KYIV, Ukraine — Amazing Stories of Crimea at Art Arsenal (Mystetskyi Arsenal) in Kyiv is remarkable for two reasons. First, despite the unavailability of objects from museums in Crimea (due to Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea, unrecognized by Ukraine), the exhibition includes a significant collection of traditional objects lent by 15 museums and private collections in Ukraine, such as the Institute of Archaeology of the National Academy of Sciences of Ukraine, Lviv History Museum, and the Kharkiv Art Museum. The exhibition focuses on the cultural bond between the Crimean peninsula and mainland Ukraine; the curators note that many artifacts found in Crimea are identical to those found in Kharkiv and Kherson oblasts in the southeast of Ukraine.
Second, it is remarkable because the exhibition thoroughly avoids the problematic topic of the annexation and attempts to show the historical diversity of cultures in Crimea spanning several centuries. Although it is dedicated to the five-year anniversary of the annexation, thorough research on the peninsula’s complex culture reveals a long history of conflicts and displacements. These introduce new perspectives on the current political situation that resulted in a number of arrests and repressions of those who did not agree with the annexation. The exhibition was co-organized with the Crimean House (Krymski Dim), a cultural center run by Crimean Tatar refugees in Kyiv who aim to protect and preserve their culture outside Crimea.
The exhibition’s curators attempt to establish a dialogue among those in different political camps who are invested in Crimea. This attempt is subversive for several reasons, but principally because it advances the idea of resistance through knowledge: the exhibition posits that education can break down borders established by politicians. It also demonstrates the extent of cultural losses in Crimea as a result of the Russian invasion, as many artists, researchers, and intellectuals experienced threats and violence after the annexation and were forced to flee Crimea as refugees. (Most notably, film director Oleg Sentsov was imprisoned in Russia in 2014 on charges widely believed to be fabricated.) The exhibition is an example how art can address political topics without being overtly political, how history can act as a “soft power,” a term coined by the Harvard scholar Joseph Nye in 1990, as a means of co-opting and attracting in contrast to the “hard power” of open conflict. The art reflects on a cultural heritage that engenders belonging rather than exclusion, and highlights the process of creation rather than destruction.
Many people think of Crimea as an inexpensive resort area on the Black Sea. For some (including myself), summer months in childhood were spent in Crimea with relatives, leaving memories of beautiful landscapes, unique cultural and archaeological treasures, and the kinds of star-filled nights that are never seen in big cities. I grew up with the steppe and mountains, midnight cricketing of cicadas, and the smells — of sea salt, of herbs dried in the sun, of cypress trees. The exhibition aims to bring this nostalgic, almost utopian vision of Crimea to the viewer.
It also reveals the uneasy history among Crimean ethnic groups. It is divided into areas, each presenting the culture of a particular group that lived in Crimea for centuries, such as Turkish, Italians, Goths, Sarmatians, Scythians, Greeks, Khazars, Cimmerians, Tauri, among others, presenting Crimea as a place of intensive cultural exchange before the 20th century. Crimean Tatars, Krymchaks, and Karaites experienced deportations and repressions in the Soviet-era. The Karaites and the Krymchaks, both followers of Judaic religions, were powerful presences in Crimea in the 19th century, but in the Soviet era fell victim to anti-Semitic policies and had to change their “nationalities” (from Karaites and Krymchaks to Russians or Ukrainians) in their Soviet passports. As a result, by the 1990s there were only around 1000 and 100 people, respectively, remaining in Crimea who would recognize themselves as belonging to these groups. Crimean Tatars, who constituted the majority of Crimea’s population at the beginning of the 20th century, were deported in 1944 to Uzbekistan and Siberia, due to Stalin’s repressions and the Soviet Union’s desire to use Crimea as a strategic site where the Soviet navy could settle. In the 1990s the Tatars began to return, only to flee again, after experiencing threats and direct aggression from the Russian government during the annexation. According to different statistics, between 8,000 and 40,000 Crimean Tatars were forced to leave Crimea in the last five years.
Crimea found itself at the intersection of (forced) migration streams throughout the 20th century. After it became part of Ukraine in 1954, many Soviet dissidents moved there. “Star Dust (Zorianyi Pyl)” — an installation by Crimean artist Maria Kulikovska, who is based in Kyiv — interweaves the contemporary situation in the peninsula with the personal history of her family. Kulikovska addresses Kerch Peninsula, where she was born and grew up, and which is now the last outpost of Eastern Crimea on the border with mainland Russia. She dedicates her project to her grandmother who fled to Crimea in the 1950s due to problems with the Soviet government:
She, her husband, and my then 4-month-old mother ran to Crimea without documents, it was in 1956. As my grandmother told, there was nothing in Crimea — except salted soils, sunburnt steppe and the sea. No drop of drinking water, no fertile land, no trees. She, as many such migrants, brought steppe Crimea back to life after the war.
The artist interprets the map of the Kerch peninsula as she recreates its topography and landscape within the contours of the peninsula. She also uses casts of her body that recall Greek sculptures, referencing the Ancient Greek city of Panticapaeum founded around the late 7th or early 6th century BCE in present-day Kerch. The sculptures are made from the same materials as the model of the peninsula, including metal, wood, different types of soil, fossils, cement, stone dust, sand, iron oxides, and sea salt. Her small-scale recreation brings the peninsula back to Ukraine, a copy of the land that was detached, and keeps it from falling in oblivion.
The exhibition advances the idea Crimea’s history of invasions and its current political situation of the annexation represents a centuries-long pattern. The multimedia installations help link the exhibition’s traditional objects to the contemporary situation. The historical objects at the exhibition include editions of the Koran and the Torah, Scythian gold jewelry, ceramic and textile objects, and an enormous variety of armors and weapons. Amazing Stories of Crimea emphasizes historical and archaeological research to oppose Russia’s broad ideological claims about political history of Crimea that lead to ignorance, violence, and the destruction of cultural heritage. At a time of uncertainty, signaled by the latest Ukrainian elections, this peaceful look at Crimea helps to prevent the loss of cultural memory.
Amazing Stories of Crimea continues at Art Arsenal (Lavrska St 10-12, Kyiv, Ukraine) through May 5.