Post-Peasant Protest, exhibition text for Ayla Dmyterko’s “Pour the Fear: Solastalgic Synchronicities,” Glasgow: Lunchtime Gallery, 15 September – 23 October 2021
“I descend from a long time of peasant revolt, I dissent from a long line of peasant revolt,
I conspire from a constellation of contested kulaks, I descend from a long line of serf struggle…”
So writes the artist Ayla Dmyterko. The rhythm of these utterances—should we call them confessions? concessions? proclamations?—is rote-like, bringing to mind the image of Ayla as a girl, writing out lines from a prayer book over and over by hand. She’s doing this in Ukrainian school, located in Regina, Saskatchewan, a prairie city with an anglicized name for “queen” settled on Treaty 4 territories on colonized, Indigenous land. Ukrainian school: a place to learn about a culture—your culture—when you’re living far away from that particular land.
In this exhibition, Dmyterko engages Ukrainian identity via folklore as a syncretistic philosophical practice through which to work with materials and critically reflect. Folklore, here, includes stories, rituals, material culture, oral narratives, and practices like cooking and dance. “In folklore, it is believed that the natural world, the supernatural world, and humanity are tightly interwoven” opens her Rite of Return. The video brings together concepts of the rite of return with The Rite of Spring, a modernist ballet by Russian composer Igor Stravinsky that draws heavily from pagan Russia. The dancer on screen is Dmyterko: there is footage of her as a child in Ukrainian dance lessons—the classes for which her mother would sew the costumes, while Dmyterko sat on and observed—and present-day Dmyterko, wearing headdresses and culturally-specific clothing, including braided weaves and dresses, that she and her mother made together.
Who is the one in your family line to do that work of looking back? Typically, the generation that suffers through a horrific historical event will not be the one to look back, nor do they want their children to look back: the pain is too direct. It will be a subsequent generation, typically, that can do that work, and that can perhaps even break a cycle of inherited, intergenerational trauma. Here, Dmyterko takes on the role of the one who looks back. With a reverence, she works with Ukrainian identity as she understands it and accesses it through her embodied life as a third-generation Canadian who is currently living in Scotland. There is something crystalline about culture, as well as a fluidity, that flows, that pours. In working with cultural symbols and showing pride for where one comes from, Dmyterko is cognizant of the risks one runs in lapsing into uncritical nationalism. How can one reclaim a cultural identity—especially one that might have been lost, or threatened, through the complex processes of emigration, colonialization, and assimilation—without being nationalistic?
The folkloric sensibility comes through in each of the artists’ material choices, which bear the trace of the artists’ considerations of history, culture, mysticism, the body, and ecology. In the gallery space, we find six oil on linen paintings held in frames of poured beeswax and recycled wood, which the artist has poured herself, and cut herself, using a glass bowl of boiling water and a handheld Japanese saw. I imagine the artist working, when I look at these paintings. I imagine the artist at work. I think about labour, in the present and the past, even into the future.
Grounded in a present, Dmyterko also incorporates into the work contemporary manifestations of folklore: her video’s soundtrack, created by the composer Mahmood Hussain was inspired by how electronic music in Eastern European discothèques is a key form local folklore takes today.
Wax pouring is an Eastern European healing tradition that might be described today in terms of “folk medicine,” meaning it exists outside of the legitimated structures of Western colonial medicine. The wax poured frame is like a storm. I think of King Lear and his daughters. I think of Medusa. Motion captured, time stopped. Her gaze, and other women seers in history, their stark powers misunderstood. There is a warmth, now, to what has been understood as icy. Ayla tells me the Siberian forests are on fire, warning me against looking up the images. I do a quiet google search and find images of what looks like Hell. The earth in its coldest parts burning.
In Rite of Return, the viewer watches in real time the ornate tendrils of poured wax in boiling water. The image is a beautiful folk horror rococo, an uncanny time lapse.
You hold the vessel on your head, one hand bare and grasping the glass, the other adorned with a black glove, revealing a kettle from somewhere off screen. You pour, almost wincing, but you don’t wince. You know the temperature, the risk. I see the evidence that the wax is boiling hot from the waves of air pulsing up and above the water. You stand strong, holding the vessel on your head. You stand in front of your paintings. You don’t even wince.
In another scene, the viewer sees the colours of Dmyterko’s paintings as viewed through that same glass vessel that holds the boiling water and the transfigured wax, now sitting on a table. The colours are rousing, animating spirit. The colours make my heart race, even, or especially, that dull yellow, that so reminds me of home. An heirloom, a relic, a memory made material. To break a cycle, to change through repetition, to alter an altar, an iterative process. Pussy willows and candles, intimate and reverent, rush to relax, and I am brought to the creek of Wascana which I’ve walked along so many times, from the Cree oscana, which translates loosely as “pile of bones.” We are from that pile of bones: both born there, as settlers, grandchildren of farmers.
At one point in the video, “old country” aphorisms scroll across the screen. In these sayings borrowed from Ukrainian peasant culture, as well as agrarian cultures more broadly, the clear motif is a tension between land, labour, and money. “You can’t salt your kasha with gold” (Яюу кан’т салт яюйр каша биж ґголд), “Money is not chaff like straw is not hay,” and, “Money on the fields does not grow”—an agricultural iteration of the saying my French-Scottish father recited to me over and over again, when I was growing up as a kid in Regina in the 1990s: that money doesn’t grow on trees. In these aphorisms is the thrumming of class struggle, the imminent possibility of class war that follows the consciousness raising in those labouring on the land. During the French revolution, another period of protest, Rousseau’s aphoristic saying was in allyship with French peasants: “when there’s nothing left to eat, the poor shall eat the rich.”
Peasant revolt is likely an intelligible subject for audiences here in Glasgow, Scotland, given this is a country for whom peasant protest is part of the cultural fabric. In Pour the Fear: Solastalgic Synchronicities, Dmyterko aligns herself with peasants and their plight, particularly Ukrainian peasants, serfs, and Kulaks, from whom the artist (like myself) descends. In thinking about histories of peasant protest, the artist reflects on labour as well as the possibilities of cultivating solidarity, allyship, and collective resistance against the dominating powers that colonize and oppress. In her research and writings that accompany this exhibition, Dmyterko considers the similarity between the genocide of Ukrainian peasants via a man-made famine in Soviet Ukraine in the Holodomor (“death by hunger”) in 1932-1933 and the ongoing genocides of Indigenous people by colonizers in places like North America. Identification across difference.
It can be scary to look back at history. There is a real fear, there. The horrors of nostalgia is something Dmyterko continues to consider in her work, as she herself looks back, as a white settler who was raised on colonized, Indigenous lands, and as a settler of a cultural background that was also subjected to ethnic discrimination and exploitation. Dmyterko observes that Ukrainians—her people—were lied to by the colonial government, whom she calls the Crown, in order to come to Canada. The government described Ukrainians as animal-like, “beasts of burden,” who were “genetically inclined” to farm unfarmable land because of the build of their bodies. This is what brought Dmyterko’s family from Ukraine to Saskatchewan, the homeland and traditional territories of the Plains Cree, the Saulteaux, the Dakota, the Lakota, and Metis/Michif Nation; this is also what brought my family, my mother’s mother’s side, to Saskatchewan, from the area of land where Ukraine meets former Bohemia/Czechoslovakia and Hungary.
Upon arrival in Canada, Ukrainian settlers were interned in camps during WWI, along with others from the Austro-Hungarian empire who were deemed “enemy aliens” of the state. This is a story that has been undertold in Canadian history, not unlike the tragedy of Komagata Maru during this same time, and the Japanese internment camps of WWII. Sandra Semchuk, a settler artist from Saskatchewan who long collaborated with her partner, Cree artist James Nicholas, wrote The Stories Were Not Told: Canada’s First World War Internment Camps to tell the story of this 1914-20 imprisonment. And so, two things can be true: Ukrainian settlers were subjected to ethnic discrimination and brought to the country under pretenses that were somewhat false; Ukrainian settlers were also complicit in the colonial project of Canada. Dmyterko understands this, moving through this work with an open-hearted respect, wisdom, and care I find striking.
In Global Talent VISA, Dmyterko works with a haptic, material practice to consider the ways that Great Britain, or the Crown, welcomes people (or not) through its bureaucratic, legalistic channels. The mail sac resembles a flour sac, on which cross-stitched red waves undulate in sync, bringing to mind the postal service alongside agrarian culture and the ongoing politics of immigration and border control. These, issues which should be approached intersectionally, with an awareness of the ways race, gender, and nationality, and other factors, converge to allow some people in and to keep other people out. This work shows the artist reflecting on her own context as a Ukrainian-Canadian settler studying in Glasgow, navigating the logistics of life as a white immigrant applying for a VISA, waiting for the mail to arrive as she moves through the VISA process. Ukrainian emigrants used flour sacs—what they had access to—to make clothing, bedding, dish towels, and other useful materials, adding another layer to this work.
How do we access the knowledge of our identities? How do we access the knowledge of our selves? In working with personal/familial and cultural materials, objects, and archives, Dmyterko engages in the practice of “memory work.” This is particularly inspired by historian Annette Kuhn’s approach in Family Secrets: Acts of Memory and Imagination (2002), in which Kuhn recalls memory through images and images through memory. She does so as part of the work of theorizing images to trace a trajectory from personal memory to collective acts of remembering.
My partner walks by as I am watching your video and asks if the little girl dancing in the Ukrainian dress is me. I work with footage from my childhood, too, which looks very similar to your footage, shot in a lower-middle-class home in Regina, Saskatchewan in the 1990s. I was in ballet classes, one of the many ways my parents continued the Anglicizing project they’d inherited from their parents, all hopeful for class mobility. Ballet was presented as something a-cultural, a-historical, some neutral standard for girls to learn how to move. When we waited in the hallways of dance recitals at the Regina Performing Arts Centre, I’d watch as the dancers in Ukrainian outfits came out, wearing that shade of red, with their braids. I knew we were Ukrainian, but was not sure why the dance class was never presented as an option to me.
As another way of accessing memory, including collective memory, Dmyterko uses the surrealist technique of free association, along with her intuitive, informalized colour theory. She will often observes an object or a figure in the time before she paints, so that the image is imprinted in her brain—not so clear that she is working mimetically, but just clear enough that it guides her as an impression while she paints her abstract compositions. Painting becomes a devotional practice, driven by a seeking. In this seeking, Dmyterko engages extra-rational modes of practice.
I imagine the wax in your work as clay, mud, sand, other materials from the earth. A talismanic froth. It vibrates, as if it is dancing in its own, accustomed way alongside the tides that also dance in their own way, magnetized by the moon. “There is a reason, after all, that some people wish to colonize the moon, and others dance before it as an ancient friend,” wrote James Baldwin in No Name In The Street (1971). At some point, the waterscape stands in for your face. Land, water, place, memory, all entwined, with ancestry, too, and roots, ruptures, frothing waves.
Dmyterko’s approach to colour and form brings to mind women surrealist and mystic artists, like Ithell Colquhoun, Hilma af Klint, and Leonora Carrington, artists prescient or “ahead of their time.” This refrain, giving recognition to women who had their finger on the proverbial pulse of culture, knew what was coming. Seers, really. In textiles and other “craft” work by peasants from Eastern Europe, one sees that peasants were reproducing patterns that they observed in nature, using practices like weaving and kilm design. Dmyterko noticed that the natural direction of the weave in her work gives a shape that is like a fire lick, as seen in Global Talent VISA. Working as sustainably as she can, choosing materials in a manner guided by an ecological politic, Dmyterko reflects on forests, fire, regeneration, and the spectre of climate change.
You speak of the self and an other, then a you, you, and I wonder who is this you to whom you’re referring like an inside reference. An inside reference, meaning an intimate one. Prioritize the self before an illusory reflection for others. You mention writing when you have the time, which is at night, and you reference others for whom this has also been the case, especially women of color, like Audre Lorde, who wrote “Poetry is Not a Luxury” to make this point in 1985. If something is not a luxury then it is essential. The tension between what is superfluous and what is needed—a tension that art has always complicated. Your work is beautiful necessity.
The texts that Dmyterko writes bear a similar devotional sensibility to her paintings and sculptures. The artist writes to theorists who influenced her body of work, whether as nourishment or as that which she ethically-intellectually wrestles with (or both): Anne Applebaum (The Red Famine), Svetlana Boym (The Future of Nostalgia), Anton Vidokle (Cosmic Shift in Russian Contemporary Art), Georges Bataille (Visions of Excess), Marianne Hirsch (Rites of Return: Diaspora Poetics and the Politics of Memory), and me, Lauren Fournier (Autotheory as Feminist Practice in Art, Writing, and Criticism).
She writes about those whose work she is preoccupied with. Originally suggested to her by her therapist as a psychoanalytic exercise she could do to self-soothe, the texts show the artist doing the work of self-reflection as she generously “speaks to” the authors directly. Written out by hand in Soviet-era schoolbooks, the letters show the artist transmuting her lived experiences and studio-based reflections through epistolary “exchanges”—whether real, in the case of hers and my exchange, or impossible, in the case of the now-deceased Bataille. Her critiques of Vidokle and Bataille become more than critiques, but also additive acts of feminist solidarity with other (women) artists whom she brings in to the fold—Jasmina Cibic, Dorothea Tanning, Hito Steyerl.
I’ve taken the opening from Audre Lorde’s aforementioned 1985 essay and replaced “writing” with “painting”:“The quality of light by which we scrutinize our lives has direct bearing upon the product which we live, and upon the changes which we hope to bring about through those lives. It is within this light that we form those ideas by which we pursue our magic and make it realized. This is painting as illumination, for it is through painting that we give name to those ideas which are, until the painting, nameless and formless-about to be birthed, but already felt. That distillation of experience from which true painting springs births thought as dream births concept, as feeling births idea, as knowledge births (precedes) understanding.”
You write to those with whom you have an affinity, and to those with whom you have resistance, bringing a generosity to both. There is something reparative about this gesture, writing through ambivalence. I wonder if the tendency toward reparative modes is tied to our shared class backgrounds, our experiences in low-income families, our familiarity with precarity. I think of the artist Hazel Meyer, a settler of Yugoslav background, who recently made a textile work “What It’s Like To Grow Up Pour,” which riffs on Joyce Wieland’s famed textile “Reason Over Passion”. Illiteracy reclaimed in an affective flow of embodied states like desire and ecstasy, humour and play, frustration and grief, the thick mud of mourning, unending, as we crawl through it. I think of the pouring of water into vessels, the spilling of rain from the clouds onto the fields, the congregating of dancers on the land. Folklore as something philosophically potent, something practical and mystical, something movable that also moves.