Text: Clara McGrane
Images: Olena Marchyshyna
Pioneering Women in Ukraine is an exhibition currently on display at the Taylor Institution Library from 25th January until 19th May 2023. It showcases the stories of fourteen women from Ukraine’s past and present.
Seven women, who were historically pioneers in their fields, are paired with seven contemporary trailblazers. Each pair is linked by a shared background such as activism, military service, medicine or education. All are connected by the important role they played in Ukrainian women’s history. The seven figures, with their different professions, ethnicities, socio-economic backgrounds, and sexual identities, provide a snapshot of Ukrainian society. However, the exhibition aims to be neither representative nor canon-shaping. Rather, it is positioned as just one amongst a range of projects promoting women’s achievements.
The exhibition is an outcome of a collaborative project, funded by the UKRI Global Challenges Research Fund, the University of St Andrews and Heinrich Boell Foundation, Ukraine. Starting in 2020, this project was led by Dr Margarita Vaysman (School of Modern Languages, St Andrews) and her Ukraine-based collaborators: Dr Tamara Zlobina and Anna Dovgopol at Gender in Detail, a media platform that aims to promote the understanding of gender issues in Ukraine, and Dasha Nepochatova at Creative Women Space, a collective that provides a platform for projects that empower women.
This exhibition draws attention to the stereotypical ways in which women are portrayed in national histories and to general preconceptions that form as a result of this limited representation. Dasha Nepochatova, co-founder of Creative Women Space and the co-curator, along with Dr Vaysman, of the exhibition, emphasises that the team wanted to showcase the ‘complexity of these women’s lives’: their relationships, duties and achievements. The exhibition aims to make these women’s stories more widely known whilst championing different perspectives. According to Nepochatova, the power of this visible female representation is particularly important: ‘What can inspire women in Ukraine? Particularly those from very rural and poor villages. How can they believe in themselves? What can help them? I strongly believe that such stories, true stories, of women in the past who achieved great things and did so in spite of the challenges they faced are so important. It shows that if they did it, you can too.’
Each woman’s story is brought to life by the Ukrainian artist and graphic designer Olena Marchyshyna. Using the traditional paper-cutting method of vytynanka, Marchyshyna created individual portraits of the fourteen women to accompany their short biographies, also on display alongside the striking images. As Marchyshyna explains, she chose the vytynanka technique to reflect the project’s goal:
‘Vytynanka is one of the traditional decorative arts in Ukraine. It first appeared in China, where people started to cut patterns from the moment when paper was invented. However, this idea came to us in the west in the mid-nineteenth century. Vytynanka is an ornamental decoration of a dwelling, which is cut out of paper (both white and coloured) using a knife or scissors. Vytynanka in Ukraine was used to decorate various corners of a home, such as windows, walls, shelves, etc. The idea of using vytynanka as a technique for working on the project was a team decision. I believe that this technique best emphasises the fact that women are sometimes “invisible”, and “unrepresented” in social life. It can be as difficult for women who “carved” new paths for themselves as it is to see a vytynanka on a blank sheet of paper. It requires illumination, manifestation, and highlighting of the silhouette to make it visible. The goal of this project was to highlight the important role of women in Ukraine by illuminating, highlighting, and displaying their stories.’
The use of vytynanka links each portrait, providing a sense of cohesion and connection. Yet, with their varied backgrounds and striking headshots that capture the spirit of their subjects, the portraits are noticeably individual, at the same time. This reflects Marchyshyna’s creative process: ‘It was an intriguing exploration for me, particularly when dealing with historical figures. I conducted extensive research in the archives, studied biographies of these women, and photographs (if available), to envision where the heroines lived, how they dressed, and what they might have liked. Afterwards, I selected the patterns that, I believed, would best accentuate their individual identities. With the contemporary heroines, I made sure that the images I chose personally appealed to them and accurately reflected their characters.’
The exhibition contains another, fifteenth portrait, titled ‘The Unknown Ukrainian Woman’. This image represents the exclusion of women’s experiences from Ukrainian history and emphasises the need to champion female voices. For Marchyshyna, creating this image
‘was the most difficult task, as I needed to reflect everyone in one image: my own generation of Ukrainian women, as well as our mothers, grandmothers, and great-grandmothers. I wanted the heroine to have a direct, strong gaze, so that she would not forget her roots, that she is Ukrainian, proud of it, and that she can achieve her goals by walking her path with dignity and relying on the experience of many generations of Ukrainian women.’
According to the curators, ‘Pioneering Women in Ukraine’ showcases women’s innovative contribution to Ukrainian history: ‘I’ve always connected this project with my story and my experience. I often wonder if somebody will remember us in one hundred years. I believe that it is our duty to find the story of women who came before us. We are a kind of pyramid. We are standing on the shoulders of each other. What we have right now – it is only because they worked so hard to get it for us. It is our duty to find their names, to dig them up and talk about them. Even if there is very little information. It’s very important. Without this, we can’t expect that future generations will remember us’, says Nepochatova.
After the full-scale Russian invasion in February 2022, Dasha Nepochatova, Olena Marchyshyna, as well as many other Ukrainian women, were forced to leave their homes and have found refuge abroad. This exhibition is a small token of respect for these women’s continuous fortitude in the face of war, death, and destruction.
The Pioneering Women in Ukraine Exhibition has been produced with the financial and organisational support from St Catherine’s College, Oxford, and Barbara Costa, St Catherine’s college librarian, in 2022. We would also like to acknowledge the help of Elisabet Almunia (Bodleian Libraries Finance and Administration Officer), Matthew Smith (Taylor Institution Library Premises Supervisor) who put up the portraits so expertly and Dr Johanneke Sytsema (Linguistics and Dutch and Frisian subject specialist) who coordinates the Taylorian blog. The exhibition is currently on loan to the Taylor Institution Library before it transfers to Scotland in autumn 2023. The digital version of this exhibition can be found here in Ukrainian and in English (translated by Dr Sasha Dovzhyk).