Ukrainian artist Dana Kavelina probes military violence and war from a gendered perspective—especially with regard to the position of a victim as a political subject—and the divide between collective memory and individual trauma in the context of post-war memorialization. Her work will be the focus of a solo presentation by Fridman Gallery at Independent this May.
Only 19 at the time of the Russian annexation of Crimea and the beginning of the war in Donbas in 2014, Kavelina ponders the fact that every war has roots in previous conflicts, arising from unhealed wounds and silenced harms. She challenges the objectivity of history—“the question is whom we empower to make a record,” she observed in a statement for the digital platform Secondary Archive. She proposed that history, as it is told from masculine, military, and nationalist perspectives, needed to be rewritten in such a way as to “capture the unimaginable complexity and intricacy of the historical process, and preserve the multiplicity of voices… Such a structure cannot be linear; it would rather resemble a matrix.” Her profoundly feminist proposal for historiography has it that history should be written collectively rather than being the record of the winners.
Kavelina’s experimental film-poem about women in the Donbas war zone, Letter to a Turtledove (2020), seeks to restore subjectivity (personhood and agency) to victims of war rapes. It is also a critique of the politics of decommunization pursued by Ukraine’s post-Maidan government, which spurred Ukrainian artists’ efforts to preserve Soviet mosaics and their “historiographic turn” toward history and subjects that were marginalized. Arguing that 70 years of Ukraine’s Soviet history cannot simply be erased, Kavelina combined found footage from various periods to provoke discussion about a more complex, postcolonial, post-communist Ukrainian identity.
The “matrix historiography” she calls for is reflected in the collage structure of her film, which comprises fragments of archival footage of the Donbas from its 1930s Stalinist industrialization to the 1990s, as well as amateur footage shot during the current war. A dizzying carousel of historical images, intensified by Kavelina’s ingenious animation, staged film segments, and the whirling rhythm of recitation, found sound, and singing, shows life being rebuilt from the ashes and then repeatedly destroyed—the experience of every generation in the Donbas. At last, in the Soviet footage from the 1970s, Donetsk is shown prospering, nicknamed the city of a million roses. Poverty and prosperity are relative concepts, Kavelina demonstrates, exposing the roots of the pro-Soviet sentiments which provided grist to the mill of Russian propaganda in the region as it fell into economic crisis in the 1990s, and has been ravaged by the war since 2014.
The construction of Kavelina’s film emphasizes the recurring nature of wars emerging from old wounds. In a conversation published in BOMB magazine, she told me that she intended to “speak about history as a whole without leaving out the blind spots, in order not to leave any wounds untreated.” She proposes to rewrite history so that rather than representing only the victor’s perspective, it would also give voice to those who have always lost wars—women, minorities, the poor, and the dead. The film’s heroine Maria Kateryna represents centuries of wartime violence against women. “History is located in the human body, so I had to tell it in the form of a monologue of a victim who is resurrected in the film’s narrative and gives her testimony,” the artist said. Kavelina’s hallucinatory stream-of-consciousness poem—the haunting foundation of the film—is an attempt to create a language that would render the loss of personhood caused by the torture of repeated rapes, so that the victim only wants death.
Letter to a Turtledove emerged from years of the artist’s research of wartime rape, including the 1941 pogroms of Jews in Lviv by the Ukrainians and the Germans, the Stalinist deportation of the Chechens in 1944, Serbian “rape camps” in Bosnia and Herzegovina in the 1990s, and the war in Donbas.
The key to her capturing the essence of such violence was the series of drawings Communications. Exit to the Blind Spot. Made in 2019, they scathingly condemn the concept of a nation based on bloodlines. Kavelina explained in the BOMB interview that she wanted to show rape “not just as a collateral consequence of war but rather as its essence,” contributing to the discourse on how national identity is tied to the perception of women’s role in society.
In the drawing machina—τέλος a tank gun aims at its ultimate target, a woman’s sexual parts. In another, a negotiating table becomes a mortuary slab—thin red lines link a woman’s massacred body with the mouths of the negotiators. The same red line, denoting both the taking and giving of life through sexual violence, connects several mothers with babies and pregnant bodies in after the last war we became related to our enemies. The red line reappears in the military holiday exposition, where the skins of women’s torsos hang from it like drying laundry; in captain and the woman (portrait made of their own free will), where a massive man in uniform is shown holding hands with a tiny naked female figure; and in the most disturbing image, titled father!, showing a little girl with a gushing genital wound standing over the body of a man.
These drawings were first shown in the 2019 exhibition War in the Museum at the Kmytiv Museum of Soviet Art, hung between monumental paintings that glorified World War II. In the accompanying text, Kavelina pointed to the voices of rape victims that remain unheard, and those of rape survivors silenced after every war. As she wrote, “Every war is a war against women… Any ‘Winner’s Story’ is glued together by women’s bloody lingerie.”
Monika Fabijanska is an independent art historian and curator specializing in women’s and feminist art. Her exhibition of Ukrainian artists Women at War (Fridman Gallery, New York), listed among the ten best exhibitions of 2022 by both The Washington Post and Frieze magazine, is currently touring university art galleries in the US and Canada. Previous exhibitions include Betsy Damon: Passages: Rites and Rituals (La MaMa La Galleria, New York; The New York Times best shows of 2021), ecofeminism(s) (Thomas Erben Gallery, New York, 2020), and The Un-Heroic Act: Representations of Rape in Contemporary Women’s Art in the US (Anya and Andrew Shiva Gallery, John Jay College of Criminal Justice, CUNY; Hyperallergic best shows of 2018). www.monikafabijanska.com