ACROSS SOUTH EASTERN EUROPE BY CAR
The symposium held in Kherson, Ukraine, gave us the opportunity to explore a part of Europe that receives little attention, and that is full of textile treasures. Our original plan was to make the entire journey by car so as to have the closest possible contact with the people and the landscape. After all, five weeks is a short time for visiting five countries, and covering a distance of 10,000 kilometres. However, this summer none of the northern routes to Trancaucasia were even vaguely safe. For this reason we travelled from Odessa by air, although we returned to buses and cars for our journey through Armenia and Georgia. “We” were Beatrijs Sterk. Dietmar Laue and Nino Kipshidze. Nino is a Georgian from Tbilisi. She speaks fluent Russian and is highly familiar with the conditions found in the former Soviet Union. Our journey took us from Hannover via Southern Poland, L’viv (Lemberg) and Kishinev to Kherson. After the symposium we continued via Odessa to Yerevan and Tbilisi, flew back to Odessa, drove to Bucharest via Kishinev and home again via Sibiu, Hungary and Austria.
Our travel report is in three parts:
1) Kherson textile symposium;
2) Textile-ethnographic notes on Moldova and Romania; and
3) Impressions of Transcaucasia. These reports will be published over the next three issues of TF magazine.
From left: Nino Kipshidze, Beatrijs Sterk & Dietmar Laue
We reached Kherson on the evening of a long and hot day, tired from our journey through endless com fields. Our refreshing dip in the Black Sea near Odessa was long forgotten. It was a Sunday afternoon. and the city was empty - a workers’ city of 500,000 inhabitants where industry prevails. Like many other European industrial cities, Kherson is not particularly attractive; instead it seems rather closed, and has nothing of the open atmosphere we encountered in Odessa.
Was this was the place where people wished to hold an international textile symposium? The next day, during the press conference, the television reporter couldn’t quite believe it: lime and again she asked us foreigners why we had come to Kherson, of all places. Previously it had hardly attracted any visitors, with the exception of the odd banker. We were the talk of the town. The local television station featured the symposium almost every night.
After the opening there was a danger of a political mishap. The Moldovan delegation did not understand why they should pay a conference fee seeing that they had received an invitation. After all, they were to contribute lectures that would help make the event a success. They tried to gel hold of the officials responsible for the event, and declared they would leave straight away. We used all our powers of persuasion, trying to explain what a privately organised event means… that the municipality of Kherson had contributed nothing, nor had the provincial government and least of all the national government. A Romanian colleague found a modus vivendi by saying that now they had come all this way, they might as well take a look at how things were done there.
The organizers Ludmila Egorova & Andrew Schneider
What became clear to us in this exchange was the great financial sacrifices that the participants from Black Sea countries had taken upon themselves in order to attend. Originally we expected to see larger groups from Georgia, Armenia, Romania and Bulgaria. Many hopes for assistance with travel expenses were disappointed at the last minute. The applications made to the Council of Europe, the Soros Foundation or other national and international institutions, were nearly all rejected. We ourselves had also travelled at our own expense. South East Europe is not “in” with sponsors.
The entire organisation of the symposium had something to do with the general economic situation in Europe. Ludmila Egorova - an art historian who lives with one of the members of the Schneider family of artists, and the driving organisational force in Kherson - is aware of the fact that the old Iron Curtain has been replaced by a new, economic one. Since Kherson artists would not have a chance of seeing the world, Ludmila wanted to do her best to bring at least a small part of that world to Kherson. Her partner, Andrew Schneider, participated in the St. Petersburg “White Nights” in 1993, and saw that the impossible can be made possible. This was where we met. On the deck of a Neva steamer he promised us a repetition of our meeting on the Dnepr one day. Back then his eyes already had that optimistic shine that is beaming at me now - on the Dnepr. Three years have passed since then.
The boat is floating on the river that branches into many idyllic channels; dachas are everywhere; fishermen are sitting on the jetties. This is where the second part of the Ukrainian economy takes place, which my guide calls "informal". The bread-and-butter we had on the Neva turned into delicious sandwich canapés on board the Dnepr vessel. On both occasions, the wine helped overcome linguistic difficulties. It was not until the end of the journey that we realised half of the participants were missing. The boat trip was an extra-cost item. We had hardly noticed. Apart from the countries mentioned earlier, participants in the symposium come from various Ukrainian regions, from Kiev, Chernigov, Poltava and the Crimea. The “Westerners" were from Spain, France. Germany, Britain. Ireland. Canada and the USA. Their motives for making the journey varied greatly. The Spaniard works for a tourist institute; having been placed by his Ministry of Culture, he was looking for new cultural itineraries to the Black Sea. Some of the German participants were motivated by personal family histories in addition to their interest in textiles. The English women were hoping to find contacts for the exchange programmes arranged by their universities. Several artists, for example some from France, Scotland, Ireland, Canada and the USA, wished to present their pieces or working concepts, or introduce works of art made by colleagues, or group projects. The Eastern participants’ interests were even more wide-ranging, from ethnological, historic, education-related up to artistic or design-oriented pursuits. Some of them were employed at scientific institutions in their countries, others worked for academies, museums or the design studios of large combines, and some were free-lance artists and designers.
Participants in front of the Local Lore Museum, venue of the symposium, June ’96
The symposium programme was similarly varied. Sometimes the mental leaps that the audience was required to perform were too great. The composition of the information provided was left to people’s individual conception of order. Ludmila stated the goal of the symposium: to revive the traditional cultural links between the Black Sea and the Mediterranean. For my part, I add to those the ancient East-West travel route along the Danube and the North-South route along the Dnepr. According to her preferences, Ludmila had invited the entire European Silk Route group within the Council of Europe. However, apart from Michel Thomas-Penette, the official routes co-ordinator, no-one came. Why not? Ludmila gave a remarkable lecture on sericulture in the Ukraine. I believe that many of us were surprised to discover that the Ukraine is a country with a respectable silk production. In the West we all too readily subsume all kinds of things under “Russia” when thinking about the Czarist Empire or the Soviet Union.
Exhibition entrance at the Kherson Art Museum
Zemfira Tarajan, an art historian from Armenia, lectured on art in space as a synthesis of arts, a subject that has been largely forgotten in the West. We later saw her again in Yerevan - as the tyife of ETN member Martin Mikajelian. the director of the town’s Folk Art Museum.
Elena Postolaki, who works for the Ethnographic Institute at the Moldovan Academy of Science, talked about folk art in her country: bridal textiles, wedding ceremonies, birth and death rituals. These traditions, still in existence in some parts, are disappearing. Ms Postolaki considers it her task to counteract oblivion through her scientific work. Evgenia Borodak, a curator at the National Museum of Kishinev, the Moldovan capital, that is perhaps better known under its Romanian name of Chisinau, introduced four departments of her museum that hold textile collections, including furnishing textiles, clothes/cos- tume, household textiles and ritual textiles. The collection of furnishing textiles encompasses 200 wall and floor rugs, including felt rugs. (Unfortunately, the important icon collection also held at the museum does not fall into the scope of our magazine.)
Natalia Godina, a scholar employed by the Kherson Museum of Local History, hosts of the event, introduced a collection of shirts made hy a variety of ethnic groups. Although the content of her lecture was fascinating, she presented the subject as if it was of no interest to anyone. This seems to me a habit acquired in Socialist days when the entire staff of companies and school classes were dragged through museums.
The Western players displayed behaviour almost in the opposite extreme. With great persuasion, even mediocre works were offered as great art. Some presentations painfully crossed the threshold to pure self-advertisement, such as the “home stories” on video.
To my surprise, the Ukrainians were visibly impressed by such performances. The reason probably is that Ukrainian people never praise themselves, and if at all, this is done by friends or relatives on behalf of the artist. I remembered this “morality” from Poland and am still hoping that a middle way does exist. For my part, any video is apt to make me run, especially if the artist who it is all about is present in the room.
Maria Bitcu, a professional colleague of Elena Postolaki’s at the Romanian Academy of Science, gave a lecture on the rhomb symbol and its changes in meaning in history. Since the rhomb is one of the earliest motifs used by mankind, and she gave her lecture in French, with a summary supplied in English and Russian, I would have liked to re-read the original manuscript at my leisure.
Valeri Chugin, professor of the Department of Weaving Technology at Kherson Technical University, gave a scientific lecture on linen technology, and later gave another talk on the moisture-absorbing capacity of a linen fabric that was specially developed for judo outfits. It was somewhat strange to see how he stuck to his lecturing style before an audience as mixed as that one. In a conversation during a break we saw him as an opponent of art education in the training of weaving designers. A well-known divergence - technology on the one hand, art on the other - was thus reopened. It must be one of the illnesses of our civilisation that despite seventy years of political division, the European spirit, with its belief in progress, has remained undivided.
Alicia Graig of Kent University reported on the use of computers at her textile department. She travelled to Kherson in order to establish contacts with Eastern European educational institutions. I could sense how the designers in the room pricked up their ears, but did not dare approach Alicia spontaneously.
Malcolm Lochhead. a lecturer on design from Glasgow, made a rousing speech in favour of embroidery: “In the space of fifty years we forget the achievements of five thousand." He would like to contribute to keeping embroidery alive through communal projects. He showed slides from a project called “Keeping Glasgow in Stitches”. Twelve banners, each measuring 1.5 x 5 metres, were made by 650 inhabitants of his city - a very interesting piece of work that left those involved a great deal of freedom for individual creativity. Malcolm hoped to give an incentive to his Eastern European audience to try similar projects in their own countries. I was reminded of what the son of a L’viv textile artist said on the current state of Ukrainians: “There no longer is a common boat. We have all fallen into the water, and everyone is struggling for their personal survival." These conditions are not conducive to broadly designed communal projects. But perhaps the Kherson symposium was a start in the right direction. I know how hard Ludmila had to work in order to make it all happen. I also saw her translating continously because. due to lack of funds for an interpreter, there was no-one to relieve her. I remembered the dispute over the conference fees…
Lidia Borisenko/Kiev: untitled, ca. 85x110cm, tapestry
Textile artists Donna Martin from the USA and Barbara Heller from Canada introduced a whole range of artists from their countries in a slide show, followed by a presentation of their own works. They commented on and explained their pieces very professionally. For Eastern European artists, this kind of thing constitutes a conference highlight. A textile designer working at a wool combine at Chernigov (nearly 100 kilometres East of Chernobyl) told me afterwards that these presentations will help her later, when things get difficult again at her factory. In retrospect, this reconciled me with the many slides of the last Lausanne Biennial that were shown at this conference. I had submitted to them wearily, in the knowledge that this glorious event had already come to an inglorious end.
There were many more lectures that I will deal with later, when Ludmila has completed her final report, or in the context of the remaining two accounts of our journey.
Alexander Kovach, tapestry from the Kherson textile artists’ exhibition
Lidia Borisenko/Kiev, ’Two Sisters’,83x111cm, tapestry
The international exhibition showed a whole range of new and older pieces. The tapestries created by the brothers Andrew and Yuri Schneider were much more impressive in reality than they had been in photographs. They have none of the heaviness of many Soviet works produced in the same technique. New discoveries, for me, were the works by Lidia Borisenko of Kiev, and Ludmila Shevchenko of Kishinev. The latter is a young lecturer at the Kishinev Academy of Art. The exhibition featured three of her pieces, one large tapestry and two appliqué works. What also struck me were the batiks made by Yuri Baba, another Moldovan.
Two tapestries entitled “Requiem” and “The Scream” by Barbara Heller, a Canadian artist, stood out in the exhibition ambience because of their gentle beauty. Their themes, death and violence, possibly need more severe allegories here. Seeing works made both in the East and the West placed next to each other, produced a shift in the observer’s vision. New things, or rather new aspects, were discovered in what was apparently known. There were also some surprises: I had to travel all the way to Kherson to become acquainted with the work of a German weaver, Margret Riedl-Müller.
Ludmila Shevchenko/ Kishinev; ’Self Portrait on White Ground’, 210x200cm, tapestry
On 19th June we were all invited to an evening fashion show organised by designer Valentina Gulayeva-Sazona. She presented festive, cheerful and also romantic collections of ladies’, men’s and children’s wear made from fabrics produced by the local cotton combine. One could sense a need for beauty and colour in daily existence - and the intention of bringing dreams to life. Her children’s clothes were particularly applauded. The audience consisted of culturally-minded citizens, and us symposium participants. The venue was the Kherson theatre. Only the colourful mobile phones that formed part of the children models’ outfit seemed depressing to Western viewers. Several Kherson fashion designers founded a society called “Beauty, Peace and Culture”. Thus the various parts of the fashion show had titles such as “Beauty Will Save the World” or “Everything Begins with Love”. Times are hard. In the streets, you occasionally see the latest Mercedes-Benz models, with the “businessmen” inside them saving the Ukraine by talking into their mobile phones.
New linen fabric collection at the Cotton Mill, Design: Lilia Pilugina
We accepted another invitation: the sales director of the cotton combine asked us to visit the large pattern sample room of her department. A tour through the production plant would have taken a long time. The combine consists of several spinning and weaving mills whose daily production capacity totals 110 tons of yam and 600,000 metres of fabric. It is the largest cotton processing complex in all Ukraine. Besides extremely high-quality cotton fabrics for furnishing purposes or clothing, the showroom also contains some linen and hemp collections. The changeover to domestic fibre products is in full swing since the combine can no longer really afford to import raw cotton which has become very expensive. Two of the textile designers employed by the company, Valery Marugin and Lilia Pilugina, both of whom participated in the symposium, have already successfully taken part in international design competitions.* Lilia speaks a little English. They deplored the fact that they had great problems remaining in constant touch with current trends. How to obtain visas for France, Italy or Germany so as to, just once, attend the large Western European fabric fairs? The director, who is responsible for sales, speaks only Russian. Previously almost the entire production, was destined for the former Soviet states. For her, Russian is like a world language. This is actually true for that part of the world. When travelling with Nino, we crossed many national borders, and due to her ability to speak Russian, we never experienced any communication problems.
“Unfortunately, this lack of ability to speak foreign languages is encountered all over Eastern Europe”, I was later told by an employee of a German consultancy firm, “this is why we now intend to offer language courses and training courses in marketing in the Ukraine.”
In the jargon used by the consultancy people, the Ukraine is called a “newly reformed country” and will thus not be able to count on increased attention from Western investors in the foreseeable future. The last day of the programme scheduled a trip to the Askania Nova nature reserve. We saw virgin steppeland scorched by the sun, and Scythian burial mounds. Not all of the mounds seen are of Scythian origin. They were built by different successive equestrian nomad peoples, and a great deal of grave robbery was performed in the course of history. The most thorough pillaging, however, was conducted by modern archaeology that emerged in the 19th century, and climaxed in the 20th century during the seventy years of Soviet rule. They say that the amount of gold found there exceeds even that found in Peru.
The nature reserve was laid out by a Liechtenstein baron in our century, and combined with a zoo. The enclosures for steppe animals are supposed to present inquisitive people from tracking them in the open countryside and trampling the grounds. For that, it is accepted that the animals are kept in cages although these are so simple that the reserve does not presume to be an animal park. A tour guide with the voice of a Kalashnikov herded us past the sights. The trip was nevertheless highly appropriate for confirming new friendships. We had a picnic under ancient trees next to a lake, and risked a few steps into the wilderness of knee-high, hard grass that stretched, unlimited, to the horizon - a surreal experience for us town dwellers who have been expelled from paradise.
In the evening there was a farewell dinner in a Kherson garden restaurant. This was the opportunity for making plans for 1998. Next time, Ludmila Egorova would like to include the cities of Odessa and Yalta, that offer more tourist attractions, and also hopes to consider hew initiatives generated by her Kishinev and Bucharest colleagues, as well as those formed in Yerevan and Tbilisi. It looks as though a network of attractive options, from a textile tourist point of view, will be created within the next two years, and that there will be occasions when the textile world will be able to meet for symposia. The days we spent in Kherson were first critical, then stressful and finally cheering. I shall never forget the efforts that had to be made, and problems that had to be overcome, to make the event a success. Together with their Kherson colleagues, Ludmila Egorova and Andrew Schneider have accomplished a pioneering achievement for the European Textile Network. They not only opened our eyes to their city, but also to their country, and the entire European region around the Black Sea.
Nino Kipshidze, Dietmar Laue and myself were back in our car the following morning, driving to Odessa airport.
Documentation Kherson Symposium
The colour catalogue of the international exhibition should be available by now; unfortunately it was not completed in time for the symposium. Before the end of the year Ludmila Egorova will complete a report on the symposium. One of its most interesting features will be the addresses and working fields of the active participants in the event. Address: Ludmila Egorova, av. Tekstilshikov 14A/30, UKR-325031 Kherson, Ukraine; tel: +380-552/553746
Final scene of the fashion show, designer Valentina Gulayeva-Sazona (with flowers)