From ‘Shifts’ to Cultural Transformations: Art Activism in Eastern Ukraine

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Currently, IZOLYATSIA is based in Kyiv, and is still one of the leading contemporary art groups in the country. Their recent exhibition, Culture and Conflict: IZOLYATSIA in Exile, was hosted in various European cities. It aimed to share information about events in Ukraine with international audiences, and to showcase the diverse perspectives on the ongoing military conflict. However, now their main inspiration is not grounded in protest initiatives and rethinking of the past events, but rather is based on an attempt to understand and to influence the lives of people in the territories close to the self-proclaimed republics, in the Donbas region where IZOLYATSIA was originated.

IZOLYATSIA’s founder, Lubov Mikhailova, recently visited  London. We asked her to share her perspective on the platform’s new projects.

– Two years after the dramatic events in Donetsk, does IZOLYATSIA still feel being in exile? How are the platform’s projects tied to the region now?  

– When we first came to Kyiv, we thought that was only for a day. After staying there for about a year, we realized that we would not come back to Donetsk soon, because the situation does not allow for that. We cannot just accept the ideologisation of culture and life there, so we understood that we had to do something by ourselves. It is all based on civil society, DIY-style. We looked at Mariupol, and we did not want it to experience the same as Donetsk.

Therefore, in 2015 we started the ‘Zmina’ (‘Shift’) project, with a title that has two meanings. Firstly, shift is a relevant and important concept in the context of Eastern Ukraine, because your Dad used to work shifts, you Granddad also worked shifts; as a result, the life of the city was organised around shifts. But at the same time, shift is about transformation, and we wanted the changes to happen so much. That is why we have done this project. Our team went there, tried to find local activists, and we relied on various methods of exploration and engagement, organised events, took photos, and used cultural initiatives to involve local activists. As you probably know, there were not many people at the beginning, and those who joined us were sceptical at first. However, artists, writers, and musicians from other parts of Ukraine supported us, and we realised how many cultural entrepreneurs are not indifferent to what’s happening in Donbas. Notably, they were entirely self-funded; there were no honorariums for participating artists.

– Mariupol’s history is very different from Donetsk, isn’t it?

– Yes, it is a city with a 300-year history that has been home to Greeks and Tatars. Mariupol was a city of trade, a city where the number of photo salons and cinemas in 1913 was higher than in 2014! It is a city where industrialization has led to a loss of character and growth of impersonal Soviet culture, loss of access to the sea and of fish industry.

We realized that we cannot always come and ‘bring’ culture from outside; culture needs sustainability so that people can create it for themselves. Lubov Mikhailova

When we started our project, the local people who wanted to participate and contribute instantly became interested in it. We realized that we cannot always come and ‘bring’ culture from outside; culture needs sustainability so that people can create it for themselves. Considering this, we are especially pleased that independent art and creative communities are now developing in Mariupol, Sloviansk and Kramatorsk.

Comparing the different directions of cultural development is quite interesting: although there is an ideological trend of ‘Ukrainization’, which seems ridiculous, since it is actively promoted by the authorities in the unoccupied Donbas areas, at the same time, there are numerous independent cultural initiatives and grassroots activism in the region. Unfortunately, in the occupied Donbas there is only one ideological trend – the one imposed ‘from above’, and civil initiatives are simply absent.

…in the occupied Donbas there is only one ideological trend – the one imposed ‘from above’, and civil initiatives are simply absent. Lubov Mikhailova

– What is going to happen with culture and arts in the Donbas region?

– I think we will be able to see the results in about a decade, because by that time the children will grow up, the public mentality will change, and there will be a tremendous difference between the occupied Donbas and the Ukrainian Donbas.

The idealism of people who wanted to bring back coal mines and the mentality of the Soviet space is rooted in the fact that in the 25 years that have passed since the collapse of the USSR, there have been no developments in the cultural sector in Donbas. We understand that if we want to live in an independent country with an independent mentality, we have to do something for those regions to prevent a humanitarian crisis – and what happened there, indeed, was a humanitarian crisis. Our contribution to the humanitarian aid, then, is to help teach people the skills of creative industries.

For example, currently we have a project Brighter Worlds – we selected several instructors aged 21-25 who have an experience in creative industries. In collaboration with a group from Rhode Island, USA, they teach the refugee children from the occupied territories of Donbas.  It’s a wonderful project, a truly brilliant one, that gives the opportunity for the children in Sloviansk to transfer their knowledge to other kids. For them, it will be something they would never have been able to experience if they lived near the coal mines.

– What is your vision of the future, if I may ask?

– The main result of the Maidan has been making people believe that it is possible to change lives around you, drawing upon your position and your actions. In the Soviet times, the mentality was based on the ideas like, ‘it will not change anything’, ‘somebody will vote for you’, but now there is a new generation in Ukraine.

The main result of the Maidan has been making people believe that it is possible to change lives around you, drawing upon your position and your actions. Lubov Mikhailova

Although there is an economic crisis and a war going on, the people are open-minded. Cultural groups are being established, activism is growing, and we can see the results. It is not as fast as we would like it to be, and while there was an illusion that we would be able to change things in one day, it will take a long time. However, we cannot just run forward and leave the situation as it is in Donbas. We simply do not have a right to do that. We have to come back and help the people to rise from their knees.

About the author:

Dr Irina Kuznetsova is a sociologist and social geographer. She works in the School of Geography, Earth and Environmental Studies at the University of Birmingham, UK. Her research expertise includes migration, religiosity, health, disabilities studies, social policy and accessible cities. Her recent projects include: ‘Asylum seekers from Eastern Ukraine in Russia: identities, policies and discourse in the context of forced migration from the Ukraine conflict’ (British Academy, 2016-2017), and ‘The everyday lives of Central Asian migrants in Moscow and Kazan in the context of Russia’s Migration 2025 Concept: from legislation to practice’ (Open Society Foundation, with Dr John Round).

Photos are taken from the Izolyatsia webpage and Facebook.

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