Kotryna Ula Kiliulyte and Edyta Majewska / In Conversation
Kotryna Ula Kiliulyte and Edyta Majewska are photographers based in Scotland and born in Lithuania and Poland, respectively. This conversation, facilitated by Katherine Parhar and the women’s photography network WildFires, focuses on how their experiences of living between cultures at definitive points in Europe’s political history has shaped their sense of self and, by extension, their practice.
KUK: Hello Edyta,
I have been aware of your work since I saw your degree show at the Glasgow School of Art in 2015. I immediately felt connection to the themes in your work as well as your sensitive, poetic approach and sense of humour. When Katherine and WildFires suggested we have a conversation, I wondered if the fact that our geographical homes (Lithuania and Poland) are relatively close makes us a good match. Does being from Poland affect your work? Or is it being a migrant that is more important? Your video work What I Remember, that was shown as an installation of over 20 (?) TV monitors in the exhibition space, has flickers of poetry and nostalgia. Is it how you saw your home before you left to live in Glasgow?
EM: Hi Kotryna,
I feel the same when I first saw your artwork during an exhibition in the Lighthouse.
The initial impression when I saw your project In Silver was that it almost touched my own past, it made me feel nostalgic and timid, which in some way intrigued me.
In your work I can see parts of me. For example the first kiss in the forest, the yellow flowers from my mother’s garden, smoking first cigarettes next to Lenin’s monument.
An even greater surprise was for me when we met in Edinburgh during the Jill Todd master class at the Stills gallery, when you showed me photographs that your father took in Vilnius in 1988. It’s truly amazing that I perhaps was there as well, at the same time, to sign the petition for Lithuanian Independence and fight for the fall of the power of the communist regime in Lithuania.
“Being from Poland” or “being an immigrant” has a big impact on my artistic work, and I guess it links to both of these aspects. The main thing, for me, is about missing my family, cultural landmarks, food, memories. I also, at some level focus on cultural differences between Poland and Scotland, and that comes from trying to find myself, as a foreigner in a land to which I am doing my best to adjust.
You were born 5 years before Lithuania gained independence. I am curious how the Soviet regime had an impact on your childhood and teenage years? How did you cope with it, what was your approach?
KUK: I know! I am not even surprised anymore that you may be somewhere in the crowds that my father photographed in the late 1980s. The book you purchased then is an amazing artifact and it’s surreal that I get to borrow it here, in Glasgow, nearly 30 years later.
In terms of Soviet regime and the impact it had on me… I am not sure if I can quantify this, as it is the only childhood I knew. Only, when sharing some memories with Scottish friends here in Glasgow I see their eyebrows rise when I casually drop a memory about the Lenin statue being removed, or Soviet tanks rolling into the city centre in the snow. That’s what my work In Silver deals with: this mixture of personal memories of smells, light, textures and then the events that made it into the news around the world and history books later. In Silver defies the hierarchy of these, the latter ones are not more important than former ones.
I was possibly shaped by the dappled light of the apple trees in our garden more than the lack of goods in the shops, and the games me and my sister played than not having an indoor toilet or shower. I think of family albums everywhere around the world as historic documents piecing the bigger historical narrative together. That is why I am weaving the two timelines into one in In Silver, letting them span over two eras, two geographical points and two political regimes.
I wonder if one thing I took away from my childhood is resistance as the natural mode of existence. Resisting the regime, questioning authority, protesting, dreaming and imagining life ‘behind the wall’ made me this stubborn maker I am now. Which brings me to your Winter Drawings series. There is this immense yearning for new places, new city, new experiences in this work. Do you feel like you satisfied it years later? Was moving to Scotland or taking up photography a way out for you? Or would you do another series with photographs of Glasgow, and what would you draw into them?
EM: You are absolutely right Kotryna, life in this oppressive regime has taught us how to be stubborn and humble . Going back to my work Winter Drawings, I think that Glasgow is the place of which I have dreamt, it is where I have found myself and happiness. Arts and photography majorly contributed to that, in a way it’s a form of therapy for me and it helps me to deal with being homesick. Now I am thinking of a 2nd series of Winter Drawings, but from Glasgow. The whole situation with Brexit and anxiety which comes from uncertain future. The title potentially could be Cities to Lose, but these are just thoughts for now.
When it comes to In Silver, do you think of continuing the project, as we constantly add new photographs to albums? Would the current unstable situation in Europe, especially for the migrants inspire you to evolve the project further?
KUK: Yes, Edyta, current events of course influence both our lives and our practices. Currently In Silver is awaiting a big editing job, so I have no plans of adding any more pictures to the existing hundreds and hundreds. I am really interested in finding the right strategies for reflecting the current political situation, and that’s why I am happy we are having this conversation. I think there are too many projects out there covering the life of others, be it migrants, refugees, other underprivileged groups. A lot of these projects have the best intentions, yet end up being another photo story about them. This makes me want to take a step back and approach themes from a more abstract angle, talk about ideas, concepts, strategies. Or talk about experiences that I know well: my own migration, my family being scattered over four different countries, feeling invisible due to where I come from, financial insecurity, gender related obstacles and not fitting the moulds that the society of my new home country had ready for me. That’s why I am keen to hear more about your work. Could you tell me more about the video you made during the Brexit referendum last year? What are your thoughts on political art?
EM: From my point of view, I see Brexit as an interesting opportunity for this area of art, however the video I made wasn’t made with the intention of combining politics and art. It was purely driven by the current state of my emotions such as frustration and fear of not having the right to vote and stand up for your own beliefs. This film is a documentation of my biography. It depicts me as an immigrant from Eastern Europe, working as a cleaner in a school, cleaning a day before one of the rooms was transformed into a polling station, a place where a decision would be made about my future in this country.
Purely based on my job, I am perceived as a lower person in society, and this leaves me with the feeling of being invisible and ignored by the other members of society with more prestigious jobs. Now I feel like I’m being noticed more, but only because the immigrants (like myself) are being targeted and threatened to lose our basic privileges and even being deported. This hurts, Kotryna, it hurts me as a working and modest member of society, human being and artist. Will there be another part to this video? I don’t know as for now I am feeling paralysed under the current state of things. I hope that this land we are living in will not turn sour over the course of time.
KUK: Thank you, Edyta. I find that making work is often the only thing I can do when frustration hits. Creation as opposed to destruction, critical view as opposed to populist slogans, and giving instead of taking. Scotland is a very interesting place to be right now, and in this potentially disastrous situation, there is also a possibility for new beginnings. Just to end on a positive note, work like yours and mine can become part of new ways of thinking. And one day we will not have to make art instead of voting. We will do both.
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