Folk art stirs a feeling of ancestral intimacy. It asks us to both imagine and remember. We’re reminded of this injunction as we step into The Ukrainian Museum where more than 100 works by iconic folk art artist Maria Prymachenko are presented for the first time outside Europe. These are paintings, ceramics and clothing, in addition to other objects, that celebrate visual vibrancy and affirm a spirit of spellbinding freedom. Beyond Ukrainian culture, the exhibition interrogates the resonance of folk art today in channeling patriotism and facilitating cross-cultural dialogues.
Maria Prymachenko is one of Ukraine’s most beloved artists. Born in a small village near Chornobyl in 1909 and afflicted from a young age with polio, her career spanned more than sixty years. She transitioned from embroidery to painting in the 1930s—a discipline in which she had no formal training. Prymachenko was quickly recognized for her unique style, showing at the inaugural Republican Exhibition of Folk Art in 1936 and, a year later, at the Paris World Fair, where her works were noticed by peers such as Marc Chagall and Pablo Picasso.
Painted with vivid gouaches and watercolors, Prymachenko’s natural world comes to life in roaring, generous colors. Her motifs encompass a vast bestiary of existing and imaginary animals and creatures, such as lions, birds, horses, ducks, and more. Inspired by Polesian magical tales in which landscapes are multidimensional and inhabited by beings such as lisovyk, a forest spirit, or water nymphs, the artist inspires us to transcend the stale constraints of reality and imagine an inter-connected space where presence dominates. “Each painting seems to transport the viewer to a world that exists somewhere between reality and fantasy, evoking emotions of wonder, awe and curiosity,” said Peter Doroshenko, Director of The Ukrainian Museum, regarding Prymachenko’s works.
Her elevated and romanticized view of Ukrainian rural life underscores a deep attachment and reverence. Often described as naïve art, Prymachenko’s expression is calculated, determined—and political. Behind her fantastical bestiary is a subversion of Soviet censorship, via the depiction of an animal farm that carries strong anti-war messages. As such, War Is a Terrible Beast (1968) represents how war gnaws our insides, echoing Prymachenko’s painful loss of her family members. Yet just a few steps away, a warm and fuzzy sun has faces and radiates in full midday glory. The growth of plants and the blooming of flowers seem limitless. Birds represent abundance and omens, such as the souls of those who died after the Chornobyl nuclear reactor disaster. Couples hold hands and their reddened cheeks bear witness to the rhythm of changing seasons.
Textiles, such as those shown in Prymachenko’s show, also richly embrace these folk traditions. They lend themselves to communicating tales and stories. Often relegated to craft, they have been increasingly recognized as art forms. This is the case with quilt-making and embroidery and, for instance, tatreez, a traditional embroidery cross-stitch performed by Palestinian women to adorn their clothes, which not only carries an ornamental function but also serves as a vector of cultural transmission and memorialization of intergenerational trauma. Many tatreez patterns evoke motifs from the homes Palestinians were displaced from, such as orange blossoms, Jaffa’s famed specialty. In recent years, tatreez clubs have grown up around the world, and Palestinian textiles have featured in institutional shows and contemporary collections.
“There’s a thirst, a hunger, to connect with our history and our ancestry: mothers, grandparents and great-grandparents. This art form has been practiced for centuries and there’s a muscle memory in our hands,” Wafa Ghnaim, curator of “Tatreez Inheritance” shown earlier this year at the Museum of the Palestinian People, told Observer.
New York City-based contemporary artist Jordan Nassar has also elevated the art of tatreez in his textile-based artworks that question representation, identity, and translatability. This shift from domestic or semi-public to public is also felt in the field of music and performance, with, for instance, a growing interest in gnawa, a mystical ritualistic dance popular in Morocco, rooted in sub-Saharan culture and encounters, which Moroccan contemporary photographer Hassan Hajjaj explored in his documentary Colors of Gnawa.
As a binder of identity, folk art exudes national pride. Maria Prymachenko’s show at The Ukrainian Museum entitled “Maria Prymachenko: Glory to Ukraine” explicitly heeds this leaning. The organizers recalled that a museum that housed many of Prymachenko’s works was destroyed by Russian forces a few days into the start of the 2022 invasion. As such, her art amounts to a national heritage. For Palestinians, tatreez-embellished dresses are prized heirlooms and serve to celebrate a national character.
Far from being reduced to a single context, folk art allows cross-cultural exchanges on a much wider scale, like placing extra chairs around a campfire. For example, Prymachenko’s fairy world naturally converses with Baya’s works, a trailblazing modern Algerian artist who exhibited her paintings in Paris at the age of seventeen. She painted luxurious, ebullient gardens where peacocks, vegetation and kohl-wearing women sang an ode to life. More recently, contemporary Ukrainian artist Iryna Maksimova has explored folk figurative art and the symbolic nude in her exuberant collaged textiles.
Similarly, tatreez is part of a global embroidery art family, which consists of other traditions, such as those found in Armenia. Co-curators Araks Sahakyan and Irena Popiashvili expand the realm of this multicultural dialogue in “Borderline Ornaments” presented at the Folk Arts Museum of Yerevan in participation with the Yerevan Institute for Contemporary Art. “People appreciate the idea of modernizing the Folk Art Museum to give a new approach to it through the dialogue between contemporary artworks and museum collections,” Sahakyan shared with Observer. Armenia-born Sahakyan learned embroidery at a young age. “All handmade work has a lot to do with energies, emotions, feelings, stories, memories,” she added.
In another example of such cross-country exchanges, Gnawa dance and the Afro-Brazilian martial art of capoeira have also much to discuss, a potential that Hassan Hajjaj explored and staged in a new 90-minute single channel video Gnawa Capoeira Brothahood (2023) enabling gnawa and capoeira masters to discuss their practice and its cultural roots.
Tradition can act as fertile soil for bold propositions, to experiment, subvert and transform. Exhibitions such as “Borderline Ornaments” and “Maria Prymachenko: Glory to Ukraine” can attract a younger crowd to historical collections and through this process, shine a new light on these rooted practices, to make them “cool” again, especially as they relate to works typically performed by women. Yet how the market or art professionals approach folk art can sometimes lead to mischaracterizations.
“There is a rising trend of certain ethno-pop contemporary art being shown in galleries and museums. An increasing number of artists are being ‘discovered’ and exhibited as contemporary artists. Before they were called folk or outsider artists and now the same art is marketed as contemporary art,” Popiashvili told Observer.
Folk art has been around for a while and its “newness” is an attempt to reconnect with genealogies and belonging. What these likenesses underscore is the expansive and generous nature of folk art. When the artificial distinction between fine art and folk art—in which the former is expected to exude technical mastery and aesthetical qualities, while the latter would concern itself with cultural significance, whether emotional, practical or decorative—blurs, much depth and affective dimensions are revealed.
Folk art is a collective experience of art making and art viewing. While it convokes togetherness beyond strict notions of kinship, it also excavates belief systems that rely upon enchantment, myths, and remembrance. In doing so, folk artists are artisans of transmission, witnesses of passing time, and rebels to violent erasure. Their art becomes artifacts of resilience and, in some cases, resistance and survival.
“Maria Prymachenko: Glory to Ukraine” is on show at The Ukrainian Museum through April 7.