July 7, 2023


“The human body becomes political, even without its consent”.




Valeria Schiller

“The human body becomes political, even without its consent”. This is a quote from Maria Kulikovska, one of the featured artists of The Immigrant Artist Biennial. Kulikovska is a Ukrainian artist whose practice is deeply intertwined with contextual pressure, whether governmental or social. While unapologetic in her frankness, she sometimes works with a semi-activist attitude and unsettles the environment for the administrative apparatus and its representatives. In addition, the historical fate of many of her works unleashes the complicated political context behind them.

In 2010, Kulikovska started to work on The Army of Clones — 20 plaster sculpture-casts, molded from her own naked body. From 2012, this piece was on view in the garden of the Foundation IZOLYLTSIA in Donetsk, an industrial city in the East of Ukraine, within the exhibition Gender in IZOLYATSIA: Seams of Patriarchy and Identity Tailoring (curated by Olena Chervonik). After the beginning of the war in Ukraine in 2014, the occupation of the territory by the so-called Donetsk People’s Republic began, and the building of the IZOLYATSIA foundation became a prison, a place for torture by the pro-Russian terrorist group. On the 9th of June 2014, the sculptures from The Army of Clones were literally shot, possibly used as targets in an act of loathing and disgust towards the object of Ukrainian culture. The pro-Russian officer who gave the decree to demolish Kulikovska’s works later called this action, speaking in the Russian media, ‘destroying the degenerative art’.

After that incident Kulikovska recreated her own naked body in sculptures many times, using different materials for casting: plaster, wax, or soap. By placing these works under the open sky, the artist lets the natural forces such as wind and rain change them, modifying them until they are completely destroyed by the environment. However, in 2014 the environment appeared to be too political and the destruction far too literal.

I often think about the body and about how much of history–and, together with that, pain–it keeps in itself. I see, in this method of dissociation from the body that Kulikovska is applying, an attempt to purify–to rejuvenate the body, to leave at least some part of the trauma behind, to let this trauma live separately and be destroyed by more or less the same context that brought it to existence.

Maria Kulikovska,
Constitution of the President-ess of the Crimea, 2020

In 2020 Kulikovska was creating a palimpsest-like series of drawings placing watercolor flowers, genitals, and naked bodies over bureaucratic documents and passport scans. In the Constitution of the President-ess of the Crimea, the artist tells about the long process of answering personal questions while filling out applications for visas, attempting to romanticize it. This work addresses questions about values and, at the same time, it talks about an interference in personal boundaries by the indifferent bureaucratic machine. In 2019, a year before creating the series, in the interview to Ukrainian digital broadcasting station Hromadske, Kulikovska noted: “It’s unpleasant when they [Ukrainian Authorities] say: you have a Crimean registration, so you are not a resident of Ukraine”.

Maria Kulikovska, like myself and another TIAB artist Kathie Halfin, was born in the South of Ukraine on the Crimean Peninsula, a crucial territory for the consciousness of post-Soviet citizens. The resting place for several generations of the Russian monarch dynasty, it was perceived almost as a paradise resort during Soviet times–due in part to its partly subtropical environment along the southern coast. Here, the famous negotiations after the Second World War took place, and this is the place where the Kyiv Rus were baptized–right on a shore covered with the ruins of Ancient Greek civilization. In 2014, a Crimean referendum occurred–unrecognized by international law. De jure, the peninsula stayed as a part of Ukrainian territory but, de facto, is under Russian authority to this day.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt, Prime Minister Winston Churchill, and General Secretary Joseph Stalin at the Yalta Conference, held 4–11 February 1945, was the World War II meeting of the heads of government of the United States, the United Kingdom, and the Soviet Union to discuss the postwar reorganization of Germany and Europe. Yalta, Crimea, Soviet Union.

An absolute majority of Crimean citizens have remained there since the annexation and have applied for a second Russian passport. All of my friends and classmates, for example, have stayed there. My grandmothers, two uncles, and a cousin stayed as well. Now that they live there, there is a chance that we might never see each other again. Now, it is physically impossible to get to Crimea through the official Ukrainian checkpoint — because of the literal war zone on the mainland all around Crimea, and throughout Russia. It is illegal according to international law, because getting through the border would affirm the de facto ownership of the peninsula by Russia. On top of that, it might be personally dangerous for anyone active in the pro-Ukrainian field.

Being born in the periphery sometimes entails a continuous process of proving your political views or your inner sense of belonging. Being born in Crimea and living in Ukraine after the annexation, you are sometimes perceived as a suspicious element. Several acts of discrimination caused me to be ashamed to mention my hometown for around five years after moving to Kyiv–not mentioning anything on Facebook, just hoping that nobody would ask me about it during conversation. Probably, this is something that all
of us, displaced citizens, sometimes feel.

Crimea occupied by Germany one year before the deportation of Crimean Tatars by the USSR. Photos made by Wehrmacht photographer Herbert List in 1943
Crimea occupied by Germany one year before the deportation of Crimean Tatars by the USSR. Photos made by Wehrmacht photographer Herbert List in 1943

I cannot count how many examples of displaced public figures talking openly about their homelands I had to see and hear until I understood that being from the problematic territory on the periphery is not shameful.

I am often wondering if there is a chance to get a break from the body altogether–with all of the history that it holds–and to imagine that no past has happened. Probably, it would be very pleasant to live without this baggage, and to be free to create anything not connected to the previous experience. Eventually, I guess, to break free you have to dive into your own context, to let yourself be captivated by it, to dissolve in it and become its official representative–perhaps the trick is that.