Interview with Ukrainian Curator

and Artist Igor Manko.

Readers can buy his artwork

below interview.

Igor Manko Interview - 2019. (Interview by G. Auzins)

1. Can you tell us a bit about yourself, or give an introduction for those who are unfamiliar?

I was born in 1962 in Poltava, Ukraine. I started taking photographs at the age of 7, when my Dad gave me my first camera as a birthday present and taught me to use it.

When I was 18 I got a “professional” camera and took a course in art photography.

In mid-1980s I joined a group of Kharkiv artists that later became known as the Kharkiv School of Photography.

Since then I’ve participated in numerous group shows, both locally and internationally, and had a few solo exhibits.

2. You’re currently a curator at VASA, and have some pretty extensive experience curating exhibits on photography in Ukraine, in particular, what you would term the “Kharkiv School of Fine Art Photography.” What photographers from this school stood out to you the most, as an artist or as a curator?

The Kharkiv School of Photography was (or still is, see the answer to question 3) an artistic phenomenon with three generations of photographers working along the same aesthetic guidelines and developing their unique artistic language. It began in the early 1970s with a group of photographers who opposed the prescribed dogma of Soviet art. To me, as well as to the rest of the second generation artists, they were teachers, theoreticians and first critics of our work. Boris Mikhailov, today a world-known name, was the biggest inspiration ― in his presence you couldn't help taking out a camera and start shooting around! Mikhailov’s work taught me that there were no “unphotographic” subjects if you could find the right approach, the right view.

A less-known, but no less important artist was Eugeny Pavlov, whose freedom of formal expression was unsurpassable.

My work from that period: A Seascape with Border Helicopter, Yurmala, 1990. Guarding the Soviet border, the helicopter marked The Iron Curtain.

3. The “anti-Aesthetic” approach of the Kharkiv school was outlined in a past issue of VASA, and you noted there seems to be a thread moving forward through certain photographers, channeling the documentary, photomontages, manual coloring, and defects of Boris Mikhailov and other members of the Vremya group, in the creation of a distinctive set of Ukrainian (or Kharkiv-bred) approaches to photography. Where, if at all, do you see yourself or your contemporaries in regards to this approach? Is the school a continuum or a fieldnote, or something else otherwise?

If I were to answer this question 5 years ago, I wouldn't hesitate to say that the newest generation of Kharkiv artists are cultivating and elaborating the tradition. But since 2014 almost all of them have quit art photography to go into other media, commercial photography, or stopped making art completely. Now I think their activity may have been their final reflection on the Kharkiv aesthetics, the last resource it provided, the full stop mark in its history. Still, the ideas have disseminated, and Kharkiv influences can bee seen in the works of artists throughout the country.

In my own work I always keep in mind the Kharkiv School guidelines, but I guess my recent images have gone astray from that path. «It“s a completely different thing», Boris Mikhailov once said about this project (Sky Signs, 2007-2009):

4. How do you approach the construction of Nationalism in our contemporary world? With trade opening up more and more the borders, mass immigration, and the internet massively speeding up the proliferation of culture(s), an identity is quickly becoming a multi-faceted and difficult thing to place. There’s becoming a certain sense of arbitrariness to that idea of Nationalism; on a personal level, as an American and as a Latvian, there has always been an odd push-pull between national and ethnic identity… the latter can almost dictate the former. Latvia, like Ukraine, has been in and out of various colonial rule throughout its history, most recently Soviet. How do you mediate the want for an identity that can deal with both the personal and the national with the very pragmatic need for the nationalism to fuel the formation of a new government? If possible, what differentiates the propaganda of a nation from an ethnic tradition?

I am not a pure-bred Ukrainian ethnically, and nationalist ideas never stirred deep emotions inside. Ukraine is fighting for its independence, and a nationalist sentiment is just one of the components of the country-wise mindset. The identity here is sooner seen as being part of the European civilization with its human rights and personal freedoms. It was the change of that direction that brought about the 2013-2014 revolution.

But, having said that… They say, one can be an atheist only until the first real turbulence on the plane. Likewise, you are cosmopolitan only until a neighbor invaded your country and annexed a peninsula.

5. Where does the previous discussion fit (if at all) into the dialogue your artwork makes?

See my answer to question 6.

6. As an artist operating in Ukraine, how has the occupation of Crimea and the war in the east of your country effected the societal atmosphere? The armed conflict fully escalated in 2014, and Crimea has been under Russian occupation since. How has it impacted your work, which deals a lot with how geography can shape identity?

I’ve always loved Crimea. My father’s ancestors come from that land. I created my projects there. In 2009 I started a project 100 Views of Mount Karadag that was supposed to be a life long one. I would go to Crimea several times a year to take pictures, but since 2014 I’ve been unable to visit the place. I had to find new areas of inspiration.

From 100 Views of Mount Karadag

When 2014 events began, first in Crimea and later in the East of Ukraine, I felt I couldn’t ignore them and make images as if nothing was happening. In the summer of 2014 the Russian army was on the border 30 kilometers away from Kharkiv (that“s how close the border with Russia is), and everyone was in anticipation of a possible invasion. My Golden Ratio of Ukrainian Landscape was, as I later reflected, an attempt to put a protective spell ― the colors of Ukraine“s national flag ― onto the land to prevent that kind of future.

The years 2015-2016 were really depressing, with casualties reported daily and no end of war in sight. How does one make a visual statement in a situation like that unless he is a war correspondent? The Black Earth(part of a larger series The Sea, The Skies and The Black Earth) was my response to that emotional state: taking photos with as few objects as possible to demonstrate that artistic impotency, making a negative statement where a positive one was inadequate and simply impossible.

Deadly Flowers of War (2017) were the way to overcome that crisis. Fragments of Grad missiles were collected in the area of conflict and shot in a studio using studio light. I used The Black Earth images for the soil squares in the diptychs thus connecting my new work with the previous period of depression.

7. On geography and identity, what do you feel the relation between the two is? What constitutes an identity?

I have recently curated an exhibition UA: In Search of Lost Identity for VASA Project. I hope, it will go public in June. In the exhibition, six Ukrainian photographers research various aspects of the theme: What are the constituents of national identity in today’s society? Their answers range from the hereditary Soviet symbols to religion, from ethnic traditions to sexual minorities’ rights.

Marina Frolova. Ugly (From UA: In Search of Lost Identity exhibition)

Here is a quotation from my curatorial statement:

“Throughout its history, Ukraine has been part of various Eastern European political unions: the Grand Duchy of Lithuania in the 14th century, the Commonwealth of the Polish Kingdom two centuries later, then Austro-Hungarian and Russian empires that made Ukrainians fight against each other during WW1. Finally, in 1921, the country found itself in the 70-year-long embrace of the Soviet Union.

Living under the communist regime had a great impact on all aspects of existence in Ukraine, then a Soviet republic, changing its population, prevailing language, the attitudes and the overall mode of life. Even today, almost 28 years after Ukraine’s newly acquired independence (1991), the residue of that ideological legacy is a handicap stymieing the long-awaited transformation. Thus, cultural, political, linguistic and ethnical diversity played a trick on the country in 2014 when extreme viewpoints in the society helped Russia masquerade its military aggression as separatist movement and civil war.”

For me personally, as an artist, geography is the visual identity of my photography. Almost all the images I have made were taken in Ukraine, and they bear recognizable visual elements of the country. As from 2009 to 2014 most of them were made in Crimea (and given my ancestral roots in that land) I sometimes think of myself as a refugee :)

(In 2016, I curated Crimea: A No Mans Land exhibition on VASA, where I gathered all available photo and video work by Ukrainian artists made in Crimea.)

By the way, Boris Mikhailov, who moved to Germany over 20 years ago, had to come back to Kharkiv to shoot his most important projects since the late 1990s.

8. Similarly, how has the post-revolution government been affecting social climate? If Ukraine has any shared culture with other post-Soviet republics, then it may skew a little conservative. I was wondering what impact (if any) the 2013-2014 revolution had upon your work or others’ lives at large? I noticed Ukraine recently elected a comedian who promised to thaw the ban on artists and social media platforms. What (if any) significance can be placed on this? Is there or has there been a cultural shift?

I believe I answered the first half of this question above. As for the comedian for President, yeah, it hurts, even though his real steps in this role are yet to be seen. We joke here, that given Trump“s election in the USA and the Brexit vote in the UK, Ukraine is now in a good company.


Growing up in Poltava and not being "pure-bred."

My ethnic background is two-fold. My Ukrainian mother came from Poltava region; my Greek father came from Mariupol on the Sea of Azov, where Greeks were re-settled in the 18th century from Crimea after Russia first annexed it.

As a result of my mixed blood I couldn“t very well identify myself with either of the halfs. Still, as my father“s background added some Mediterranean features to my look, all anti-Semites took me for a Jew, and they still do.

It was a “negative“ self-identification: Neither Ukrainian, nor Greek, and not a Jew.

Another possibility was to identify with the Soviet Union. Two family legends both related to my grandfathers shaped my attitude towards it.

My mother“s father, who lived in a small town near Poltava, served at an airfield during WW2 and befriended an American pilot there. He was careless enough to bring him home when on a leave one day, and he expected he may be arrested for that ever since.

My father“s father told me that after Crimean Greeks were deported from Crimea to Middle Asia in June 1944 (allegedly as Nazi collaborands) Greeks living at the Sea of Azov expected deportation, too, and lived with their alarm suitcases packed until after Stalins death and Khrushchov“s era began.

When the USSR collapsed and Ukraine gained its independence in 1991 things changed, of course, and now geography prevails.

Here's a quote from 2016 Crimea: A No Man“s Land exhibition essay on VASA (history of Crimea):

Crimea has incessantly changed hands over its multi-millennial history. It was colonized by the ancient Greeks and Romans, the Byzantine Empire, the Goths, the Genoese, and the Ottoman Empire; invaded by the nomadic Scythians, Sarmatians, Khazars, and the Golden Horde. In the 13th century parts of the peninsula were controlled by the Republic of Venice and the Republic of Genoa, in 1478-1774 it was united in the Crimean Khanate under “Russian influence”. It was first annexed by Russia in 1783, and was part of Russia until the transfer to the Soviet Ukraine in 1954. Russia annexed Crimea for a second time in March 2014 under an excuse of defending its Russian population from the Ukrainians.

Crimea has always been the site of overlapping interests between the neighboring states and powers. The resulting military conflicts – like the Ottoman invasion of 1475, the Russo-Turkish War of 1768–1774, the Crimean War (1853 – 1856), the Russian Civil War, the World War II brought death, chaos and destruction.

Crimea has seen a number of ethnic cleansings and deportations. In the 15th century the Ottomans massacred the Christian Goth and Greek population; in the 18th century Empress Catherine resettled the Crimean Greeks on the northern shores of the Azov Sea under an excuse of defending the Christian population from the Muslims; in 1944 the Crimean Tatars, Greeks, Bulgarians and Armenians were deported as Nazi collaborators on the orders of Joseph Stalin.