How can something beautiful provide evidence of the atrocious? This was a question Lesia Maruschak grappled with as she wondered if, and how, she could tell the story of the 1932-33 genocide-famine in Soviet Ukraine beyond an explicit documentary approach. Are photojournalists the only ones to tell these stories? What modes of storytelling can bridge the complexity of such histories? Her limited edition book Transfiguration takes a multi-layered approach to constructing a memorial to the millions who died under Stalin’s policy of artificial starvation.
In 1983, fifty years had passed before Canada, home of the second-largest Ukrainian diaspora, erected the first public monument found anywhere in the world to honor the missing. It would be another 23 years (in 2006) before Ukrainian parliament would recognize the famine as an intentional genocide against its own people.
Maruschak, a Canadian of Ukrainian descent, served for two decades as an executive leader in the Canadian government managing diverse programs tied to security, intelligence, health, and natural resources. A 2009 leukemia diagnosis diverted her career path and by 2016 she found herself picking up a camera for the first time since high school. Through the influence of her friend, photographer/filmmaker Peter Lindbergh, she says, “I found a unique way to engage in issues relevant to contemporary society while challenging current photographic dialogues. If I look back on my life, I see that I have been issues-driven all along and had the incredible opportunity to make a difference working through various channels. Now that channel is art.”
Through her art, Maruschak takes a variety of symbolic approaches, such as crumbling and reopening her prints which transform into sculptural forms upon the wall. “I became intrigued with how we, as individuals, societies and governments erase memories, people and events.” These considerations are essential to Project Maria a large, ongoing initiative that encompasses photography, writing, painting, installation, film, lectures, textile sculptures, and two separate books to-date: Transfiguration, constructed by hand throughout 2018, and commercially-produced Maria.
Maruschak can foresee making even more books, noting that they are completely different in both design, materials and artistic intent. Additionally, with fewer than 30 copies of Transfiguration, “clearly, the reach is small.” Maria, by contrast, is designed in collaboration with Elias Zhekalov, readily available for purchase in the consumer market. Maruschak points out that “here we are talking about accessibility.”
The overarching project began with Maruschak’s recollection of family photo albums, as well as an unexpected discovery. “I tripped upon a box of my mother-in-law’s photographs where people had been cut out or torn off. She was a survivor of Stalin’s Soviet Ukraine where the elite leadership of the Soviet Communist Party approved policies to eliminate the individual and national identity of the Ukrainian people. Her parents were taken away by the state secret police never to be seen again—erased; she and many like here were orphaned.”
Rather than relying entirely upon information already-discoverable online, Maruschak wanted to tap into personal stories that emerged from a broader community. “I put out a call on Facebook asking for photographs and received an unexpected response—the family picture of Maria and her parents taken in Ukraine. This photo anchored the project with Maria F. becoming the heroine of my story.”
Coincidentally, Maria’s testimony was preserved as part of an 80th-anniversary film project sponsored by the Ukrainian World Congress in 2013. Maria recalled “her sister Ksenya sleeping cold and dead in the bed beside her; her father imprisoned and beaten, returning home only to die; her mother falling asleep just before supper, never to wake.” Maria miraculously survived and her family entrusted Maruschak with the creative freedom to reinterpret her portrait. Maria’s soulful face opens and closes the book, the portrait transforming through surface painting and hand-processing.
The artist handcrafted this incarnation during the Book Artist in Residence program awarded by Maine Media Workshops + College in 2018. In a fully-equipped book arts studio, Maruschak meticulously constructed a limited edition of 29 hardcover books, plus two artist proofs. Rare and fine art books such as this can be difficult to describe. The tactility and symbolism of raw materials are details that one should experience in person, a reason why public collections are an important pathway to public access. Transfiguration is one of the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s most recent acquisitions in the Thomas J. Watson Library and is housed within several other renowned collections.
This bound series of gestures is eloquently layered with contributed essays, evocative poetry, and three of Maruschak’s photographic series, each stitched into the spine as a distinct movement. Photographs are hand-tipped, pages do not always spread from edge-to-edge and, at times, the translucency of material stirs emotions unparalleled by pure academic study. The book opens with a historically-processed portrait of Maria. The half-title page is embossed, words pressed into paper without bearing the visual weight of ink. Symbolic details continue to unfold.
Derived from the Ukrainian words for hunger (holod) and extermination (mor), the event, as well the Soviet Union’s involvement, has been chronicled in various lights—wavering dramatically between the bad luck of famine, incompetence in leadership, and outright genocide by way of a complex series of roadblocks placed in front a very specific demographic.
In the early 1930s, nearly a decade before the Jewish Holocaust and our understanding of the word genocide, Soviet-controlled Ukraine experienced a period of disastrous famine. Generations later, death tolls continue to contradict one another. In 2003 the UN, in partnership with 25 countries, asserted that 7-10 million people died during the Holodomor. In 2012, separate research shifted estimates to 3.3-7.5 million people as a way to maintain distinctions between direct and indirect losses of life. What remains consistent, however, is that an overwhelming majority of those who perished were ethnic Ukrainians. Supporters of this history implicate Stalin’s desire to quell Ukrainian independence movements as evidenced by his policies on restricting population movement, his rejection of aid support, and exporting nearly two million tons of food out of the country as his own citizens suffered.
“The Holodomor,” Maruschak writes, “was political and intentional; a state-sponsored assault on a single ethnic group […] whose national consciousness stood in the way of the new order.” This is the history she chooses to accept based on such overwhelming evidence. Scholar and curator Alison Nordström, who differentiates between history, memory and “what happened”, wrote an essay, From Ashes, bound as an inset within the book. She describes Maruschak’s work as “a photographic response to a particular historical event, but it is also an evocation of the ways such an event may be known, as it lingers and resonates in the artist and others, long after, and far from the site of, its occurrence.”
Aware of the power and ethics behind telling a story, Maruschak leans into an emotional and intellectual response in her approach towards commemoration. “To the best of my knowledge [previous] works concerning the Holodomor are academic in nature. My artistic language is one that is naturally driven by aesthetic or beauty and that is often what draws people into my works. Later, when they understand the subject matter, it becomes clear that there are many layers to what I represent. This is fundamental to my practice. I think we need multiple and diverse points of entry to reach a broad audience including film, textiles, books, amalgams and of course photographs.”
Research still played a crucial role in this work, as do stories she recollects from members of her surroundings and the testimonies she has read. Maruschak knew three survivors who lived in her community—immigrants to Canada whose recounting continues to haunt her. One recalled the story of a woman who experienced such an unbearable hunger that she ate the sole of her shoes for survival.
“We are fortunate,” Maruschak impresses, “to have witness testimonies, like those provided to the U.S. Congress during its investigation into the Ukrainian Famine.” One witness compared his mother’s malnourished appearance to a glass jar. Her skin appeared translucent, “filled with water, like a plastic bag.” Maruschak layers visual clues such as these into her work. A reinterpreted portrait of Maria, included as a cover inset for the Special Edition versions of Transfiguration, has been printed as a cyanotype on special parchment—thin sheets of untanned goatskin—overpainted with lapis pigment and egg tempera, all sealed beneath the waxy surface of an encaustic medium.
‘Painstaking’ is a word Maruschak has used to describe the meticulous steps taken through several time-intensive processes. In a seemingly ritualistic manner, one photographic series within the book consists of images made of authentic documents with up to 1000 digital layers stacked upon each other at a low opacity. There is an element of compulsion, of performance. In yet another series of images—each movement separated in the book by lace-like pages lifted as veils—photographs fall into a mist, lost beneath abstract impressions of the ancient Salamis counting tool which Maruschak attributes to her “inability to grasp the conscious eradication of human life on such massive scales.”
Maruschak has no direct memory of Holodomor. “What gave me the right to think I could manifest this event as I was neither a survivor nor a moral witness?” she muses. “I was a Canadian artist of Ukrainian descent struggling to make sense of an event that had shaped my identity and that of the community I was part of in Canada and the diaspora.” In the enclosed essay, Interspersed Memory, Sabina Tanović writes of Maruschak’s recognition of photographs as having an independent existence and, “at the same time, she realizes that this existence is not sufficient for the work of memory. The artist brings them to light by craft. The fixed character of the photograph is animated to become a suggestion that, I would argue, is more engaging than documentation.” And the profound and attentive crafting of Transfiguration has helped it land in important rare and fine art book collections.
Minute details such as dying leather to match the Japanese blue mohair Asahi bookcloth, do not go unnoticed. Maruschak attests that the acquisitions “also points to the collectability of such objects and to a different genre of photobook.” Her other book on the Holodomor, MARIA, has had its own journey, one more typical of photobooks, including winning the Grand Prix at the Kyiv International Book Fair and being shortlisted for the 2019 Prix du livre at Rencontres’ d’ Arles.
Reflecting on her process after completing Transfiguration, Maruschak asked herself what her primary goal had been. When one builds a monument, a memorial, does it serve the purpose “to establish a presence or an absence?” Inspired by Raphael Lemkin, the lawyer who established the term genocide, Maruschak concluded that her work, like memory itself, serves to “…not only to register past events but to stimulate human conscience.”
Editor’s note: Project Maria is currently on view as part of Landskrona Foto Festival in Sweden until the 20th of September.