Lesia Maruschak's award-winning photography explores erasure, migration and memory

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Image from Project MARIA. Image: Lesia Maruschak

When she was around 15, Lesia Maruschak heard a story, one that would resonate many years later and become a comprehensive photography project that would garner her prizes and critical acclaim. That journey would take more than 35 years.

"I finally had something of my own to say [and] the camera was the way," the 57-year-old artist told me from her home in Ottawa. The self-taught photographer had returned momentarily from Paris where she launched an exhibition. Maruschak once had a career in the Canadian civil service until a leukemia diagnosis triggered a change of life. After 2012, she travelled the world to study with Byzantine painter George Kordis, who invited her to be his curator. It's during that time that she began taking pictures with her cellphone and eventually graduated to a suite of cameras ranging from digital to Polaroid. Her initial foray into art-making was pivotal.

 "I love flowers, so I shot them and sent the pictures to Kordis," she explained. "He asked, 'Do you want the truth?' They are mediocre. Don't be captured by beauty, go make art.'"

I've caught her during a career upswing. Maruschak would be off in a few days to the U.S. to collect the Director's Award at CENTER, which holds the prestigious Review Santa Fe Photo Festival in New Mexico. It's for her Project MARIA, which memorializes the millions of victims of the 1932-33 famine in Soviet Ukraine. It has already captured the Grand Prix Award at the Kyiv Arsenal Book Festival and has been shortlisted for other accolades including the Prix du Livre at Recontres d'Arles.

"I have a relationship to this past and what I'm doing by bringing it out to the world is to say: I don't want our present to look like this."

In Project MARIA, the artist constructs a visual memory of the horrors of the time through two books, installations, a film, textile sculptures and lectures. It is composed of three main concepts, or rather, perspectives: examining a young life/innocence, the psychological effects of the famine and the experience of starvation itself and lastly, the artist's inability to come to terms with events of this type.

In a way, Maruschak says she is putting herself out there: "Ancestral traumas reside in us and my art is an expression of that."

In the first part of the project, Maruschak reconstructed Maria's life, to imagine the life of a young girl before the famine. Called "Red," the photographs speak of a young maiden with parents -- done as collage with some abstraction. The second part resulted in the limited-edition art book Transfiguration, which has been bought for preservation by a dozen institutions including: the Rare Books and Special Collections at the Library of Congress in Washington D.C.; the Green Library Special Collections at Stanford University; the Boston Athenaeum and the Butler Library Special Collections at Columbia University in New York.

Project MARIA's final part is about the idea of counting.

"I saw a figure in the news: 34,592 victims. It was some tragedy but I was struck by that exact figure. That's the challenge with massacres, famines and catastrophes. We can never know the precise numbers," noted the photographer. "Is it enough to say millions of lives were lost? What does that say about mankind that we can perpetrate that? What are our values?"

The eternal horizon

How did she get here? Maruschak sojourned to her beginning -- the Prairies. It was triggered by the advice of her late friend Peter Lindbergh who inspired her:

"There is one other way to find this place inside of you. This way is less secure, even dangerous and risky but it could be worth trying. This way would request you to abandon your roots and securities, to maybe find in exchange total freedom and independence from and for yourself and your work."

Maruschak went on a journey.

She ended up back in Saskatchewan, in -28C weather, wandering the prairie, barefoot, cloaked in a black, silk dress: "I crawled the Prairies to learn my point-of-view…the camera became 'the eyes of my heart.'"

What also comes to mind as we chat about the Prairies and her inspiration is Julian Schnabel's 2019 film At Eternity's Gate, about Vincent van Gogh's time in Arles, France.

"This line in the movie: 'When facing a flat landscape, I see nothing but eternity. Am I the only one that sees this?' The seeking of eternity…This is where I'm walking in that dress -- I believe it is a place that is visible and invisible, beyond."

During that journey, she was reminded of a conversation she had around age 15 with a survivor of the Holodomor -- a forced famine, a genocide, that killed millions of Ukrainians.

"She was the grandmother of a friend of mine," recalled Maruschak. "She said they had to eat the soles of their shoes."

This led Maruschak to do more research, uncovering chilling testimonies of survivors -- one in particular stuck, a nine-year-old child called Maria:

"She talked about her sister being cold and dead in the bed beside her. Then, how her mother didn't get up after being called to eat a bowl of soup. She was the last to die."

Maruschak, who is of Ukrainian heritage herself, linked these stories to that of her mother-in-law, who had been in Soviet Ukraine during Stalin's time. She also lost her family. Maruschak recalls a shoebox of photos that her mother-in-law kept and how photographs inside were torn with parts cut away.

"It's the idea of erasure," she emphasized. "There's a strong tradition of erasure in photography, as politics change, people get wiped out of the collective memory."

All this galvanized the photographer to consider "the memory of making" and the decolonization of narrative as well as identity and forces of migration.

"I want to take the Holodomor to a wider audience, to extend it beyond the Ukrainian community but in a humanistic way," said Maruschak. "I hope what I'm creating makes a contribution of how we understand the Other and our relationship to the Other."

I interview Maruschak only the day after she has returned to Canada from Paris. She is still fresh from that experience and talks about getting gallery goers to touch her art -- this emotional and visceral connection which binds us all.

"I have this piece called The Diggers and it's a large-scale image, [measuring] one-by-four metres, that I have mediated. I go into the landscape with the photograph and allow it to change. I use Byzantine egg tempera technique (egg yolk, wine and pigments) and then put ash and resin on it."

By encouraging people to touch the art, they get to feel its layers and they, too, become part of the performance of art: "It's the transcendence of time, the voyage of that work and that it's touched by the movement of people."

Get updates on Lesia Maruschak's work and exhibitions here.

June Chua is a Berlin-based journalist who regularly writes about the arts for rabble.ca.

Image: Lesia Maruschak

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