A British-Ukrainian on the Arts Front
Bohdan Nahaylo talks to art curator and gallery owner Myroslava Hartmond about a gallery in Kyiv’s historical centre, in the midst of Ukraine’s rapidly evolving art scene
Hello and welcome to this week’s episode of Ukraine Calling. I’m Oksana Smerechuk for Hromadske Radio in Kyiv and we’re bringing you our feature interview followed by some new music from Ukraine.
In this episode Bohdan Nahaylo is in conversation with art curator and gallery owner Myroslava Hartmond. About what it was like, growing up with a Ukrainian identity in the UK. And what it’s like today, running a gallery in Kyiv’s historical centre, in the midst of Ukraine’s rapidly evolving art scene. Have a listen!
Nahaylo: I am delighted to have on this week’s program Myroslava Hartmond who is a curator, researcher and writer. She runs the well-known Triptyh gallery on Kyiv’s famous Andriivsky Uzviz, which showcases both Ukrainian and international artists. Welcome to the show, Myroslava!
Hartmond: Hello, Bohdan! Thank you very much for having me!
Nahaylo: It’s only because you have such a nice British accent as someone born in England. It is always pleasure to hear a Ukrainian speaking with a proper English accent, as opposed to some other accents we have.
Nahaylo: Tell us a little about yourself. How did you end up with this English accent?
Hartmond: I was born here in Kyiv but I moved to the UK with my father when I was very young. I grew up in Oxford, then in London and then I went to a girl’s only school in sunny Surrey. I decided to take a gap year after I finished school and college Six Form.
Nahaylo: Don’t rush ahead. There is a plenty of interesting material there. So you grew up in Oxford. Your father was a professor?
Hartmond: He was at Worcester College doing post-doc and also doing some teaching as well. Actually he gave up on academia and he is now in the City in finance. So we moved to London.
Nahaylo: Did you spend some time in Oxford?
Hartmond: I did as a child. I learned to read in Oxford when I was five and a half.
Nahaylo: It’s a great experience, to grow up in the “ivory towers”?
Hartmond: It was really a magical and wonderful experience. I think it spoiled me in so many ways. When Philip Pullman’s trilogy came out lots of people used to say “Oh, you are a little girl form the Northern Lights” because I was little and was of roaming in Worcester College. I was a token child in the college and it was great fun. It was also when I first saw Apple computers. We had them in the Media Common Room and I could play on them, which seemed like out of the space age at that time. So it was also access to the old, to architecture and the incredible atmosphere, but it was also the new resources, the new technology. Places such as Oxford, Cambridge, Harvard, MIT are all known …
Nahaylo: But also the ethos, the culture, the sophistication. You probably met with very clever people.
Hartmond: I went to a primary school that is well-known for having very international contingent – kids of academics, visiting scholars. I really had fantastic primary school experience. It was very diverse. It was very accepting. The standards were really high.
Nahaylo: As a Ukrainian, did you enter a stage when you said: “Hey, I am in Britain. I’ve got the best of this world. I am going to be British from now on”.
Hartmond: Growing up in the UK I was very aware of the fact that I was Ukrainian. It was always a huge part of my identity. It always started from the school register, when a teacher would call my name, and if it was a new teacher he/she would really struggle with the name Myroslava.
Nahaylo: Let me interrupt. My father, a great man that he was, in all his wisdom named me Bohdan Nahaylo – difficult enough – but he called my sister Yaroslava Liubomyra. Imagine that, quite a mouthful.
Hartmond: It’s tricky.
Nahaylo: So they ended up calling her Yary for short. But Myroslava is not so bad. What did they call you? Myro?
Hartmond: My friends always call me Myro and I go by Myro in the UK.
Nahaylo: So you have a “Myro” image?
Hartmond: Something like that. Then my French and Spanish friends call me Miró, like the artist. I had a lovely experience growing up in Oxford but actually moving to London was a rude awakening. I remember starting secondary school -Wallington High School for Girls- which is a girls-only school in Surrey and which is predominantly English, suburban, middle to upper-middle, white, and that was a far less forgiving place. I remember on my first day of school, when I was 11, I introduced myself to a girl sitting next to me and she said, “Sorry, what’s your name?”, and she just could not pronounce it. She just turned to me and said: “I am going to call you ‘It’”. Ukrainian, and generally speaking Eastern Europeans, have a really tough time in the so-called politically correct West.
Nahaylo: I know all about it. I mean my name is Bohdan Petro Nahaylo. At school Sister Mary Patricia, the head of the school and a nun, decided that I would be Peter. So I was Pete instead of Bohdan because Bohdan was too difficult for them. Anyway. So now you are at school. That, at some stage, you get higher education.
Hartmond: Absolutely. So I was 14 when the Orange Revolution happened and I was a huge history buff. I was really planning to either go on to be a historian or some sort of academic in that sort of humanities area, and that’s when the Orange Revolution happened.
Nahaylo: And what was the impact of that one? We’ll talk about Maidan later, but what about the Orange Revolution?
Hartmond: Yes, so to me being in London at the time I think it was the first real sense that I got of belonging to a country that wasn’t Russia. I’ll explain, because growing up in London in the sort of post-Soviet immigrant community amongst the other communities that we were part of, we were sort of, as Ukrainians, I guess we weren’t quite so aware of our Ukrainian identity in the way that people who would have left during the Soviet times, or before the Soviet times even, would have been. So I grew up in essentially a trilingual family. My father is British-Ukrainian, so we spoke Ukrainian and still do. My step-mother is Russian, from Moscow, but my mother is Ukrainian and my step-father is Russian, from St. Petersburg. Therefore we’ve always spoken both Ukrainian and Russian in the family. It was never an issue and I never vehemently identified as Ukrainian as opposed to any other former Soviet republic. We felt like we belonged to the same sort of cultural and linguistic sphere and we understood one-another, so I guess the later-comers really were part of that infrastructure of a Russian-speaking culture.
Nahaylo: Did you interact much with others from Ukraine or from Russia?
Hartmond: I did actually. My teacher Mikhail Sarny at the Eastern Orthodox Cathedral School in London in South Kensington is from Kyiv and he used to tell me — I went there from the age of 11 to about age 14 when I went into my Goth and heavy metal phase, and decided to renounce patriarchal structures — he told me that he used to dream about Kyiv. No matter how long he spent in the UK, in his derams, he used to always find himself in Kyiv. He used to really, really miss it. I didn’t have a real sense of that. I didn’t really miss Ukraine or miss Kyiv. I missed my mother and I missed my family.
Nahaylo: You were probably too young when you left.
Hartmond: I suppose, though I would visit all the time. Every school holiday I would visit. So I never really had a sense of having left. I knew that England was where I was based and Kyiv was always somewhere I would go back to see family. I never really felt like there was a trauma or disconnection, not at all. But actually it was the Orange Revolution when I saw my city, and riot police, and protestors putting flowers into the shields of the riot police, on the front page of the Metro — which is a free newspaper that gets given out on the London Tube (Metro). When I saw Ukraine on the Metro front page, that’s when I had a real sense of cognitive dissonance, because in a way, you’re never really both here and there. Your soul has a footing somewhere, it has roots somewhere, and I just really realized that what I wanted to do more than anything was to spend time in Ukraine, consciously, as an adult, and actually experience speaking Ukrainian and Russian everyday. So I decided that after finishing school I would take a gap year and go to Ukraine. And I did so when I was 18. I moved to Kyiv for a year, but I actually ended up staying for 4 years because I started university and I went to Kyiv National University’s Institute of International Relations — as an international student, which was quite an experience. I studied international law. It was a real chance for me to get my émigré Ukrainian and Russian up to academic standard. It was after that that I went back to Oxford to do my Masters degree.
Nahaylo: In what?
Hartmond: In international relations. And then of course the Revolution of Dignity happened. So, again, I was sort of called back.
Nahaylo: Was that a shock for you?
Hartmond: It was. The violence of it was a great shock. Everybody remembered the Orange Revolution as this great surge of youthful vigor. It was, in many ways, very theatrical. It looked great on TV but of course when the Euromaidan came it did not look great on TV. Seeing dead bodies on Ukraine’s main square…that, in a way, was a very clear signal to me that the time that I had spent during my undergraduate degree days in Kyiv was time well spent.
Nahaylo: You had already made your choice in terms of self-identification?
Hartmond: I always identified as British-Ukrainian from a very early age.
Nahaylo: All right, now let’s jump ahead. That is the background as it were. So, how did you end up as a curator and running an art gallery here on one of the most famous streets of Kyiv?
Hartmond: During preparations for EURO 2012 Andryivsky Uzviz was under reconstruction. So, a lot of the buildings, a lot of the shops, galleries on the street were temporally closed. The previous owner decided to sell it the property. So, in 2012 my Ukrainian family here decided to invest in it, and the gallery was under management for almost two years, and then, of course, the Revolution happened. So, you know, the previous working model was no longer tenable. We were faced with a choice: either shut the gallery down or have me running it. And the gallery has been there since 1988 as one of the first western style contemporary art galleries in the former Soviet Union. I decided to rise to the challenge, for like Mary Poppins I go where I am needed. I came in August 2014, when, as you know, we did not know whether Russian tanks were going to start rolling into Kyiv, whether Russian planes were gone start bombing us. But we knew that we had this gallery space in the cultural heart of Kyiv and had to do something with. It has taken me a little while, but we have rebranded it to make it more inclusive. I mean all the previous gallery programming was exclusively in Russian and I decided that we would run the gallery as a dual language space. We have Ukrainian and English as languages for everything that we print, everything we produce. And we started showing increasingly international artists and I began doing something that I would call the cultural diplomatic exchanges. That meant that we actually worked closely with the embassies, with the international organizations that were in Kyiv to bring more international art into Kyiv.
Nahaylo: Ok. Let me remind listeners. I am talking to Myroslava Hartmond, curator, researcher, writer, British-Ukrainian, but now spending a lot of time running her art gallery and working on other projects here in Kyiv. I suppose, you know, this bilingual approach makes sense. You are located between Bulgakov and the historical museum, the old historical center of Kyiv on the hill. Do you have a sense of history, of the history of the street, of everything that’s happened in that area, not just in the 19th and 20th centuries?
Hartmond: I am very aware of it. And that chance to live and work on Andriivski Uzviz was one of the perks. That was really one of the reasons why I decided this would be a nice thing to do for a change.
Nahaylo: Ok, give us some idea of the kind of exhibitions, projects that you have been involved in with your gallery.
Hartmond: Last year we have had seven international projects. We opened the the year with an exhibition of Australian aboriginal art, which was the first ever Australian art exhibition in independent Ukraine.
Nahaylo: It was wonderful. I was there.
Hartmond: Big thanks to Bruce Edwards and the Australian team for making it happen. And we closed the year with an exhibition of the German artist Markus Nieden, who showed his Ukrainian diary. He sketched and painted three Ukrainian cities, Kyiv, Lviv and Odesa. And we actually have two exciting photography projects happening in March. On International Women’s Day, the 8 March, showed Mathilde Grafström “Female Beauty Project”, which is Danish feminist nude photography. The female photographer, Matilda shows women embracing their natural beauty in natural surroundings. Because without self-acceptance, without really accepting and embracing your beauty, she believes that women can’t truly achieve equality. Because men are confident, right? They are born to be overtly confident, whereas I think women, especially women in Ukraine, set themselves impossibly high standards. The second project is something we are doing together with Docudays’ International Human Rights Documentary Film Festival and the Swiss Embassy, and the week of French language and culture. It is “Looking for Lenin”, a project by Niels Ackerman and Sebastien Gobert, which was a subject of a book, published in the UK and in Switzerland last year that I contributed the opening essay to.
Nahaylo: It sounds like you’re really on the cutting edge and very much involved with the interaction with the outside world, particularly European. What would you say about the state-of-play in the arts-cultural world in Ukraine. Are we still trapped in a kind-of provincial mode, or has Ukraine opened up to the outside world and become more receptive to what’s going on there?
Hartmond: Well, judging from the high level of international and internationally-curated exhibits that the National Arts Museum of Ukraine has seen, since the revolution for instance, I can say Ukraine, as a country, is generally moving in the right direction. As we know, the National Arts Museum of Ukraine was barricaded during the revolution because the staff of the museum was actually under siege. There was a need to protect the art, and since then, they’ve brought in some really interesting exhibits, and they’ve worked increasingly with the extensive collections of the museum. For example, showing Soviet-period art in a new, educational, critical context is something that I really believe in. Last year which was of course the centenary of the Russian revolution, or rather the Bolshevik coup, I co-curated an exhibition at the University of Essex called Fallen about Lenin’s cult of personality, which actually had some socialist-realist propaganda art alongside contemporary photographs and posters and artefacts.
Nahaylo: And we’ve just had the big Boychukists exhibition?
Hartmond: And that Ukrainian avant-garde is something that’s really been rediscovered as well. But of course, that is indivisible from what came after, namely Soviet propaganda. So really those two things have to be seen together and it’s too easy to just put certain aspects of art history and history at-large in erasure and to say “We don’t need more, it’s rubbish”. Well, we don’t need it, but we do need to learn from it so that we don’t do it again.
Nahaylo: Okay, and today, how would you assess the state of the art scene, in terms of the artists that are creating, and not just the exhibitions, not the exchanges with the outside world, but the people actually creating, here in this country, particularly in Kyiv.
Hartmond: There’s a huge deal of talent. I would say, one of the greatest advantages of Ukrainian art is the fantastic academic background that a lot of these artists are receiving from the artists of previous ages. This is something that has been lost, to a large extent, in Western Europe. For example, the Glasgow Art School has closed its famous sculpture department, which is really a shame because it is one of the last of the great European sculpture schools that we are losing. What I think needs to happen is art education in Ukraine is to encourage becoming more open to new ideas and to new influences.
Nahaylo: People are travelling, so perhaps they are more exposed than ever before.
Hartmond: But, unfortunately, young Ukrainian artists have to rely on foreign funding, both public and private, to actually develop themselves, to travel, to build themselves. It would be great, really, to see a greater cultural exchange happening on an institutional level in Ukraine.
Nahaylo: Well, I’m afraid that our time is coming to an end, Myroslava. Let’s sum up with your general feelings on where things are going. Are we simply holding our own, or are we moving forward? Are you optimistic about what lies ahead in your sphere?
Hartmond: I’m very optimistic about the cultural sphere in Ukraine. Right now, we as Ukrainians are learning so much about ourselves, discovering unknown – virtually unknown – pages in our cultural history. We are also building domestic cultural production, the film industry is booming, there is fantastic art being made; the music industry as well – there is so much happening in Ukrainian art right now. I was originally rather sceptical about the radio quotas in Ukrainian because I use to think music is music, let’s play good music instead of the right music, but it’s actually resulted in a great system change. You know, I don’t switch over to the next radio station when I hear the cool Ukrainian bands that are playing. So, I’m feeling very optimistic. Obviously it’s a sector that is under huge financial strain and that is also in transition, but I think we’ll see a hip, cool, new young and internationally-attractive Ukrainian culture in the next five-to-ten years, for sure.
Nahaylo: Thank you. It’s great to finish on a positive note. Thank you, Myroslava, for this fascinating talk with you and I wish you every success in your endeavours here.
Hartmond: Thank you, Bohdan.
Three guys who live in Kryvyi Rih in central Ukraine make music together. Roman Haman, Pavlo Psheborovs’kyi and Vadym Dziundzia call their band Royalkit. It comes from a Chinese emoji and is a bit of a play on words in Ukrainian, because it can mean Royal Cat or Piano Cat. When you listen to this song from their latest album, you might think you’re listening to music from a very different part of Ukraine. It’s called ‘Бідакуватий газда.’ For those of you who know the word ‘газда,’ you might guess what sort of sound this will be even before you listen. Enjoy!
Next week we’ll be back with more commentary on events in Ukraine, so tune in again for another edition of Ukraine Calling. We would be happy to receive any feedback from you. Write to us at: [email protected]. This is Oksana Smerechuk in Kyiv. Thanks so much for listening.
Interview transcribed by Caroline Gawlik, Larysa Iarovenko, Nykole King and Max Sviezhentsev. Music by Marta Dyczok. Sound engineer Andriy Izdryk. Web support Kyrylo Loukerenko.