Across the Former Soviet Union Project Shows How Today’s Artists Are Evoking Europe’s Jewish Past

Ukraine’s Jewish population today is only a fraction of the hundreds of thousands who once resided here.

But there are countless physical reminders of the region’s Jewish past, as memorialized in “Roads, Palaces, Cities” of Ukraine, an international art project based in Kiev.

“This is a big project, our first international art project on such a scale,” says project partner Jozef Zissels, chairman of the Vaad association of Jewish organizations of Ukraine and the Eurasian Jewish Congress. “And it’s excellent that so many artists with so many ways of presenting their inspirations have been able to take part.”

Those artists — some 70 from across Ukraine, Russia, Belarus, Estonia, Moldova and Germany — gathered together this autumn to celebrate Rosh Hashanah and the launch of “Roads, Palaces, Cities.”

From Aug. 28 through Sept. 11, they traveled together across Western Ukraine, starting from Zhitomir and finishing in Chernovtsy on the Ukrainian-Moldovan border, recording their visions and impressions along the way.

The works created on the basis of the trip formed the core of the “Roads, Palaces, Cities” art exhibition, staged at the Kiev Museum of Cultural Heritage on Nov. 17-26. The exhibition opened with a two-day seminar led by artistic leaders such as Irina Klimova from the Institute of Jewish Studies in Kiev, which stages regular exhibitions of Jewish artists.

Project co-organizer Bogdana Kozhachenko said the artists on the Rosh Hashanah trip were struck by the contrast between city and rural communities, and by the people they encountered on their trip.

“They met members of the local Jewish communities, visited Jewish cemeteries and dropped by both functioning and crumbling synagogues, the majority of which still remain under the control of the Ukrainian government,” she said.

Zissels, who joined the group for the final three days of the two-week excursion, said the highlight came in Chernovtsy, an ancient, multiethnic city and former center of Jewish culture.

“Chernovtsy, with so many artists helping fill the synagogue, was the most memorable part of the trip,” he said. “And it was memorable for the people living in Chernovtsy, too, because it’s been a long time since they’ve had so many people there celebrating the New Year together.”

But Zissels added that the inspiration flowed in both directions.

“It was interesting for the artists because many were seeing Ukraine for the first time,” he said, “and they were impressed by the concentration of Jewish life here.”

The November exhibition was divided into three rooms and centered around the “Roads,” “Palaces” and “Cities” collages of Kiev artist and project consultant Pavlo Fishel.

In the spirit of the project, those collages — comprised of photos of Jewish families and words from the Psalms, and surrounded by borders of leaves, grass and tree boughs — lay on the gallery floor.

“Many people have walked on the earth and left things behind,” Fishel says. “I am interested to see what the Jewish people have left behind.”

Signs above the collages read, “Uncovered by archaeologists.”

Fishel also included a single wooden chair in the exhibit. The empty chair — symbolizing the Jewish custom of setting an extra place at the table for absent loved ones, or in case of an uninvited guest — also was surrounded by leaves and covered in grass.

“This chair has grass on it because it’s been a long time since anyone sat here,” Fishel said. “It’s been a long time since there are have been many Jews in Ukraine.”

Gallery walls were filled with the works of the other artists who participated in the project.

Looking on the bright side, Kiev artist Gernady Gold made use of bright colors in her paintings of an older Jewish man walking down a deserted village street, and in another of a Jewish gentleman lying on his back in the grass beneath a bright blue sky and the dilapidated yet impressive remains of a large stone synagogue.

Even Gold’s depiction of an aging, rustic cemetery is impressive: Set on a hill, it catches the last rays of the setting sun, bathed in warm red and orange tones.

The multimedia exhibition also featured the photography of Bronislav Tutelman.

Known for his avant-garde paintings and installations, Tutelman was inspired to turn to Jewish themes by the Jewish cemetery in his hometown of Chernovtsy.

Completely abandoned until a few years ago, the gigantic cemetery contains thousands of graves, many with elegant tombstones that reflect the community’s former wealth.

Tutelman is planning to publish a photography book on the theme, under the title “The Road to the Shtetl That Was.”

The project includes compositions containing three photos each, taken all around Ukraine. Landscapes, people’s faces and objects of rural life are juxtaposed to show the collision of cultures, an effect that sometimes is humorous but more often is dramatic.

For the artist, it adds up to a contemporary portrait of what was once the Eastern and Central European Jewish environment.

“Almost every composition has a cemetery in it as part of the Jewish landscape,” Tutelman said. “To me, the cemetery is a philosophical category, to me Chernovtsy is a cemetery. This is a metaphor for the Jewish exodus from Eastern Europe.”

Those who missed the exhibition in Kiev will have another chance: There are plans to stage “Roads, Palaces, Cities” in St. Petersburg and then Jerusalem.

Besides the Eurasian Jewish Congress and the Institute of Jewish Studies in Kiev, partners in the project include the Institute of Jewish Studies and the Jewish Agency for Israel in Russia, among others.

Zissels said there are plans to turn the “Roads, Palaces, Cities” project into an annual affair.

The proposal for next year is to turn away from the past and focus on the future of Jewish art: Jewish children artists, he said.

Information on “Roads, Palaces, Cities” and other art projects can be found on the Web site of the Institute for Jewish Studies in Kiev at http://www.judaica.kiev.ua.

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