallert, and Michael A. Woodley, Feminist activist women are masculinized in terms of digit-ratio and social dominance: a possible explanation for the feminist paradox. Front. Psychol, Vol 5, 1011 p, see: doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2014.01011.
11Marian J. Rubchak (Ed.), New Imaginaries: Youthful Reinvention of Ukraine’s Cultural Paradigm. New York: Berghahn Books, 2015.
12Olha Zhuk, Dotyk feminizmu (“A touch of feminism”) in KIMAF, 2000.
13Solomiya Pavlychko, Feminizm. Kolektsiia statey (Feminism. Collection of articles) // Foreword by Vira Ageeva. Kyiv: Solomiya Pavlychko Publishing House, Ovnovy, 2002,  322 p.
14Claire Bishop, Radical Museology. London: Koenig Books, 2013, 80 p.
15Martha Rosler, Take the Money and Run? Can Political and Socio-critical Art “Survive”? in e-flux, January 2010, Issue #12. See: https://www.e-flux.com/journal/12/61338/take-the-money-and-run-can-political-and-socio-critical-art-survive/.
16Nataša Petrešin-Bachelez, Transforming Whiteness in Art Institutions. in e-flux, September 2018, Issue #93. See: https://www.e-flux.com/journal/93/216046/transforming-whiteness-in-art-institutions/.
17Gloria Steinem, What It Would Be Like If Women Win. in TIME. August, 31, 1970. See: http://content.time.com/time/subscriber/article/0,33009,876786-1,00.html.
18Angela Dimitrakaki, Feminism, Art, Contradictions. in e-flux, June 2018, Issue #92. See: https://www.e-flux.com/journal/92/205536/feminism-art-contradictions/.
19Kimberle Crenshaw, Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and Violence against Women of Color. in Stanford Law Review, 1991, Vol. 43, No. 6, pp. 1241-1299.
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