It is rather astounding how swiftly Ukraine has managed to captivate the world’s attention with its never-ending production line of artists, photographers, musicians, and designers. Seemingly, it is a weekly event where one of the major Western presses releases an article pronouncing that the country has shed its Soviet-heritage and its progressive youth culture is taking over the nation. However, like all the old declarations about Ukraine’s backwardness, these new claims need to be taken with a grain of salt.
For the select few that find themselves drinking aperitifs in Kosatka on Wednesdays, the vast majority of Ukrainians contend with the same struggles of class immobility, exploitation by the upper classes, and corruption which led thousands of people to take to the Maidan. The promises of the pro-Western Petroshenko government have changed the elite and continued the assault on average people, along with a war in the Donbas to add to the struggle. The promises of Maidan for most people across Ukraine now look more and more like a false dawn due to the continuing inequality and exploitation that is enabled by the state.
One of the cities that has endured one of the greatest struggles in the post-Soviet years has been the southern Ukrainian city of Mykolaiv. Famed for its shipbuilding, the city has become more infamous for drug addiction, incidents of HIV, marriage agencies, and unemployment since the shipbuilding industry collapsed with the fall of the Soviet Union. It is the side of Ukraine that is neglected in all the stories of raving at Closer and artisanal coffee in Lviv. Like so many other cities across Ukraine and the former USSR, it is a city left to the margins by the dominant class.
Despite Mykolaiv’s struggles, this is not a city that accepts its relegated position. Its citizens have created a habit of bucking conventions. Its primarily Russian speaking citizens firmly embraced the ethos of Maidan in resisting Russian-backed separatists and was one of the first cities to topple the statues of Lenin while being a key cog in the defense against Russian aggression. There is talk of trying to get the docks working again; people want to shed its reputation as a failed city. There is a strong desire to bring back a sense of hope in Mykolaiv.
One of the projects that has emerged from the city has been Sergey Melnitchenko’s photo school at Momi School. Born and raised in Mykolaiv, Sergey Melnitchenko has emerged as one of the countries best artistic exports over the last couple of years. His diverse work has gathered massive international acclaim, particularly his haunting series “Behind the scenes.” Instead of re-settling in Kyiv or somewhere else in Europe, Sergey has fully embraced his hometown. Knowing Sergey, this comes as little surprise.
Unlike so many artists, he exhibits none of the pretentiousness typically associated with an artist as popular as himself. Always a warm voice, he is always the quickest to support a fellow artist or offer a helping hand. Regardless of all the awards and features in Western media, he remains that man from Mykolaiv; that self-taught photographer who made it while working in China as a dancer in a sketchy club. He knows that geography does not determine artistic talent. However, a helping hand can enable an individual to meet their artistic potential. On returning to Mykolaiv, married and with a child, Sergey looked to offer an artistic outlet for individuals in the city by opening a photo school.
Recognizing that Ukraine had a long history of independent artistic movements, i.e. Kharkov school, Sergey knew the potential was out there but without the proper infrastructure these artists would remain isolated individuals incapable of building a community. Through a school, he would be able to mentor students in becoming more literate in photography while also focusing on practical matters, such as how to contact galleries and editors. He emphasized studying other photographers’ work while supporting his students in developing their own voices. Most of all, he wanted his students to know that the only way forward was through hard work and discipline. They might not be living in a fashionable district in Kyiv but that’s no reason not to make exciting art.
Recently, during a drunken night in Kyiv, I sat down with Sergey, where he expressed such pride in the students under his tutelage. Of the 19 students that originally started in his program, 15 managed to complete full series and exhibited their work. This would be the first time for all of them to proudly show off their artistic talents to their friends, family and community. Speaking about his students’ work, Sergey spoke about how each had grown in leaps and bounds. Initially skeptical due to my own personal prejudices, a few days ago I received a wetransfer file from Sergey containing 15 extremely diverse, talented artists. Exploring complex and diverse themes ranging from online dating, motherhood and the body, to the colours of brothels, this was no bland community photo exhibition. Rather, it expresses the compelling yet ignored voices from a community that exists on the margins. It is a collection of narratives that are often heartbreaking and absurd but at times utterly beautiful. It is a reminder that a wealth of talent exists across Ukraine that journalists, critics, and researchers will never have the joy of consuming if we do not step outside our bubble.
Below are all 15 graduates of the first program of Sergey’s school. Please, make an effort to support these artists. Although at the early stages of their artistic exploration, each artist brings a unique voice from a community that all of us need to take greater notice of. Be sure to follow them on their social media accounts to watch them prove Sergey right: that artistic talent is possible anywhere, but with a little support and love then it can truly flourish.
“only one click to feel better”
“Taking pleasure, forget about the world”
“Photos ordinary persons in usual life”
“Feelings, emotions, pleasure, aesthetics, passion”
“Photo is a dialogue between past and future”
“anything and anybody could be beautiful”
“A female body after the birth of a child can have any weight and shape, and it’s fine anyway.”
“our child – our footwear”
“Everyone creates his own future. Think about it now”
“What the eyes and soul fall in love with”
“social position, analysis, investigation, irony”
“Mannequins, World, Collage, Surrealism, Puppets”
“Best imagination, Developing the darkness, And evening brothel, To unfamiliar places”
“Signs help to choose the right path”
“hands are needed to feel life”