Interview by Caitlin Merrett King
Published in June 2020
Ayla Dmyterko is an artist from Saskatchewan, Canada, currently living and recently studying in Glasgow. Through moving image, painting, sculpture and installation, her practice examines contemporary discourse surrounding patriarchy, colonialism and capitalism, particularly in relation to her own experience of the Ukrainian diaspora in Canada. She is also an English language teacher and Arts educator.
I’d like to begin by focusing on your recent film Solastalgic Soliloquy, I’m interested in your use of the word ‘solastalgic’ here and how within your practice at large you draw comparisons between diasporic experience and the accelerated decay of our anthropocentric world.
Could you explain this terminology please?
Solastalgia is a neologism that describes emotional and existential distress caused by global environmental decay, heightened by capitalism’s siloing of the individual. Its synonym is eco-anxiety. Solastalgia is a singular malady of a much wider spectrum caused by the proposed current geological epoch: the Anthropocene. I am invested in research surrounding the de-colonisation of this era, as it pins the accelerated decay of the earth’s geology and ecosystems onto all groups of people while it is not all groups of people that caused it. The inclusion of under-acknowledged ways of viewing the world can veer us away from this apocalyptic pessimism so inherent to capitalism, patriarchy and colonialism. These views are expanded upon by writers including Juanita Sundberg, Zoe Todd, Donna Haraway, Boaventura de Sousa Santos and Anna Tsing among others. The gaps of knowledge are especially evident when doing research interrogating archives, libraries, museums and while studying in institutions. In unison, Grimes should consider re-naming her 2019 album Miss Anthropocene to The Anthropocene Missed – just my opinion.
The terms Diaspora and the Anthropocene are intricately entwined as they are both systemically created, implemented and controlled. They both cause affect in the form of anxiety and isolation. My own diasporic experience is insular within the larger mythos of cultural memory and identity politics. I can only speak from my subjectivity, two generations removed from my family’s migration from Ukraine to Canada through the Glasgow Ports. Raised in the ‘multicultural environment’ in Canada in the early 1990’s, cultural recall was at its best performative. A veil I did not understand as a young post-peasant under class trained by ex-soviet ballerinas wearing track suits and gold chains. My diasporic experience was and continues to feel disconnected from what is occurring in Ukraine today, not teaching the historical oppression of its people. These vibrant displays of incubated ‘Ukrainian-Canadian’ culture are also separate from their originary functions within Ukrainian folklore.
Most important is the transformative potential of the study of folkloric practice when considered outside of Ukrainian-specific contexts. Folklore pertains to the cultural expressions that implicate how our ancestors lived and related to their natural environments, the material culture that circulated; the rituals and belief systems connected to their natural and supernatural worlds. Can we learn from remedies from previously disregarded epistemologies and practices for easing solastalgia from other diasporic communities? The answer to these questions is often yes, and is what I’m interested in investigating more deeply. Most urgent to my practice is not only the preservation of cultural memory or upholding a long lineage of peasant revolt, but rather examining how diasporic tendencies are stabilised and destabilised amidst globalization, in this case focused on isolation. This video was made prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, however I think quarantine adds another layer of empathy, especially for UK audiences where the pandemic has been so devastating.
I first came across the term Solastalgia when doing research surrounding the Arctic Wildfires that spanned across Siberia and the Canadian North last summer. The psychoanalysis of fire has always been interesting to me as a symbol of regeneration yet also destruction. Wildfires became again rampant in Ukraine last month, wind pushing them close to the de-stabilised Chernobyl reactor. These initially started with fire-fallow; a cultivation practice farmers in the area have been using for centuries. The farmer’s practices were upbraided, yet not those who built the nuclear plant near the farmland. Further chastised in the media for a centuries-old practice are the open-air markets in China, attributed with the birth of COVID-19. I believe this is a deeply inaccurate mis-placement of blame; part of a much larger systemic issue detonated by mass globalisation and failures of imperialism. Those most culpable are those with most power.
These are examples of why the de-colonisation of the anthropocene is so vital; so that the structures that have caused the destruction of the earth’s natural environment are recognized. In Ukrainian culture, the springtime festival is a time of rebirth filled with fire; jumping over it, using it to light wreaths later read as a divination practice for future love. Fire is also symbolic to remembering, as candles are lit for ancestors passed on. The wax wreath that I built, wear and allow to burn down in ‘Solastalgic Soliloquy’ refers to this symbolism while further exposing the futility of looking only to the past and the ethical issues with over-romanticising it.
Solastalgic Soliloquy, still from HD video with sound, 5m 18s
The film is a soliloquy in the sense that you are the subject undertaking various tasks including enactments of traditional Ukrainian folklore and dancing.
Why did you chose to use Ukrainian heritage dance as the language in which to express your soliloquy?
In Solastalgic Soliloquy, I layer the methods of auto-ethnography and generational return (which is used in place for ‘field work’ as a de-colonial strategy) to critique tropes of cultural identity and memory politics. The dissemination of the work is important for building a platform for intersectional dialogue to occur. I chose dance for my soliloquy, because it is the ‘cultural expression’ I have had the most exposure to. It is important to distinguish that this is heritage dance for stage, quite different than how Ukrainian dance would have been traditionally. I grew up rigorously practicing 3 times a week for 3 or more hours a day from the age of 3-23 at the Ukrainian Cultural Centre in Regina, Saskatchewan – the same space I return to in the film.
I began questioning the relevance of Ukrainian dance when I moved away from Saskatchewan to Montreal for art school. Looking back, this was synchronous with my new found love of critical art theory alongside moving (mentally and physically) away from home. A friend once told me that all dancers die twice, the first time when they quit dancing; so melodramatic! Honestly, I just wanted to cultivate new relationships and Ukrainian dance wasn’t a commonality, especially in Quebec. Questioning the significance of folkloric dance, I discounted it as it felt divisive, cryptic, and rather vacant out of context. Was it just performance? For aesthetic pleasure of the audience? Was it just a technical form of exercise? Prior to its revision for stage, was it not deeply connected to its surrounding environment? Is this how or why my ancestors danced? Surely, they weren’t first trained in ballet. Does it matter if I continue to dance in their footsteps? What does this look like in relation to my environment today? How could this exist in isolation without an instructor or choreographer? How could it continue as a celebratory practice in congregation if my current congregation is not Ukrainian and do not know the repertoire?
These are some of the questions that informed my ‘act of cultural recall’ in the film. Returning to the dance floor, I turned on the orchestral music to experiment how this taught cultural expression continues or ceases somatically, disconnected from congregation, natural environment and amidst generational slippage. Emergent is a satirical elegy, a fragmented allegory exposing precarity and dissonance. My muscle memory remembers and forgets simultaneously.
Your practice also encompasses installation and sculpture involving traditional Ukrainian techniques such as cross stitch. I remember seeing a really beautiful piece in your MFA interim show, that seemed almost unfinished, situated within an installation.
Could you describe your relationship to Ukranian heritage materials used within your practice?
Thank you Caitlin! That work took me the entire rainy Scottish winter, it was hard to decide when it would be finished. I based my cross-stitch on patterns from a book I bought in a Ukrainian market compiled by a woman called Xenia Kolotylo. The patterns fall apart, an effect that took a lot of counting to achieve. The delicate support is called waste canvas, which is usually placed onto the blouse or fabric acting as a gridded guide for the x’s. The meditative repetition of embroidery, called Povtorennya in Ukrainian, is also evidenced in folkloric painting and weaving which I use to create hybrid objects for installations. Comparing this repetition to psychotherapy techniques to ease anxiety, I am interested in cultural practices and rituals as proto-mindfulness, or proto-psychotherapy. Embroidered blouses in Ukrainian culture are worn for protection from the evil eye and created with intentions that weave into the fibres. In other words, if you are having a bad day or poor luck, you should take time to refresh your outlook and re-approach your embroidery. These instructions are familiar in contemporary cognitive behaviour therapy and mindfulness remedies. This work resists capitalism’s acceleration, speed and oblivion where anxiety exacerbates in rumination, when thoughts are left alone racing to precarious futures. Anxiety has always reminded me of Nabakov’s way of describing the ominous whine of mosquitoes in the winter night.
Currently, I am cross-stitching onto a UK Mail Bag, which I will later fill with onions. The weft of the polythene creates a grid. I am thinking about the site of most anxiety for me right now, which is acquiring a VISA to remain in the UK. A babushka once shared an aphorism with me: “onions are pathetic, they make you melt in tears, layer after layer.”
Veils of Forgetfulness, embroidery thread, waste canvas, wooden dowel, 160 x 85 cm, 2019
In 2015, your solo show The Story Began with a Beet (It Must End with the Devil) at Projet Pangée included a series of collage-like paintings entitled Nostalgic Premonitions, a title which almost seems paradoxical but speaks to how we learn from the past.
Could you speak about these works and your relationship with painting?
Speaking of aphorisms; the title The Story Began with a Beet (It Must End with the Devil) is taken from the novel Jitterbug Perfume by Tom Robbins. He begins explaining that Slavic people get their physical characteristics from potatoes, their smoldering inquietude from radishes, their seriousness from beets. He calls it a Ukrainian proverb, and that it is a risk we have to take. After several inquiries, I have found no remnants of truth in the accuracy of this ever being a colloquial expression in Ukraine, however I do admire its metaphor. There is a smear of recognition in its use of vegetables to express deep emotion – standard practice in Ukrainian folklore. This led to my interest in the idea of constructs of enigma and mythology used as devices to conceal failed fragments of memory. This was in the early phases of my research-led practice when I began exploring post-soviet nostalgia, later leading to Svetlana Boym’s restorative vs. reflective nostalgia which eventually led me to solastalgia.
Painting and I have a challenging relationship; I include it in my studio practice to keep my ego in order. I find it the most difficult media to communicate through or feel successful in, yet it double binds as I find it most successful at communicating nuance. Each of the eight paintings I made for the show at Projet Pangée include several frames or scenes. Looking back at these, I realize that I was painting moving images – and now that I’ve moved into making films I am filming moving paintings.
Importation, oil on linen, 40 x 85 inches, 2018
Your practice responds to overwhelming ancestral trauma due to colonial expansion, but as a way of moving through this you focus on the resilience of female family members, applying a feminism rather than a fatalism within your practice. Could you speak about the women in your life who have inspired this enquiry?
Feminism over fatalism is the decree! The reason I focus on female knowledge is because it has been historically persecuted for its strength and enigma and at the same time it is the most transformative for me personally. For my dissertation, I interviewed my close friend, Olya Kovalenko who grew up in Kudlai, Ukraine on a honeybee farm as well as my mother, Sylvia Dmyterko who was raised on a grain farm in Saskatchewan, Canada. When conducting this research, it became apparent that both collective, familial and private trauma had occurred during this period in both locations simultaneously as well as in their pasts. As it was shared, I grew curious about what lay in the silences and untraceable memories. It is not necessarily the respondents withholding information, in many cases the stories were discontinued generations before. I am also aware that Ukrainian peasants, including my family, were tools of the Canadian expansion project via the Crown, which has and continues to cause acute trauma in Indigenous communities.
In the field of Cultural Memory studies, most projects I have come across focus on trauma; intergenerational trauma especially. Looking more into research methods, I believe it is antagonising and perpetuating to analyse the trauma of subjugated groups through methods created by the systems of power that imposed trauma to begin with. There has been a strong message within the research that exposes pessimism as a product of supremacy. Departing from these tendencies, I am not suggesting trauma is ignored. Instead, I consider alternative arts-based methodologies that form a plurality of thematic emergences including cultural preservation and transference through celebratory acts in female life stories. Inspiring the structures I used for my research were female academics including Ranjana Thapalyal, Melanie Ilic, Dalia Leinarte, Annette Kuhn, Marianne Hirsch, Svetlana Boym, Patricia Leavy and Carolyn Ellis.
Outside of the studio, you work as a teacher and an arts educator, though this work feels very connected to your studio practice. What has led you to this point teaching English in Glasgow now?
My first undergraduate degree was in Arts Education, my lead tutor was an ex-London Ballerina named Dr. Ann Kipling Brown; she was very strict but just as passionate about arts-based learning. My first education gigs were teaching dance. Concurrently, I taught Ukrainian dance as well as creative movement to students aged 3-8. One school was rigorous and rigid while the other let the students decide their own repertoire. Having these as comparatives helped me understand what kind of educator I was interested in being. I went on to work as a gallery educator in many different contexts and contracts. One of my favourite positions was the gallery outreach work I did for the Enbridge Programme at the MacKenzie Art Gallery. The name of the programme was a paradox, run by an oil monger company re-investing money into educating indigenous youth while simultaneously rigging oil off of stolen indigenous land. Although this is a difficult truth, it did fund programmes in inner city schools where I worked with students to actively initiate Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission. One project we worked on was focused on call #79 in the act which describes the need for amendment of Historic Sites and Monuments; to revise the policies, criteria and memory practices into Canada’s national heritage and history. The students created sculptures to be commissioned that described the true history of lands where colonist statues remain. I’ve been thinking about that project in light of the calls for removal of statues of or linked to slave traders in the UK alongside the Black Lives Matter Movement.
Prior to moving to Glasgow, I worked as an Arts Therapy instructor for recently migrated and refugee women, as well as an English teacher at the Regina Immigrant Women Centre. I’ve continued this in Glasgow at Southside’s Milk Café volunteering for their weekly drop in English class. Currently I am working as a Lecturer in Academic English for Creative Disciplines for the Glasgow School of Art online. As the curriculum for this programme migrates to a virtual space, I believe it is a perfect opportunity for revision and de-colonisation, especially in its archives and collections. I used to view my teaching jobs as separate from my studio practice, however have come to realize that they are enmeshed.
If Our Paths Ran Parallel, oil on canvas, satin ribbon, window pole, 62 x 42 inches, 2019
To finish, you have just finished the MFA course at GSA which has ended during the COVID-19 pandemic, resulting in GSA cancelling your degree show: a situation many students across the world have found themselves in. You led a great campaign which fought for reimbursement of funds and postponement of degree show. What is the latest?
The MFA ‘graduating’ class did lead a campaign, which can be experienced at: www.gsamfa.net. We have repeatedly attempted to initiate a dialogue surrounding a fair handling of the (dis)continuation of our education due to COVID-19 – basically begging the school to pause alongside government advice. We stressed many times that it is not solely the Degree Show that we are missing out on, it is the education, equipment, facilities and community. Prior to the closure of the school due to the pandemic, there were UK-wide union strikes demanding the closure of pay gaps as well as the termination of short-term contracts for post-graduate educators. We stood beside our tutors and still do; it is not them making decisions that hurt students.
Our campaign, as you said, asked for deferral at no extra cost and postponement of the Degree Show or the Reimbursement of funds for students not able to defer. Instead, we were assessed (for work we have not completed) and offered ‘exposure’ via the GSA Virtual Platform with future plans to provide small grants to individual students for self-led shows following the lift of COVID-19 measures. Most MFA graduates go on to procure shows. This alternative suggestion feels like the school promoting itself on the backs of its student’s labour. As a collective, we chose to protest the virtual showcase with PDF’s of the unanswered letters to the heads of school, graphics which outline student’s financial losses, as well as a calendar that show days missed starring photos of the MFA2 students. This was censored by the school. We’ve had media attention following the censoring and hope for reconsideration, especially with a newly appointed director.
When we were first interviewed, I was worried that speaking up would silence voices of Black Lives Matter. Through discussion with a dear friend and artist, Anika Ahuja, I realize that these conversations surrounding white supremacy and capitalism are, at the core, very much stemming from the same place. Those in power that have made the decision to censor and assess their students for incomplete work, forcing students to pay for an education they have not received stand behind the same pedagogy as those unwilling to diversify their curriculum, staff and student body. Rather than anyone being silenced, viewing these issues from an intersectional axis create a heavier weight to flatten the hierarchy. ☺
You can find out more about the MFA's campaign here
And the nationwide Pause or Pay campaign here (Government petition coming soon)
Whilst you’re here please also consider donating to all or any of the following racial justice organisations and charities:
Saheliya is a specialist mental health and well-being support organisation for Black, minority ethnic, asylum seeker, refugee and migrant women and girls (12+) in the Edinburgh and Glasgow area.
Shakti Women’s Aid helps BME women, children, and young people experiencing, or who have experienced, domestic abuse from a partner, ex-partner, and/ or other members of the household. We also work closely with the Scottish Government, Police Scotland, NHS Scotland, and other statutory and voluntary services. We provide training and consultancy for agencies working with BME women, children, and young people.
List of bail funds that need support for the month of June: https://bailfunds.github.io/
UK QTIBIPOC Emergency relief & Hardship Fund
Museum Detox. We champion fair representation and inclusion of BAME cultural, intellectual and creative contributions. Museum Detox challenges and works to deconstruct systems of inequality that exist to enable a sector where the workforce and audience is reflective of the UK’s 21st century population.
BAMEed is a movement initiated in response to the continual call for intersectionality and diversity in the education sector:
The Goddess Projects mission is to empower, inspire and assist Black women and Women of Colour to develop and achieve within their communities
Black and Asian Lawyers And Activists Working Together for Justice And Opposing Racism:
The Black Curriculum is a social enterprise founded in 2019 by young people to address the lack of Black British history in the UK Curriculum. We believe that by delivering arts focused Black history programmes, providing teacher training and campaigning through mobilising young people, we can facilitate social change. Our programmes are for all young people aged 8-16 and aims to equip young people with a sense of identity, and the tools for a diverse landscape. We are working towards changing the national curriculum and building a sense of identity in every young person in the UK.
Black Minds Matter
If you like this why not read our interview with Modern Painters, New Decorators
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