Learning With and From Baltic artists in the Shadow of the War on Ukraine

In an open window in Tallinn, Estonia, adorned with Ukranian flags, standing atop a classically deep windowsill, a series of Russian-speaking Estonian artists recently sang songs, read poems and declared their opposition to Russia’s war on the Ukraine. They spoke into a microphone one after the other, amplified so that the Russian embassy across the street could hear them– but this was an action with echoes across the Baltic states: Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania.

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In the major cities of these three countries, Ukrainian flags are everywhere: in business windows, on billboards. Many governmental offices fly both local and Ukrainian flags: there are notices everywhere offering Ukrainian refugees free support, free transportation. Concerts, art sales, live protests, all being staged to support Ukraine. The Latvian National Library in Riga has a special highlighted section of Ukrainian literature, and resources for Ukrainian citizens: Kaunas, as a European Capital of Culture, is featuring a space especially for Ukrainian communities. A Ukrainian contingent walked in a group for Baltic Pride, led by Hanna Dodeska in a traditional Ukrainian national costume.

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This fundraising, political opposition and activism stem from a very local memory and history of what it means to have been conquered by Russia. Putin has made it clear that his hope and goal is to return Russia’s borders to their soviet placements, borders that the Baltics experienced as a violent form of occupation. “It is well known that Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania are the only countries to have belonged to both the Soviet and European Unions, but they are also the only international group to exist within the uncomfortably nationalist union of the European project. This means the Baltic as a discrete geopolitical entity is simultaneously defined by what it is, and what it isn’t, defined by what it has always been (European), and what it was forced to oppose (the Soviet regime and communist ideology). In this way, the Baltic is defined by the paradoxical quality of not having always belonged to what it has always belonged to,” writes Jack Self (1).

In the post-soviet, European-Union Baltics, the war on the Ukraine is the latest thing the Baltics have been united in what they have been forced to oppose. For countries that share similar timelines of oppression and independence (each with their own museum of occupation and freedom), the ubiquity of the Ukrainian flags suggests a narrative: We are all Ukranians, a statement you can see on some t-shirts and stickers. The three countries have a history of joining forces in solidarity, the most famous case being the “Baltic Way,” a 1989 human chain stretched across the three countries in protest of the Soviet regime, but other practical ways, grants from the European Union, for instance, forming a “Baltic Bubble” during COVID, or sharing a pavilion at the Venice Biennale, as in 2016. Still, there is an insistence amongst some residents and artists that what they really are, is part of an international community– not isolated to a geographic region, or limited by their recent history.  

The protest venue, Kanuti Gildi Saal, was also a venue for this years’ Baltic Dance Platform, a festival of moment and dance performances across the three countries, with workshops and pitches for potential touring works. Performances over the weekend included solo works examining work and fear, and epic examinations of ecological entanglement.

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The nods toward international connections emerge in the work in the festival, even as works are united under the umbrella of “Baltic.” workpiece is a simple, resonant piece performed entirely on a treadmill with a signature red polo shirt– built from the artists’ experience working shifts at a McDonalds. Latvia-based artist Jana Jacuka creates a powerful piece, routine of fear, examining the impacts of abuse and violence against women on both a personal and global level. In Eden detail, we are overwhelmed by endless ecological references: mushrooms and their mycelia, bodily processes, phlegm and dirt– but there are also elements of nationalistic and soviet-era symbolism, as when Latvian-Estonian performer Jette Loona Hermanis, dressed like something akin to a Baltic milkmaid, is harassed by, and then fights back against, performer Johhan Rosenberg, who wears a retro trenchcoat, spewing Russian obscenities.

Artists in the former soviet states have been digesting the soviet union, and its aftereffects, since it ended. The legacy is most clearly pronounced in the the ruins of half-built and abandoned soviet buildings and projects: we see these very spaces reframed as otherworldly in Kaunas-Vilnius: Moving Mountains by Lithuanina artists. Soviet relics like the Vilnius TV tower float away, spinning into space in Synchronization (2009), a video by Rimas Sakalauskas: an abandoned greenhouse, scrapped together from found materials and industrial armature, becomes a Baronness-Duchampian readymade in a work by Augustas Serapinas, Notes from Užupis. October 15, 2021. Dirty Deal Teatro in Riga recently showed an Estonian play, Two Garages, in English, with a Latvia- and Estonia-based creative team, humorously examining the way that poverty and ubiquitous plastic enabled a unique tinkerer/garage culture among men who came of age in the soviet era. The project D’est exhibits projects from artists working in the shadow of the soviet union, pushing for feminist histories and the rexamination of soviet sites, memories and meanings.

“Notes from Užupis. October 15, 2021,” by Augustas Serapinas, on display at MoMuzejs, in Vilnius, Lithuania.

The soviet regime is clearly defined as a shared, regional, collective trauma, one that will take generations to process, in the epic show Difficult Pasts, Connected Words. The exhibition includes works from the Baltic states but also Poland and the Ukraine, and has been exhibited both in Latvia and in Vilnius, where it is up at the National Gallery of Art until the end of the summer.

“We are used to thinking about past times through the lens of national histories, with their selective, smoothed and linear narrations, instead of the plural, messy and nonlinear stories shared in daily life. The difficult sides of these histories have often been neglected; instead, comforting stories are told that stress positive narratives and ways of overcoming challenges. This exhibition brings together difficult and often-silenced aspects of pasts that include violent conflicts, traumatic losses and their long-term legacies. The difficult pasts addressed here involve nationalist and communist regimes, recent warfare and histories of colonialism, the uneasy balances between modes of survival and collaboration and the ongoing specificities of post-soviet societies coping with the shadows of the past,” reads the exhibition statement, by curators Ieva Astahovska (Latvia), Margaret Tali (Estonia and the Netherlands) and Eglė Mikalajūnė (Lithuania).

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One significant work within the exhibition We offered Maurice Dates, Grasshoppers and Water p.2, by Quinsy Gario and Mina Ouaourist, in collaboration with Zahra air Lehs and Jorgen Gario. It’s an imagining of a journey taken by Saint Maurice, the patron saint of Riga’s House of Black Heads, an important historic building with visibly Black figures in its architecture, crests and symbols. Quinsy’s previous works, including How to see the spots of Der Leopard, speak directly to Latvia’s implication in colonialist and racist histories through its monuments and architectures. Facing down histories and legacies of colonialism is especially significant and challenging work within Baltic cultures, where a lot of post-colonialist theory is centered around articulating the colonization of the region by the Russian soviet union, and where limited diversity and the trauma of soviet oppression stunt greater conversations around racial equity.

“Although the post-Soviet Eastern Europe has a past which is defined by a commonly shared Other under the guise of the Soviet oppressor (and various forms of collaboration with it), it is important to keep in mind that its politics of nation building have created Others of its own,” writes Margaret Tali in her work “Art, Memory and Violence, On Hierarchies and Accessibility in the Post-Soviet Art World” (2).

George Steele, a prominent Black actor, Human Rights activist, and Latvian citizen, has been vocal about his experiences of racism and racialism in the country over the course of almost 30 years– experiences that are often met by Latvians with dismissal, disbelief, or gaslighting. In this sense, the Baltics are a microcosm of a greater, difficult debate around the navigation of whiteness and experiences of oppression, where whiteness is a normative status that comes with many privileges– without offering awareness of, or clear tools to reduce, the harmful impacts of that privilege. Historian Bart Pushaw has done a lot of work to articulate historical relationships with whiteness and colonization in Estonia, prompting difficult conversations and controversies in that region.

Difficult Pasts, Connected Worlds includes some crucial experiences of the marginalized in Eastern Europe, including Queer, Jewish and Romani communities, interviewing local survivors of Nazi purges as well as beaurocratic prejudice and racism. Artist Jaana Kokko’s research on a Finnish-Estonian writer led her to interview people in an area called “Roma mountain” in the town of Valga/Vaka on the border of Estonia and Latvia, for the work The Political Awakening of Hella Wuoliojoki in 1906. Across town at MoMuzejs, artist Andrew Miksys, who is of Lithuanian and Italian descent, exhibits photos and interviews with Lithuanian Romani peoples in BAXT, a chapter in a body of work he has continued for 20 years. In acknowledging these oppressed groups’ experience and unique perspectives, the shows take on emotional and political labor that is difficult to confront in other spheres of society, both locally and globally. “There are many forms of structural violence that happen silently. Despite the silent nature of violence, it is nevertheless a reality of life that constitutes a part of real violence exercised through discriminiation, stereotyping and neglect as the daily crimes committees against the Romani community, most of which we never hear about,” writes Tali (3).

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We see, in these exhibitions, a group of curators and artists thinking through the war in the Ukraine as a moment to articulate connections across borders, face down transgenerational and historic trauma, and give attention to neglected struggles. One of the works in Difficult Pasts, I still feel sorry when I throw away food . . . Grandma used to tell me stories about Holodomor (2018) by Ukranian artists Lia Dostlieva and Andrii Dostliev, who made prints of food that they needed to dispose of (before the war), in a gesture of remembering their parents’ tales of the Great Famine of 1932-33.  “Even now wasting food is strongly connected to subconscious feelings of guilt and shame. There are no logical reasons for this guilt– it doesn’t originate in reason but rather in the postmemory of this trauma,” say the artists in their statement, working in a material abundance that has now plunged back into challenges from war.  Though the trauma has a central source– Soviet and Russian invasions and their aftermaths– the healing and processing is multifaceted, both local and international, the pain made fresh by the assault on Ukraine.

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Programs like the European Capital of Culture are sometimes seen as a way to tell the stories of these traumas while connecting to greater Europe. Every European capital of culture gets an influx of funding from the European Union to support new cultural initiatives. In the past, Riga, Tallinn and Vilnius have all been temporary capitals of culture. This summer, Vilnius’ sibling/rival city, Kaunas, holds that title. For Kaunas, that means a Marina Abramovich show at the National Portrait Gallery, the combined Kaunas-Vilnius Moving Mountains show, Yoko Ono’s Ex It, and shows like Kaunas Spring ‘72 at the Kaunas National Drama Theatre.

That last show unpacks the aftermath of young Lithuanian Romas Kalanta, who self-immolated in 1972, at 19 years old, in protest of the Soviet Union, provoking a summer of protests and inquisitions the aftermath. The play is staged in dramatic tableaus by Jonas Tertelis, with a scenography by Renata Valčik at the Kauno National Drama Theatre of Lithuania. Typically soviet architectural relics, like cement tiles and brutalist panels, are accentuated with emotional tones, like leather-black costumes, chalk drawings, mushrooms, and hidden patches of light and moss.

The night I saw Kaunas Spring ‘72 , it was meant to have a simultaneous English translation, but the translator’s flight had been delayed. I had to gather the rhythm of the work through my knowledge of Latvian, and its Baltic proximity to Latvian. The languages share a few similar words and structures, but Lithuanian is more deeply influenced by Polish– I could understand about every 10th word, gathering more from staging and context. Estonian is a Scandinavian language, with all of the associated umlauts and punctuation. Latvian and Lithuanian are the only two Baltic languages, both of Indo-European descent. One of the central things that separates the Baltic states from each other is language.

I did not grow up speaking Latvian. I am a shadow of the conflicts in Latvia– my grandmother fled the incoming Red Army to a displaced persons camp in Germany, from where she received a religious sponsored immigration to the United States. My grandfather disappeared somewhere along the Polish front, conscripted into battle by a German/Nazi regime that had falsely promised independence (and against which some Latvians organized). My father actively shrugged off his immigrant identity in 1950s and 60s California: whiteness disappeared our immigrant status within a generation. I learned Latvian from Saturday schools, summer camps, old Latvian ladies, and an intense period as a Fulbright scholar in Riga [full disclosure: I am an artist and academic working to build projects and collaborations in the region]. Latvian instruction is very hard to come by outside of the country, but I easily accessed Russian lessons in high school and college.

Probably the singular most striking thing about the windowsill protest at Kanuti Gildi Saal is that it was entirely in Russian. While hugely appropriate for an action by Russian speakers directed at the Russian Embassy, the Russian language is a fraught topic throughout the Baltics. Each country was “Russified” by Stalin’s regime after having their own nationals and intellectuals deported, jailed or killed in the hundreds of thousands. The remaining citizens were largely forbidden from speaking their own languages under soviet rule. The claim that the large Russian minority in each state is the result of Russian colonization is not unfounded (4). Upon regaining their independence, the Baltics promptly made their own languages the official languages of the state, with restrictions against bilingual signage in Russian. Russian nationals who were brought to the Baltics during the soviet regime, and their descendents, in all three states, are resident aliens as opposed to citizens– unless they can pass a language test. Baltic citizens often point to their own relative size in comparison to Russia’s when interrogated about these protective measures.

What does it mean to share space along Baltic coast? A series of Estonian megaphones  recently gained a lot of traction for amplifying the sounds of the forest– the result of an academic challenge to create a “Forest Library.” A recent production of Mezs (Woods) by the Latvian National Theater cites classic Latvian plays in a debate about forest management that takes place in a literal forest. Many artists across all three states draw from a cultural and personal connection to nature. The freedom fighters across the Baltic States are commonly referred to as “Forest Brothers,” soldiers who hid in the woods for years after the Nazi and Soviet invasions, keeping the fight for independence going. The landscape of the Baltics is both a structural boundary and a cultural bond: all three countries pride themselves on their relationship with the land, though the historically pagan mythologies, goddesses and symbols of their cultures vary slightly from region to region.

“With little variation, three Baltic agents have been successful in denying the possibility of the pluralism of the memory/ies. Instead, collective memory is adjusted to political tasks while versions of alternative memory and re-writing history are eliminated. History is seen as not only pure-white but equally emotional and contradictory. Interestingly, the future in the meantime appears to be left on its own and unfolds as we speak,” writes Zane Onkule in “Balticana,” an examination of Baltic cultural essences in the region.

In the context of a renewed threat of Russian invasion, the Baltic alliance has the capacity to be strategic, and political, while still recognizing differences and maintaining solidarity. Historically a siblinghood, either through the Forest Brothers or the Three Baltic Sisters, there is nostalgia and affection between them. But like any siblings, their citizens often do not want to be lumped in with their peers, but seen for who they uniquely are. At the same time, we see right now through art, culture and activism how quickly the states can redefine “family” to include those who experience similar traumas and threats– either from a common enemy, or the experience of oppression. But it needs to be remembered that support in the face of oppression does not have to be limited to white people.

The experience of trauma demands that the specificity of our own experience be seen, heard and recognized: the impact of it gives us the potential to either empathize with others and address inequities, or be blinded by our own pain. How this region responds to continued and complicated threats has, and may continue to, provide lessons for communities around the globe– but that depends on how well they listen to marginalized citizens, artists and curators who are taking on difficult conversations. In the meantime, I hope Putin understands “Fuck War” in not only Russian, but Estonian, Latvian and Lithuanian as well.

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1. “The Infrastructure of Everyday Life,” The Baltic Atlas, Sternberg Press, Petit Lublin, Poland, 2016, p. 133

2.  Revisiting Footnotes: Footprints of the Recent Past in the Post-Socialist Region, ed. Ieva Astahovska, Inga Lace, Latvian Center for Contemporary Art, Latvia, 2015 p. 79

3.  ibid.

4. For further reading: Baltic Postcolonialism, ed. Violeta Kelertas, Rodopi, New York, 2006

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