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The art of decolonization How Eastern European art became the latest battlefront in countering Russian imperialism 

Source: Meduza

The art of decolonization How Eastern European art became the latest battlefront in countering Russian imperialism 

Source: Meduza

Story by Katie Marie Davies for The Beet. Edited by Eilish Hart.

This story first appeared in The Beet, a weekly email dispatch from Meduza covering Central and Eastern Europe, the Caucasus, and Central Asia. Sign up here to get the next issue delivered directly to your inbox.

If you’ve stepped into an art gallery in the past five years, then you’re probably familiar with the word “decolonization.” The term has swept Western cultural institutions since the Black Lives Matter protests of 2013, becoming one of the art world’s hottest talking points.

In this context, decolonization hinges on rethinking how museums, galleries, and universities display, examine, and teach art. The movement pushes institutions to include and engage with artists and communities that have been traditionally excluded from the cultural mainstream, and to re-examine old histories and ideas tied to the colonial past.

When most people in the West think about decolonization, however, they picture British Museum warehouses lined with looted artifacts, or college textbooks that only find room to mention the achievements of long-dead white European men. Few people think about Eastern Europe, a region not historically tied to sprawling empires in Africa or South Asia. 

But Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine has forced Western art institutions to confront a different kind of colonialism, reshaping how academics and activists discuss one of the cultural world’s most pressing topics and placing Eastern Europe on the frontline of decolonization.

A not-so-different colonialism

Russia’s dominion over Eastern Europe — first as the Russian Empire and later as the Soviet Union — ushered in many of the same colonial practices as Western European empires: the suppression of local languages, the persecution of the local intelligentsia, and education reforms that prioritized the metropol’s view of culture and history. Schoolbooks, cultural institutions, and academies lauded the achievements of Russian art and literature, which were promoted and positioned as superior to their local counterparts.

This legacy has shaped how we in the “West” see and value Eastern European culture today, distorting how researchers, academics, and the general public understand even very famous artists and their works. “In the context of Eastern Europe, decolonization is removing the idea that everything revolves around Russia and the Russian Federation,” says Alla Myzelev, a Ukrainian-born academic and Associate Professor of Art History at SUNY Geneseo. 

Such a narrow focus on Russian art has led to the neglect of huge swathes of cultural works created elsewhere (often ignored or dismissed as “folk art”), as well as the misclassification of artists appropriated into the Russian canon. “Until Russia invaded Ukraine, countries such as Moldova, Ukraine, and Belarus were not even part of any real discourse on Eastern Europe. They kind of almost end up forgotten or left out of the discussion,” Myzelev tells The Beet.

Now-independent countries in Eastern Europe have been undergoing the difficult task of reclaiming their identities and extricating their cultures from that of the Soviet Union since the fall of Communism. In recent years, this process — which typically involved dismantling monuments and rebuilding national artistic canons — was generally referred to as “decommunization” and remained largely disconnected from global cultural debates. 

It wasn’t until Moscow’s 2022 invasion of Ukraine that the topic of Russian colonialism converged with broader conversations about decolonization, but it catapulted into the public consciousness quickly. 

“Previously, decolonization was one of the issues that we would come across as historians of Eastern Europe but didn't quite know where our place [was],” says Marta Zboralska, a Departmental Lecturer in Art History at Oxford University.

While many Eastern European artists recognized an overlap between their experiences and those of other colonized communities, they found themselves in an uncertain position in discussions about decolonization that mainly centered around race and the “Global South,” Zboralska explains. “I think this sort of ambiguous position has been a source of confusion and some debate about where we are and how we can adopt these methods,” she says. “People are feeling much more emboldened to actually just take that step.”

‘Lazy misinterpretation’

For decades, many Western galleries have placed their Eastern European collections under a single umbrella term: “Russian art.” But images of Russian soldiers stripping artworks and artifacts from Ukrainian museums — as well as the Kremlin’s repeated denials that Ukraine is an independent country with its own culture — have been a wake-up call for many institutions on how harmful this practice of homogenization has been.

As Olesya Khromeychuk, the director of the Ukrainian Institute in London, summed up in an article for German outlet Der Spiegel: “Every trip to a gallery or museum in London with exhibits on art or cinema from the USSR reveals deliberate or just lazy misinterpretation of the region as one endless Russia; much like the current president of the Russian Federation would like to see it.”

Major galleries are now scrambling to ensure that Ukrainian art is correctly labeled, urged on by a new crop of grassroots social media campaigns. Online advocacy by the likes of Ukrainian Art History, a Twitter account run by art historian and journalist Oksana Semenik, has been credited with bringing the issue to a wider audience, pushing institutions to reassess artists’ identities and works. (Semenik declined to speak to The Beet for this article.)

Faced with public criticism, Britain’s National Gallery renamed a drawing in its collection by French impressionist Edgar Degas in April 2022. The artwork’s title was changed from Russian Dancers to Ukrainian Dancers, to match the traditional Ukrainian clothing that the subjects appear to wear. Later, in February 2023, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York followed suit amid similar online pressure, characterizing the dancers in two of its Degas drawings as “in Ukrainian dress.” 

Edgar Degas’ “Ukrainian Dancers” on display at the National Gallery in London
Uwe Deffner / Alamy / Vida Press

The Met also changed the descriptions of three 19th-century artists — Ivan Aivazovsky, Arkhyp Kuindzhi, and Ilya Repin — to mark them as Ukrainian. The trio, who were all born in areas of modern-day Ukraine, then under the control of the Russian Empire, had previously been classified as Russian. 

The change sparked an angry response from the Russian government, with Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova denouncing the move as “not merely substitution, forgery, error, or politicization” but “anti-scientific activity.” 

The predictable backlash from Moscow wasn’t the only controversy, however. Other experts and activists immediately began to draw attention to Aivazovsky’s Armenian roots, arguing that the landscape painter — who spoke Armenian rather than Ukrainian, was baptized as Hovhannes Aivazian, and asked to be buried at an Armenian church in his hometown of Feodosia, Crimea — should be listed as Armenian instead.

In the end, The Met settled on a new label: Aivazovsky’s description on the museum’s website now reads, “Armenian, born Russian Empire [now Ukraine].”

The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Untangling identity 

Played out under the intense real-time scrutiny of Twitter, the Aivazovsky saga exposes the challenges of decolonizing art. Because the practice remains relatively new, there still isn’t a wide consensus on issues such as how to describe an artist’s identity.

“Every museum may have slightly different conventions,” Myzelev explains. “Usually, they look at where the person was born. Whomever that territory belonged to at the time, then that’s their background. Another school of thought looks at where an artist spent most of their productive life. There are a lot of assumptions, obviously.” 

“In the past, academics used to talk about artists like [Kazimir] Malevich by saying that he was born in Ukraine, but then jumping to the year he arrived in Moscow,” Myzelev continues. “We can no longer talk about artists this way. Malevich was Malevich before he went to Russia.”

Ultimately, there is no perfect system, Myzelev says. She stresses that The Met made the right decision in rethinking how they describe artists such as Repin, particularly as Ukraine continues to fight against Russian aggression. 

But unpicking an artist’s identity will always be somewhat of a puzzle — especially if the person in question is dead. “I’d love for Malevich, for example, to be signed as Polish, Ukrainian, and maybe Russian avant-garde artist, because there was all of that [in his work],” Myzelev muses. (The Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam, which boasts the largest collection of Malevich’s work outside of Russia, now describes the avant-garde artist as “born in Ukraine to parents of Polish origin,” The Art Newspaper reported in March. Scholars have also pointed out that Malevich is known to have deliberately identified as Ukrainian.) 

For museum professionals, all of this exposes a deeper set of issues. Institutions that commit to decolonization need to think bigger than just reprinting labels or wall texts. They need to invest in people — art historians, curators, and researchers — who can take the time to untangle these problems.  

“What even is nationality? In the context of Eastern Europe, it’s language, it’s ethnicity, it’s religion. And artists’ own relationships to their nationality could change,” Zboralska tells The Beet. “The easiest thing for museums is just to change the label. The hard thing is asking Eastern European art historians to do the serious work and get paid for it and be listened to. That’s the real challenge.”

Kazimir Malevich’s works on display at Bologna’s Museum of Modern Art (MAMbo) as part of an exhibition in collaboration with St. Petersburg’s State Hermitage Museum. December 2017.
Roberto Serra / Iguana Press / Getty Images

For that to happen, universities will, in turn, need to invest in and widen the scope of Eastern European art being studied on campus, to nurture a new generation of experts who can speak on less-researched art histories. “There is very little funding for Eastern Europe, just in general,” Zboralska underscores. “There’s also very little teaching on art in the region in general, let alone for individual countries.”

Academics who seek to specialize in Eastern European art also come under pressure to expand their remit, with some seeing the study of individual countries in the region as “parochial.” “There’s this idea that we need to work in a more global, international context,” Zboralska says. “Historians of, say, British art or French art don't really have that pressure.”

A new conversation

Academics still don’t know how ideas about decolonization will progress in the Eastern European context. Meanwhile, Russia’s attack on Ukraine continues to inflict massive damage on the country’s cultural heritage and, far more importantly, its people.

For now, the only real consensus is that Eastern Europe must carve its own path. “At the moment, decolonization is a Western concept; rather than welcoming this with open arms, we need to understand how this works in our context,” says Margaret Tali, an Estonian art historian and curator affiliated with the Estonian Academy of Arts. (Together with researcher Ieva Astahovska, Tali developed a transdisciplinary project titled Communicating Difficult Pasts, which uses art and culture to reexamine the “uneasy relations between past and present” in the 20th and 21st centuries.) 

“Eastern Europe has its own specifics, and we need to take these specifics into account. But as we don't have the research yet to draw from, it’s very difficult to say [what that will look like].” Tali adds.  

In the future, this could mean building stronger connections among researchers and historians within Eastern Europe, so that academics, artists, and museum workers don’t need to rely on Western institutions. (“One of the big problems that we as art historians of Eastern Europe have is we don't know each other, and we don’t know each other’s work very well,” Zboralska says.)

It could also mean taking the time to dig into the histories and complexities of individual countries, going beyond the recent past. “In relation to Estonian history, decolonization would mean Russian imperialism since the 17th century. Then we have another layer of colonial governing: the Baltic German barons, who owned the land and Estonian peasants,” Tali recalls. “We have Soviet history, but there are other regimes and powers that have shaped our history, such as Danish and Swedish rule.” 

This work will be complicated, and will likely also be painful. Many Eastern European states were not just victims of colonialism: Poland had colonial aspirations even if it didn’t have colonies, Zboralska points out. Tali’s project on “difficult pasts,” meanwhile, included an art performance by two Caribbean-Dutch artists, brothers Quinsy and Jörgen Gario, exploring the legacy of Baltic-German duke Jacob Kettler. Kettler traded enslaved people and owned overseas colonies in Tobago and Gambia, but this did not stop the Latvian town of Kuldīga from erecting a sculpture of him in 2013.

Nevertheless, as individuals, audiences, and artists in Eastern Europe continue to change and challenge their own views of identity, the art world will likely follow.

“The other week, I was talking with an artist with mixed roots: Ukrainian, Belarusian, Lithuanian, and Russia’s small Vespian community. She said that her father kept telling her: ‘Why don't you just accept that you are Russian?’” Tali tells The Beet. “But she wanted to think about these different origins and identify herself in new ways. That idea is part of a much bigger wave.”

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Story by Katie Marie Davies for The Beet

Edited by Eilish Hart.

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