ukraine: 29 posts

White on White : Vyshyvanka and Poltava Embroidery

My favorite piece of clothing is a white linen shirt. The tailoring is plain–a straight, loose bodice is framed by a rounded collar and full three-quarter sleeves. In Ukrainian it’s called vyshyvanka, which means “an embroidered shirt,” and indeed the ornamentation is what makes this simple garment unique. The embroidery runs near the collar and falls onto the front of the bodice. It covers the sleeves so thickly that in some parts the fabric is hardly seen. The stitches become the bands of stars, snowflakes, lace and guelder rose, kalyna, a plant that in the symbolic language of Ukrainian art speaks of beauty and happiness. On my shirt, kalyna is abstract enough to be either flowers or berries, and it is intertwined with sinuous leaves and wispy stems. In the artist’s rendering of bile po bilomu, an embroidery technique native to Poltava, only one color is used to capture all of the nuances that in nature are given by a diversity of hues. The color is white.

white-shirt2

Bile po bilomu, or “white on white”, is among the oldest and most complicated embroideries, combining up to twenty different techniques and using drawn thread and counted stitch patterns to create an ornament full of light and shimmer. The artist who created my shirt is Nadia Vakulenko, one of the leading embroidery masters in Ukraine and a teacher at the Reshetylivka Arts Lyceum. Reshetylivka is a small town located in the Poltava region of central Ukraine. I first came here looking for any trace of my great-grandmother Olena and to learn about Ukrainian textile arts. The two aims were closely related, because Olena not only was one of the most creative people in our family, leaving behind several cookbooks and countless knits and embroideries, she also worked at Reshetylivka’s Clara Zetkin carpet factory.

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A Boy With A Fotokor

Vladimir, my father’s older brother, developed a passion for photography in unconventional circumstances. Having survived polio, which he caught during World War II, Vladimir suddenly couldn’t move. The disease had ravaged his muscles, leaving him crippled, and while he couldn’t join other children playing, he observed their games from his chair. Then a neighbor, a military captain, gave him his first camera. It was a Fotokor-1, a folding bed plate film camera from 1934, and taking a cue from its name–Fotokor means “photo journalist”, foto korrespondent in Russian–a thirteen year old boy began to photograph everything around him. Eventually, Vladimir grew strong enough to move around unaided, but photography has remained his lifelong interest, which he passed on to me.

girls

This is the Kyiv of the early 1950s. Vladimir takes pictures in the streets of the city–of girls jumping rope, of boys teasing girls, of girls taunting boys, of boys doing naughty things, of soldiers marching, of women waiting in line, of kids having fun, of life as it carries on in a place still marked by war. The photos of Vladimir himself were taken by his younger brother, Valery, although he directed the composition. A small selection I made for you gives a unique, candid glimpse into the Soviet Union of the postwar period as well as the world of one feisty boy.

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Postcard from Ukraine : Sepia

One of my favorite museums in Kyiv is a collection of Ukrainian folk art founded by the sculptor Ivan Honchar. It contains masterpieces of embroidery, painting, wood carving and iconography gathered from different regions of Ukraine. One of my favorite expositions features photography, mostly shots taken by itinerant photographers who set up an early 20th century version of a pop-up shop complete with painted decorations. Sitters rarely look comfortable in these photographs, standing stiff and tense in their finery, but you can still glean their personalities and little quirks.

ivan honchar museum

Ivan Honchar Museum is located on Ivana Mazepy 29, Kyiv. Photography by Bois de Jasmin

Postcard from Ukraine : Indian Pink

My summer room wouldn’t be out of place in a Rajasthani village, but then again, there are elements of Ukrainian culture that have Indian and Persian inflections.

pink room

Photography by Bois de Jasmin

Postcard from Ukraine : Gogol’s Nights

Few writers have described the Ukrainian nights better than Nikolai Gogol. He was born near Poltava, and its sights and smells never lost their hold on him.

“Do you know a Ukrainian night? No, you do not know a night in Ukraine. Fill your eyes with it. The moon shines in the midst of the sky; the immeasurable vault of heaven seems to have expanded to infinity; the earth is bathed in silver light; the air is warm, voluptuous, and redolent of innumerable sweet scents. Divine night! Magical night! Motionless, but inspired with divine breath, the forests stand, casting enormous shadows and wrapped in complete darkness. Calmly and placidly sleep the lakes surrounded by dark green thickets. The virginal groves of the hawthorns and cherry-trees stretch their roots timidly into the cool water; only now and then their leaves rustle unwillingly when that freebooter, the night-wind, steals up to kiss them.

ukrainian nights

The whole landscape is hushed in slumber; but there is a mysterious breath upon the heights. One falls into a weird and unearthly mood, and silvery apparitions rise from the depths. Divine night! Magical night! Suddenly the woods, lakes, and steppes become alive. The nightingales of Ukraine are singing, and it seems as though the moon itself were listening to their song. The village sleeps as though under a magic spell; the cottages shine in the moonlight against the darkness of the woods behind them. The songs grow silent, and all is still. Only here and there is a glimmer of light in some small window. Some families, sitting up late, are finishing their supper at the thresholds of their houses.” Nikolai Gogol, A May Night.

Photography by Bois de Jasmin

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