Top image: Photography by Dima Komarov
“I’ve become very aware of the preconceptions about the post-Soviet countries, the Cold War stereotypes and the language used to talk about these territories,” says Anastasiia Fedorova – one half of the curator duo behind a new exhibition exploring post-Soviet youth culture – in relation to the stereotypical picture many Westerners paint of the Eastern Bloc: cold, drab, desolate.
Wanting to present a more authentic vision, the exhibition – Post-Soviet Visions: image and identity in the new Eastern Europe – draws together a line-up of photographers ranging from Georgia, Latvia, Poland, Russia, Ukraine and Uzbekistan, to curate a 360 picture of youth culture in today’s post-soviet world.
25 years on from the dissolution of the Soviet Union, this new generation of young image-makers are documenting their countries through fresh eyes. Instead of bouncing between the old binaries of East and West, socialist and capitalist, the images capture a generation shaped by issues that are personal rather than the political; by questions of sexuality, gender and style. “Against all the complicated politics of many of those countries, there’s a generational wave of creativity that is really thrilling to see,” explains co-curator Ekow Eshun. A genuine and unfiltered form of representation – diary-style photographs of twenty-somethings taken by their friends – each photographer’s work presents a unique perspective that is personal to them, and through their eyes a new vision of post-soviet culture is formed.
Below we talk to the show’s curators about the preconceptions vs realities of the post-Soviet world and how it is being filtered through a bold youth culture that is making waves on the world stage.
“I think the most distinctive characteristics are a strong sense of community and collaboration, and DIY spirit. Youth culture in Eastern Europe is much less commercial and commodified — it’s less of an industry, so it retains raw fresh energy.”
Undine Markus: Tell us more about your background. How have you applied your own heritage and experiences to curating the show?
Anastasiia Fedorova: I am originally from St Petersburg, Russia. I was born in 1989, which means most of my childhood fell within the 1990s, and I don’t really remember the Soviet era. I think a lot of people born between the mid-80s and mid-90s in the post-communist countries share the same experience: we don’t have the first-hand experience of the Soviet time, but we grew up surrounded by the traces of it in culture, architecture and way of thinking. But also just in time of the crazy avalanche of Western products, images, TV-shows, music and aspirations. I believe that this experience certainly influences creative output of artists, photographers, fashion designers, musicians — we can speak a global cultural language but are also very aware of, and attached to, our own otherness. I’ve lived in London and worked in media for about five years now, and I’ve become very aware of the preconceptions about the post-Soviet countries, the Cold War stereotypes and the language used to talk about these territories. I did a lot of work around the rise of the post-Soviet aesthetic in fashion, mainly in connection with the work of Gosha Rubchinskiy, Demna Gvasalia and Lotta Volkova. Despite the fact that the trend was very rooted in the “poor but sexy” stereotype of Eastern Europe, I think in retrospect it created a lot of possibilities for the new generation of creatives from the region to tell their stories.
Ekow Eshun: Through my role at Calvert 22, as Creative Director and also as the founding editor of The Calvert Journal, I’ve been really struck by how unique and rich the creativity emerging from Eastern Europe currently is, in everything from fashion to art to film. At the same time, I’ve also been aware of how overlooked and under-explored Eastern Europe is in the West. We still tend to think about it as grey and drab and sunk in the Cold War. I was born in London and I’m based here so I don’t have a historical relationship with Eastern Europe. But there’s a cultural dynamism to the place that is really exciting. Against all the complicated politics of many of those countries, there’s a generational wave of creativity that is really thrilling to see. I wanted to honour that development with this show.
Undine: How is the youth going about reworking the politically sensitive topics through art?
Anastasiia: Both emerging national identity and questioning the very idea of national (or any local) identity, in my opinion, is a crucial element of the show. You can see it in Ieva Raudsepa’s series Bloom, Hassan Kurbanbaev’s portraits from Uzbekistan, or Armen Parsadanov’s portraits from Kiev. The new generation is keen to question their identity both in relation to the oppressive influence of the Soviet regime in the past and the global world today. It’s like, are we all the same, or are we different? The fact that it’s done through very empathetic personal portraiture really gives you hope for the global connection among young people worldwide. And in Dima Komarov’s portraits from Russia, we see a community of his friends who clearly share all-inclusive values and free spirit, completely opposite to the official agenda of the government. To me documenting their life is a protest in itself. Also, we have to remember that global culture is still not an equal place. There is the centre and the periphery, and Eastern Europe is certainly often perceived as a perfect periphery. But I do believe that these notions are gradually receding, and we’ll see and hear more diverse stories from all over the world, as long as they ring true.
“The new generation is keen to question their identity both in relation to the oppressive influence of the Soviet regime in the past and the global world today.”
Undine: How feasible is it to separate the personal from the political in this current political climate?
Ekow: The aim of the show isn’t to make a distinction between the personal and the political so much as to suggest that the personal is political. With the show we’re interested in how people live and look and connect with each other; how they construct their identity as citizens of relatively recently independent nations and how they make sense of their own place against the complicated past of their country. Against a history of authoritarian regimes in Eastern Europe which have tried to control what people do and say, the places they go, and the people they love. For a younger generation in many parts of Eastern Europe, this becomes important. Especially given the turn back towards authoritarianism, the cultural chauvinism, insistence on so-called traditional values and intolerance of difference that is now characterising a number of Eastern European governments.
Undine: The exhibition includes a handful of architecture photographs. How are all the abandoned industrial towns and buildings serving as a backdrop for today’s youth culture?
Ekow: The relationship between photography and architecture in the show is very important. Communist-era buildings and monuments loom large over many post-Soviet cities today. It’s very hard to walk through Moscow or Kiev or many other cities without encountering these towering structures. They are a reminder of the power and control that an overbearing system tried to exert on its citizens. At the same time, history isn’t static. So what’s interesting is the uses that people now put some of those buildings to. In the work of many post-Soviet photographers, the anonymous, looming tower block has become a familiar trope. And in the hands of, say, some of the artists featured in the show, like Michal Korta, who has these striking images of Brutalist buildings in Skopje, Macedonia or in Jedrzej Franek’s dizzying shots of apartment buildings in Poland, the tower block takes on almost a romantic presence. It becomes a site of history and memory but also something that can be co-opted on your own terms. One image from the show especially comes to mind – the Russian artist Pavel Milyakov has reproduced [Pieter] Bruegel’s Hunters in the Snow from 1565 complete with high-rise blocks rising from the natural, snowy landscape. The juxtaposition shouldn’t work but it does. And in the image, we see the tower blocks as a kind of force of nature in their own right. Like trees or mountains. They are both terrible and beautiful at the same time.
“To me documenting their life is a protest in itself.”
Undine: What do you view as some of the most distinctive characteristics of the youth culture in the post-Soviet bloc? Are the stereotypes about the post-Soviet world something that you are trying to dismantle in the showcase?
Anastasiia: I think the most distinctive characteristics are a strong sense of community and collaboration, and DIY spirit. Youth culture in Eastern Europe is much less commercial and commodified — it’s less of an industry, so it retains raw fresh energy. Music, art and photography are often perceived as a labour of love rather than a career choice, and as a career choice they’re very challenging — I hope the situation changes, but at the moment it does create some stunning results. We certainly wanted to avoid certain cliches. In the choice of photographers, it was more about turning one’s unique background into an interesting unseen story rather than fitting a pre-designed mould. I think the vibe of the show is very open, bold, romantic at times. At the same time, I think it is interesting how stereotypes are getting reclaimed — how the raw unpolished look can become a tool in one’s practice, like in the editorials of Georgian photographer Grigor Devejiev.
Post-Soviet Visions: image and identity in the new Eastern Europe runs from 23th February to 15th April 2018 at Calvert 22 Space, E2 7JP.