Russian Colonialism Exhibition: Embroider Names for Remembrance

Russian Colonialism Exhibition: Embroider Names for Remembrance

Some indigenous groups from Russia have been struggling for self-determination for a long time. An exhibition on colonialism and expulsion is dedicated to them in Berlin.

Body parts made of felt lie in a glass display case

Felt Body Replicas by Gul Zeile: “Soft Series” Photo: FATA collective/nGbK

Russia’s war in Ukraine is best understood by looking at it from the imperial and colonialist perspective taken by Vladimir Putin and many Russians with him. The exhibition “Өмә” in Berlin in the new Society for Fine Arts (nGbK) in the Kunstraum Kreuzberg/Bethanien offers a lot of material on this. It brings together artistic positions and political analyzes by members of indigenous communities, some of whom have been struggling for self-determination in the vast Russian empire for centuries.

The focus is on Bashkiria, Tatarstan, Dagestan and Buryatia, among others. These are regions where resistance to conscription into the Russian army and deployment in the war against Ukraine was particularly strong – and in some cases successful.

The importance of the exhibition is already evident from the fact that it is one of the better – and most diverse – visited of the nGbK. Russian words can be heard, English, German and other languages.

The soft fragments of female body parts made of light-colored felt in Gul Zeile’s work “Soft Series” are carefully observed. They lie in long glass cases, similar to the remains of Christian martyrs in Catholic churches. Red color pigments are woven in, giving the impression of flowing blood. However, these signs of suffering are supplemented by ornamental, colored markings.

Zeile depicts the female body as injured and exhausted. At the same time, the body forms radiate a power that suggests that they can also transcend the current state.

Deportation to Siberia

Victoria Sarangova’s arrangement “Motherland” deals with specific historical events: the expulsion of members of the Kalmyk people to Siberia under Stalin in the 1940s. Small flags are installed on a round table indicating the fate of Kalmyk people with the name Sarangova embroidered in the flags.

Three drawings on top of each other show a hot desert, people on the move, their faces

In “Famine” Gul Altyn Qalamqas tells of the fate of nomadic Kazakhs Photo: Courtesy of Gul Altyn Qalamqas

The artist’s grandparents were also deported at the time. A timeline of dates for this complex runs along the outer edge of the circle. Sarangova later wants to bring the installation to the Kalmyk steppe and thus set up a center for worship and assembly.

The un|rest group’s research leads straight into the present. According to self-description, it is a left-wing anarchist group. On the one hand, she has collected videos of anti-war demonstrations that have taken place in various Siberian cities over the past 12 months. Chanting of “No to war” and “No to genocide” can be heard. In other videos, protagonists of independence movements of indigenous peoples in Russia have their say.

Өмә, Kunstraum Kreuzberg/Bethanien, Mariannenplatz 2, 10997 Berlin, until May 29th

More than 100 different ethnic groups live in Russia. According to the Organization Cultural Survival, which campaigns for the self-determination of indigenous communities worldwide, only 41 of them have legal status as so-called “small indigenous peoples of the North, Siberia and the Far East”. 24 other ethnic groups live in areas with autonomous status. According to Cultural Survival, around half of the minorities have no legal protection whatsoever.

In an impressively detailed timeline from 1992 that completely covers one wall, the un|rest group also documents political events and decisions that massively restricted the rights of Tatars, Bashkirs and Chechens.

Further research describes the massive involvement of European politicians, especially those on the right as well as on the left, in the colonial concept of Putin’s Russia. Trips by representatives of the AfD and the left to Russian-occupied areas in the Donbass are documented, during which, according to the un|rest group, even material aid was handed over to the separatists.

It becomes clear how deeply the poison of imperial Russian thinking penetrated the political discourse of Western Europe via a wide variety of networks. Rummaging through the large collections, which are primarily available digitally – QR codes in the exhibition allow access – makes you shudder.

All of this suggests that pacification – including the Ukraine conflict – can only be achieved by overcoming the colonial and imperial spirit of this last great colonial empire. Of course, the un|rest group is under no illusions that this could happen quickly. The various independence movements of the individual peoples are (still) too small and too weak.

At the Free Nations Forum in September 2022 in Gdańsk, Poland, a map of a post-colonial Russia with 43 independent republics and territories was published. It is a pity that this geopolitical speculation, which is also aesthetically impressive, did not find its way into the exhibition. The merit of “Өмә” is, after all, to address conflicts in the Russian Empire that are largely ignored in this country.

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