Project Bessarabia at PAV @ FITS2022

13 September 2022

The Platform for Visual Arts (PAV) is a project initiated by Dan Perjovschi and curated by Iris Ordean, with the support of Documenta15 and Sibiu International Theatre Festival.

At the second edition of PAV which took place this year between June 18th – July 3rd, I participated with the first version of the multimedia project Bessarabia, which I installed in the Red Room of the German Cultural Center in Sibiu. It’s not the first time when the Deutsches Kulturzentrum lends its support to art and artists managing to cover the institutional void which is hovering over contemporary art at the local level. In 2018, I was invited to exhibit at the former location of the Center within the project brut’18, where I had my second solo exhibition called Clones. Art without glass. Moreover, the curator of PAV, Iris Ordean, was my special guest at the vernissage of my first solo exhibition, Bestiary. That’s how it works in Sibiu: sometimes all you need to put on a great art show is a single person and their total dedication to that project, which involves, of course, the whole work of organizing such an event, besides the fact that you’re also a student and you have a full time job. This person was Iris for PAV.

Project Bessarabia started from a series of audio recordings made in the period of 2016 – 2022. In 1940 and 1941, my grandmother, Nina Maxim, and her family had to flee the town of Cetatea Alba in Bessarabia (then part of Romania, presently part of Ukraine) from the invasion of the Soviet army. In our conversations I captured her memories from those years and the atmosphere in her place of birth. All these memories were in stark contrast with life after their refuge when the general attitude towards refugees was hostile on one side and the other of the border between Romania and the USSR.

When I accepted the invitation to exhibit within PAV, I had just finished an artwork which illustrated a very tense moment that my grandmother had told me about. It was the moment when the Maxim family was about to leave from the railway station in Cetatea Alba where they had to board the last train leaving for Romania, a train with platform carriages that had no roof. Upon their departure, the pro-Russians that had remained in Bessarabia threw rocks at them. I had reproduced this moment on paper using charcoal and ink before the war started in Ukraine. Once Russia invaded Ukraine, the events my grandmother had told me about gained a potent aura of actuality. We can only imagine the impact that a revitalized traumatic experience might have on its subject.

When I talked to Iris about PAV, we agreed that the project must be presented right away, even in its intermediary and unfinished stare. All the while, I couldn’t pull away from the news feed and the media representations of the Ukrainian refugees that were leaving their country by the hundreds of thousands, noticing the striking parallels between the two moments in time, 1940 and 2022. I gathered a series of photos made by photographers Emilio Morenatti and Vadim Ghirda, who were documenting the refuge in real time: at the borders, in train and bus stations, on the streets of large cities in Ukraine, the pain was the same. I made a selection of photographs that I’ve presented in parallel with archive images from 1940 in the exhibition. This series of images represented the subjective-documentary substrate of the representation of the refuge.

Family photos were inserted in the exhibition to introduce the viewers to my grandmother’s story and to recreate a picture of life in Bessarabia in the period of 1927-1940. These images were of moments in the life of the Maxim family within their community: celebrations and carnivals, walks in the Public Garden, literary events, workshops, family meetings and other photos of their extended family. The photos were curated in strong connection with the content of the recordings of my conversations with Nina Maxim and were signaled in the exhibition as being linked to audio stories.

I edited our conversations and I presented them electronically on a tablet in mp3 format, to which I added text transcripts for clarifications or accessibility. The headphones used in the exhibitions were borrowed from another PAV participant, Simultan Association from Timisoara (through Alin Rotariu), to which I extend my heartfelt thanks!

The titles of the conversations were the following: The photo album.mp3, Demography, Citadels, Cetatea Alba.mp3, Motya.mp3, The Horses Socol and Koukla.mp3, They were throwing rocks at us.mp3, I’ve always felt as a rabbit being chased.mp3.

Then, on the central wall, I exhibited artworks made using charcoal and ink in the period of 2018-2021 and the large piece I created this year. The majority of the scenes were created using image references from a fragment of the Audio Journal ONC no. 73/1940.

In order for the multimedia exhibition Bessarabia to be complete, I called upon a former colleague of mine, Angela Zaporojan, to allow me to screen her documentary film, Fulgeraţii din România (2010-2011), at the German Cultural Center. In this documentary film, Angela has gathered five direct accounts from people who were forced to flee Bessarabia and also the point of view of a historian, between which she had interspersed propaganda images on the subject. Angela has kindly accepted to screen her documentary as part of the exhibition and thus we have completed the story of the refuge together. It doesn’t get more lumbung then that.

"The documentary <<Fulgeraţii din România>> approaches the subject of the refugees from Bessarabia, who left în 1940 and 1944, with the purpose of drawing attention towards the issue of refuge and oral history. Within the documentary, five people from Bessarabia talk about the atmosphere before the evacuation, the voyage they embarked on and the difficulties that lay ahead during their refuge as well as after they had settled in Romania. The details that they offer serve to illustrate the drama of hundreds of thousands of Bessarabians who had to flee the Russian occupation to Romania. The documentary was shot and produced in the period 2010-2011 by two Journalism students, Maria Minchevici and Angela Zaporojan, in coproduction with RUBICON DVD Gbr München and with the Journalism Faculty of Lucian Blaga University of Sibiu." - Angela Zaporojan

Several minutes before the vernissage, which took place on June 26th (the anniversary of the ultimatum that the USSR had given to Romanians in Bessarabia), I drew a map of the region on the whiteboard of the classroom that had been converted into an exhibition space, which proved to be very useful in the open discussion we had after the presentation. The participants were refugees themselves, children and grandchildren of the refugees, but also journalists and members of the civil society, such as Ciprian Ciocan, who runs the Community Foundation in Sibiu. The discussions were emotional, but on point and deeply rooted in the present.

I organized another event within the exhibition on July 1st, entitled “The second refugebecause the Maxim family went back to Bessarabia in 1941 after they were ordered to return, when Romania joined Germany against the Russians, only to be forced to leave again several months later. At the event on July 1st, I invited Eugene Vovk, the coordinator of the Ukrainian Center in Sibiu and a refugee from Odessa, with whom we had a chance to talk about the current state of things, about the experience of the Ukrainians who came to Sibiu and their interaction with state authorities, NGOs and volunteers. Fawzia G. Rehejeh, coordinator of the Arab Cultural Center in Sibiu, was also there at the event with Eugene and she had an important contribution to the discussion because she also had to flee Syria with her family.

For example, Eugene told us that, officially, there are 2800 Ukrainian refugees staying in Sibiu, but unofficially the number of refugees is almost double. They want to create a Ukrainian school in Sibiu that would be able to receive the children and teenagers this autumn. Their basic needs are currently covered, for now the focus is on the teenagers who are among those worst affected by leaving their homes. There’s a great need for translators and interpreters. Integration is not a current issues since 90% of the refugees in Sibiu want to go back home. We also talked about the cultural and linguistic differences between Romanians and Ukrainians and we found out that we have a lot of words in common but also culinary dishes.

You can find a short recording of this event here (in English):

The purpose of these meetings and discussions was to extend the art project in order to generate a ramified conversation with the community of Sibiu and an opportunity to offer my platform to people who are doing a fantastic job in helping the Ukrainian refugees that exceed the borders of the originally planned exhibition. It was also meant to bring about new collaborations and meetings between people who share the same past, in a lesser or greater extent. I have to mention that the initiator of PAV, the artist Dan Perjovschi, has contributed part of his artist fee from documenta fifteen to finance the participation of artists at the first edition of PAV. Thus, the concept underlying documenta fifteen, that of lumbung, was seriously applied by Dan and also myself by inviting certain people and entities external to project Bessarabia but who had a very valuable contribution to my exhibition at the German Cultural Center in Sibiu. Project Bessarabia will definitely continue in other formats and locations.