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Reifying Loss and Healing: Crimea and Crimean Tatars in Ukrainian Art after 2014

Image: Ewa Sulek

BY EWA SULEK

The 2014 annexation of Crimea was traumatic for all of Ukrainian society and added another page to the tragic history of the Crimean Tatars. Attempts to heal this trauma are at the core of a number of artistic projects.

Over the last five years I have seen three art projects devoted to commemorating the Crimean Tatars in Ukraine: Nikita Kadan's installation Everybody Wants to Live by the Sea (2014), Roman Mikhailov’s Radif: The Last Child (2015), and a grandiose exhibition at the Mystetskyi Arsenal in Kyiv, Amazing Stories of Crimea (February 26–May 5, 2019). At first glance, these various projects might appear to have been reflections on loss and foreign aggression after the annexation of Crimea in 2014. I propose, however, to see them as part of the decolonization process—a part that necessarily includes developing an understanding of the society’s past, coming to terms with it, and healing.

The Crimean Peninsula was inhabited by the Crimean Tatars from the thirteenth century. Russian rule started in 1783 and continued, de facto, until the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, when the land was incorporated into the newly created independent Ukrainian state. (Ukraine formally became part of the Soviet Union in 1954.) The 2013–2014 revolution on the Maidan Nezalezhnosti and the subsequent Russian-Ukrainian conflict led to the annexation of Crimea by the Russian Federation in 2014.

The loss of Crimea—an important part of a diverse Ukrainian society and land—spurred a wave of reactions in different spheres, in particular the Ukrainian art scene. For example, Zhanna Kadyrova’s No Title (2014), a brick sculpture in the shape of Ukraine without the Crimean Peninsula, directly references this loss.

After the initial shock, art projects brought to life by the 2014 events began to look deeper, into the extended history of Crimea.

Nikita Kadan’s Everyone Wants to Live by the Sea refers to the 1944 deportation of Crimean Tatars and several other ethnic groups from Crimea. As a result of Joseph Stalin's decision, more than 200,000 people were loaded into freight cars and conveyed deep into Central Asia. Their houses in the Tatar villages and towns were quickly reoccupied by other residents of the Soviet republics, or else remained empty and fell apart.

The slow process of the Tatars’ return to their homeland began in the 1960s and continued under perestroika. Tatars returning to Crimea started building new houses, creating a “new old” homeland. Meanwhile, Crimea remained one of the most popular resort destinations among the post-Soviet peoples. These two contrasting images of place—idyllic sanatoriums and barracks built by hand—are juxtaposed in Kadan’s installation. The quasi-documentary exhibition is based on archival photographs intended for tourist brochures and on photographs of Tatar habitats, to which the artist has added geometrical drawings referring to the modernist architectural forms populating Soviet resorts, a symbolic construction of a tourist empire erected in the lands of ethnic cleansing.

Roman Mikhailov chose just one incident from the 1944 history of deportations. His 2015 installation Radif: The Last Child commemorates the Crimean Tatars of the Arabat Spit, a community that was forgotten by the Soviet authorities during the May 1944 deportations. In July 1944, this community, comprising mainly women and children, was forced onto a barge, which was sunk in the Sea of Azov.

Mikhailov’s installation consists of three parts. The first is a book with metal pages recalling the walls of freight wagons and referencing the deportation trains. In the next part, a series of videos show Uzbekistan landscapes, the deportation sites, the Crimean steppes, and the Sea of Azov where the barge was sunk. The last element of the installation is a traditional Tatar bowl with water from the Sea of Azov. As the water evaporates over time, salt deposits accumulate on the sides of the bowl, reifying the faint memory of something lost forever. This installation was presented at the PinchukArtCentre and was nominated for the center’s art prize in 2015.

Yet another approach to recognizing and healing the traumatic separation of Crimea and its people was taken in the exhibition presented at Mystetskyi Arsenal in 2019. The Amazing Stories of Crimea reaches back to ancient times to refresh the stories of historical occupants of the peninsula—“the Cimmerians, the Tauri, the Scythians, the Greeks, and later the Goths, the Sarmatians, the Byzantines, the Khazars, the Cumans (Polovtsi), the Genoese and the Venetians, the Ottoman Turks, the Crimean Tatars,” as the exhibition catalogue notes. Through historical and archaeological lenses, the exhibit strives to bring forward the complicated and multicultural history of this land, a melting pot of different cultures.

It was this last exhibition, prepared five years after the annexation, that brought the bigger picture out into the open. The need to understand Ukraine’s past and give it the kind of close scrutiny that would yield insight has been understood for quite a while now. The art projects described here are not simply commentaries on the current situation. Rather, by recognizing the different skeins of the Crimean Peninsula’s past, they represent a necessary stage in the healing process, a step toward decolonization from the traumas of the past that can help the country move toward its future.

The opinions expressed in this article are those solely of the author and do not reflect the views of the Kennan Institute.

About the Author

Image: Ewa Sulek

Ewa Sulek

Founder, Lescer Art Center, Zalesie Górne, Poland; Independent art historian, curator, writer, and researcher
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Kennan Institute

The Kennan Institute is the premier U.S. center for advanced research on Russia and Eurasia and the oldest and largest regional program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. The Kennan Institute is committed to improving American understanding of Russia, Ukraine, and the region though research and exchange.  Read more