Past and present unite in Lesia Maruschak’s art

As Vladimir Putin decides to invade and declare war to Ukraine, the Canadian photographer, Lesia Maruschak, reflects on the present implication of the 1932-1933 genocide.

 By Lola Breton

We have to understand that Stalin’s relocation policies, the genocide, and everything that went on then, have an impact on what is happening today in Ukraine”, indicates the Canadian artist, Lesia Maruschak. What is going on there is what has been going on for decades. Ukraine being torn between its ties with the former USSR’s giant that is now Russia and its links with Western European decisions and democratic processes. Over 30 years after the independence of Ukraine, its will to make decisions on its own, including to take part in discussions with the United States, still, is not accepted by Russia.

Lesia Maruschak, who is from Ukrainian descent, sees too well how the past has poisoned the present of her homeland. Her last project helps reuniting both past and present. With a “mobile memorial” – as she calls it – named Project MARIA, the photographer entered Kharkiv, a city near the Russo-Ukrainian border. A few kilometers away from where the Russian army stationed as a threat at the beginning of 2022, Ukrainians could come read the story of little Maria. The artist guides visitors through the fictional life of this Ukrainian girl who survived the Holodomor between 1932 and 1933, “watching her entire family starve to death”. The installation in still in the gallery in Kharkiv. No one had time to take it down before the invasion on February 24th, 2022.

All but erasing Maria

Holodomor is far from being fictional. Within two years, millions of Ukrainians did die of an artificial starvation under Stalin’s rule. To Lesia Maruschak, part of her work “is to make sure that there is no longer a question of whether it was a genocide or not”. This denial of will power of Russians, historically in charge, against Ukrainians seems to be repeating itself over and over.

If there were a mystery about how Lesia Maruschak, a Canadian who grew up in the Prairies came to be interested in Holodomor, hearing her pronounce the names of some Ukrainian cities makes it all clearer. “The topics of my artistic work come to me. My family came to Canada from Ukraine. There is a sense of legacy in the topics I am working on.”

It is while skimming through an old photo album, as a child, that Lesia Maruschak first stumbled upon pictures where faces had been cut out. As if some faces needed to be erased to move on. Decades later, another photo album in the hands – her mother-in-law’s – she saw those holes again, without no other explanation than : “In 1936, the secret police had taken my mother-in-law’s father.” This lack of explanation and the artist’s certainty that those cuts meant something important gave an artistic project : “Erasure : memory and the power of politics”. “There again, the desire to repress and destroy the Ukrainian identity was present, through the misrepresentation of photos or the destruction of archives. That is part of the reason why the notion of erasure is very present in the work I’m doing today.”, she says.

A combination between arts and politics

Lesia Maruschak was not always a photographer. She picked up a camera around 2015, after years of working as a senior policy analyst in government, charity work around blood cancer and having been a curator for other artists’ pieces. “I am very aware and grateful that it shaped my vision”, she says of these past experiences, especially in government.  

I always believe there is a way of making things happen, especially through building relationships”, Lesia Maruschak gives as an example. In fact, she collaborates with many other professions to make her work come to life. Her next one in line is with a social scientist, and other transdisciplinary specialists, with whom she will analyze and manifest “the current impacts of the genocide”. 

To explain her current pieces of art about Ukraine, the photographer also reflected on her past as a policy analyst and executive leader : “I know everything is counted. We look at everything through quantitative measures. Yet, we don’t know the exact number of deaths from the Holodomor, so how do we measure that ? Does the exact number matter or is Stalin’s genocidal intent the key factor ?” These questions led to the series, “Counting”, where red dots and black bars spot pictures in black and white taken 90 years ago. “It says something about our inability to count something with a horrific impact which continues to resonate and ramifications which are beyond counting. It is important for global leaders to be sensitive to things they cannot measure.”

That is why Lesia Maruschak wants to take the pieces “off the wall”. That is also why she uses different materials in her installations. It’s not just the photographs, it is textiles, paint and film. “If people can walk amidst the things I create, it encourages other kinds of expression and stimulates memory-making. It even gives a greater ability to create more memories”, she believes. 

Remembrance and continuity

Memory holds a very dear place in her work. Through it, the artist contributes to the overall memory of events. And it often differs according to the places where they are displayed. “Project MARIA opened in West Canada. People knew about the genocide there, it was nothing new. But all of a sudden, they were faced with my manifestation of the Holodomor. In this case, it’s all about revisiting the memories and talking about them to deal with the trauma. However, in the US, we installed the project in a community which had no idea what the Holodomor was. Here, there was a huge curiosity and explore the layers of meaning. The curator told me : ‘Your work is very beautiful. People don’t know what it is about so they approach it with curiosity. They end up learning about something terribly horrific in a gentle way which allows them to approach and explore at their own pace. When dealing with traumatic lived experiences this is critical.’ »

Everywhere it gets set up, Project MARIA seems to be sparking conversation. This is exactly Lesia Maruschak’s intent, “to become part of the conversation, create safe places to talk about it and invite younger generations to reflect on this genocide”. “We still have a long way to go, she concedes. Many people don’t recognize the Holodomor, we need to engage more communities and raise awareness.” But at the same time, she has no pretention to have any impact on the decision making “as an artist, I create the work and then I release it into the world for it to live on its own”.

In some ways, memory determines what exists and what doesn’t. Dictionaries do that too. Except, “Holodomor” is not an entry in the English dictionary, yet. To protest this absence, she is “painting red dots on a 1933 Webster dictionary every day of the year as a performance, act of protest and call to action”.

The next stops for the Project MARIA installation will be in Ivano-Franskivsk during Summer 2022, in Zaporizhya in November 2022 and in Dnipro in 2023. Lesia Maruschak will be back in Lviv in a new exhibition SEEING RED: Where Did All the Children Go in September-December 2023 at the National Museum of Andrey Sheptytsky.