Here is Odesa

17 May 2024

We talk to Dr. Żanna Komar, Cracovian curator of the exhibition Odesa: The Long 20th Century in Art, about creating the exhibition alongside cultural institutions in Ukraine.

Odesa: The Long 20th Century in Art

DOROTA DZIUNIKOWSKA: You have curated a number of exhibitions at the International Cultural Centre, including Ukraine. A Different Angle on Neighbourhood which closed just before Russia’s invasion on Ukraine. But I’m guessing that this latest exhibition is a brand-new challenge, hard to compare with anything else?

ŻANNA KOMAR: It’s true that Odesa: The Long 20th Century in Art has been prepared in an unusual situation. It is a particular challenge because it was developed during a dramatic stage of the war waged by imperialistic Russia on independent Ukraine fighting for freedom. Our partner institutions, the Odesa National Fine Arts Museum and its affiliates, are under constant threat of bombing raids.

Where did the idea for the exhibition come from?
The idea of the partnership first came about in 2022 during the International Council of Museums (ICOM) Congress in Prague; the Ukrainian side proposed a partnership soon after, which was enthusiastically received by the International Cultural Centre.

Was the answer obvious?
Our primary aim was to support Ukraine by protecting the country’s museum collections and exploring how local culture continues to function during wartime; how the narrative about the country’s history and vision of the future is woven. The International Cultural Centre supported Ukraine from the very beginning of Russia’s invasion. The collaboration with Odesa* is a practical way of saving at least some of the museum’s collections.

The exhibition’s co-curators are Yuliya Berdiyarova, academic working at the Odesa National Fine Arts Museum, and Valeriya Plehotko, cultural scientist and film critic from Odesa. What were the most difficult element of working with the Ukrainian partners? What did you personally find the most satisfying?
It was very challenging working on the exhibition entirely remotely, without the option to conduct queries and examine the physical dimensions and aspects of individual items. The Ukrainian curators also faced the challenge of assessing the gallery space at the International Cultural Centre without being able to see it in person. I hope we will all breathe a sigh of relief when all artworks arrive safely in Kraków. However, the most difficult times are when we know Odesa is being bombarded and we hear nothing from our Ukrainian partners.

I imagine that 20th-century art from Odesa is something completely new to most museumgoers in Kraków; what would you suggest as some of the most important themes?
The exhibition covers the period starting from the first decade of the 20th century until the present day, and it showcases the history of the entire southern Ukraine by showing myriad connections between different cultures and nationalities. The artworks range from the “modernism” of the turbulent 1920s and repressions of the late 1930s, via the “thaw” and Ukrainian opposition of the 1960s and the new wave of avantgarde protests of the 1970s and the 1980s, to Ukrainian independence and the present day. That’s over a century of Odesa’s history as an important Ukrainian cultural centre which oscillated between losing and gaining its identity throughout the turmoil of the 20th and 21st centuries.

Tell us what we are going to see.
The exhibition comprises around 100 items, mainly including paintings, sculptures and prints from the early 1900s all the way to the latest works by contemporary Ukrainian artists and their reflections on Russia’s invasion on their country. The selection of artworks breaks down myths and stereotypes, refutes imperialistic narratives and focuses on multicultural Odesa as a fundamental basis for understanding today’s identity of the metropolis on the Black Sea.

Why do you think the exhibition is so important, both from the Ukrainian perspective and our own here in Kraków and in Poland?
At the start of the war, the collection of the Odesa National Fine Arts Museum and its most important masterpieces was moved to several warehouses and shelters throughout the country; however, none of those places can guarantee safety. This is why transporting at least some of these artworks out of the country is one of the main goals of this joint Polish and Ukrainian project. Additionally, the aim is to evacuate works representing the history of Odesan art from the Museum of Odesa Modern Art and the Odesa Literary Museum as well as the Odesa National Fine Arts Museum. This will mean the artworks are kept safe, and they can be shown to audiences beyond Ukraine’s borders.

Would you say that it’s especially important to remember culture during times of armed conflict?
I think it’s essential to continue all existing projects exploring Ukrainian themes and initiate new artworks even as the war is ongoing. The exhibition at the International Cultural Centre will be an important element of Polish-Ukrainian partnership and of European cultural diplomacy aiming to highlight Ukraine’s plight and expanding our understanding of the changes in the country’s society.

The exhibition Odesa: The Long 20th Century in Art is the third presentation of art of our eastern neighbours shown at the gallery at 25 Main Market Square, following Ukraine. Waiting for a Hero. Kostyrko, Ravski (2016) and Ukraine. A Different Angle on Neighbourhood (2021). “It is an element of the mission of the International Cultural Centre: presenting and popularising the most important artistic phenomena from Central Europe. In the context of the war, destroying swathes of cultural heritage – including that listed by UNESCO – disseminating information about Ukraine’s history and culture is simply our duty,” explains Agata Wąsowska-Pawlik, director of the ICC.

* We follow the organisers by using the original Ukrainian name of the city – ed.

Dr Żanna Komar

photo by Michał Korta
Historian of art and architecture and exhibition curator; she works at the Research Institute of European Heritage at the International Cultural Centre in Kraków. Author of books about cities in the Galicia region in the 19th and 20th centuries.

Article published in 1/2024 issue of Kraków Culture quarterly.


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