Reinventing authenticity

10.10.2014 | By Yan Smirnov

Ukrainians have fallen so greatly in love with the folk art and crafts that they risk losing the truly authentic things, instead getting widely distributed fakes. KW decided to find out how this processes evolved: from nearly obscurity to tones of factory products

Shawls, embroidered shirts, wide trousers (sharovary), boots (choboty) and clubs (bulava) and even plastic pots with prominent Ukrainian Cossack national features have filled the souvenir shops in all the cities of our country. But the Ukrainians, especially female Ukrainians are increasingly introducing elements of the national costume in casual clothes. This, of course, is a huge market and it is being filled by all means available.


We understood that we are Ukrainians!

This is how Zoya Stashuk explains the fashion for national embroidered shirts and numerous souvenir products that are so actively sold and bought nowadays. It took a long path, however, to come to this, in fact all years of independence.

Stashuk is the master of painting Easter eggs (pysanka). She watched the process of reviving the traditions with her own eyes, in fact was a directly involved in it. Stashuk got interested in the Ukrainian art of painting on the egg shell in the beginning of the 1990s, and came to this from the circles of technical intelligentsia of the industrial Donbas. Albeit imperceptibly, but folk skills existed there as well and knowledge of techniques have been preserved.

In the early years of independence, Ukrainian traditions and cultural memory associated with forms, local flavor, techniques and essence of the traditional art became the subject of attention of many people; earlier, during the Communist regime, this sphere was pushed back to the periphery of science with government showing no interest in production of new works and reproduction. Stashuk says that the process of realization of the scale of preserved information (and it was huge) took place in the 1990s. She and her colleagues recreated form of ornaments and paintings, using both ethnographic literature and directly communicating with the people who had such knowledge. Naturally, they began to create new collections.

The main groups of masters working within the national traditions formed then, tells Stashuk. We got organized, because the old forms of creative unions were unsuitable.

In those years together with her friends they discovered that the knowledge and continuity of the folk culture in Ukraine never stopped. As it often happened, it preserved in the most vivid forms in the villages and this knowledge had to be preserved and also popularize and make known to all. Soon, exhibitions of painted Easter eggs of Zoya Stashuk became a significant phenomenon in the cultural life of Kyiv.

Stashuk moved to Kyiv and set up a workshop for children, where she taught the basics of egg painting. Together with her own exhibitions, this slowly led to a wider interest on the part of Kyivans as they were expanding their own knowledge of folk art and involved children in this peaceful and joyful handicraft. By the beginning of 2000s, the interest for the preserved traditions became a norm, rather than an exception for the educated groups of the city dwellers.

You can say that this was the second stage when the folk art became popular, says Stashuk. That was when the new masters (artists), the young ones, appeared.

In the 2000s many young artists chose traditional forms of art, while knowledge and experience of such masters as Stashuk helped them learn the basic principles and pointed to the sources of inspiration. Folk art became not only a thing for scientists and a craft of the old men in villages, but a relevant and developing field of modern art. Students of institutes of art became pioneers of this trend.

At the moment, Stashuk together with several of her assistants works with children groups at the Palace of Children and Youth in Kyiv. Small apprentices display wonders of patience while training to nicely paint on the egg shell.

This is simply amazing, says Stashuk. At the age, where you cannot sit still for five minutes, they sit and paint for 3040 minutes. Parents are surprised, but I believe this is magic, because traditional images on the pysanka are magical symbols.

Who brings kids, I ask? Intelligentsia, she replies. Educated, cultured people. Not necessarily ethnic Ukrainians, but those whose families preserved love for folk art.


With time, the fashion for everything folk, Ukrainian, authentic only increased, which was something that the adherents of these art school could only rejoice at. However, at the same time, commercialization and cheapening of these products and item was growing. At the moment, folk art, authentic items and pseudoUkrainian kitsch represent a whole industry, where quality and dull phenomena are piled up together. This is also a consequence of the love of Ukrainians for their own, native things.

Stashuk, however, is convinced that the true folk art will resist this tribulation.

Fashion will change one day, but the masters will remain and the schools will remain, she says. It is bad that also a lot of garbage will remain as many will no longer see the difference between a fake and a work of art.

Imports from China is the real curse for the Ukrainian masters. The market of inexpensive souvenirs is covered with Chinese goods so much that there can be no talk about development of Ukrainian production. Having established import of several simple items with elements of the national style, Chinese importers are flooding the market and there is place only for unique and dynamic masters, although they do not get the profits that they could have. China captures the souvenir markets all over the world, but in Ukraine it is particularly painful.

China is the biggest problem. We do not know how to fight it, says Stashuk. Without limitation of Chinese import it is hard to expect prosperity of own production. We have always tried to communicate this message to the government, but received no response.

Also foreign investors, in particular businessmen from the Ukrainian diaspora in the U.S. want to make money on traditional art. Stashuk do not like their offers. She says they are nothing more, but commerce and that there is no love for traditions there.

Moreover, the Ukrainians, and not only sellers of souvenirs, also want to make a fast buck on the fashion for authenticity.

There are many announcements in the internet offering to teach to paint Easter eggs. In truth, these people are selftaught. They have no knowledge or talent, just presumptuousness, says Stashuk. A true master somewhere in a village does not even know how to approach a computer!

Those who seriously, maybe not for long, emerged in the world of Ukrainian pysanka will leave this trace forever, Stashuk is convinced. Symbols and images of a folk ornament are so complex, but also so fundamental for our culture that they powerfully influence the conscience of those who came close to it. Mysticism! says Stashuk and it is hard not to believe her. After all, she dedicated over 20 years to studying them.


We are dealing with an interesting phenomenon: quickly developing and modern in its main indicators society is turning to national antiquity, esthetic antiquity, says culture expert, Assistant Professor of Philosophy Serhiy Babenko. The process is taking on not a scale of a small subnational union, like Bavarians or Catalans (which is also present), but of a large, diverse conglomerate that the Ukrainians are.

He agrees that there was nothing more than weak studying of a national costume and crafts in the Ukrainian SSR. Moreover, that period of oblivion of Ukrainian cultural heritage began in the times of the Russian Empire. That is why the task of preserving the traditions was taken on by the villagers and farmers.

Residents of cities and intelligentsia were Russified and Polonized and did not have substantial influence on the cultural policy. They could not be a national bourgeoisie with a powerful cultural layer for a number of reasons. That is why everything that is truly Ukrainian remained in the villages, continues Babenko. This is the uniqueness of the situation art traditions that were weakly influenced by the suburban, industrial culture preserved in fully. This is how it turned out: in search of something truly Ukrainian, colorful and typical, we naturally came to folk art. And we are unique in this, as there is no trace of such love for wreaths, embroidered shirts, painted eggs and even hairdos (scalp lock) among modern Europeans.

That is why the traditional patterns are so popular. Very high demand, particularly in the periods of Maidans, transferred this socalled folk style from the sphere of vanishing crafts into the sphere of mass culture with all accompanying consequences, primarily with the trend towards unification and cheapening. And we are not alone in this Mickey Mouse and a portrait of Mao TseTung and crosses on a painted egg can all become a style of mass culture.

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