She was one of the last ones who grounded me to the land that I knew as my home. My great-grandma Pinky gave birth to five girls and two boys, my grandma among the brood – each stoic, modest and, from my outside view, resigned to the struggles of life. They all left the old farmhouse in rural Georgia for the promise of employment at a textile mill in the upstate of South Carolina: This migration from rural to industrial life, or the eternal search for something better, is common in a migration scenario. These siblings, some in their twenties and others much younger, would see the brick buildings that rested atop green hills beside a winding river. They worked there until they could no more. The founder of the mill incorporated the town and started the textile mill in the early 1900s. Within 100 years, the mill was closed, land reclaimed and cleaned. The production of textiles migrated to other parts of the world with this same migratory storyline playing with different individuals speaking different languages, each having the universal experience of moving from home to someplace away, uprooted and transplanted now with a new idea of home for themselves and their descendants. The lives relatives long turned to dust are the stones in the river that lead us from one shore to the other.
There is a universal longing to know where we came from and how this makes us who we are. Photography, the relatively new documentary and, more recent art medium, has a pivotal role in this act of self-exploration. The act of pulling out old photographs on tin, glass and paper – the advent of digital capture and its new challenge to this action aside – is a decades-old performance. We attach ourselves to that moment as presented before us in this fixed form because our actual memories are fleeting and pliable. Then, there are the photographs that came before we existed or had the ability to retain memories, a time that Roland Barthes in Camera Lucida calls History. Barthes describes a photograph where he is being held in mother’s arms as a time in History. He gazes upon the photograph and mentally recreates the q experience of being there with memories of how his mother was in later years. “Every photograph is a certificate of presence,” he states. What we see in the image was there, and it exists with or without our attached memory and becomes a medium for a new story.
History and Presence are themes that permeate Lesia Maruschak’s project and book Kraïna: My Canada. The artist’s family were immigrants and transplants to the open prairies of Canada in the late 1800s and Lesia uses her contemporary imagery and historical family photographs to engage the viewer in an exploration of culture and place. One pivotal image is where Lesia, much like Barthes in the aforementioned photograph, is a baby in a parent’s embrace. She rests on the lap of her father with surrounding family members in traditional Ukrainian garb. It is the beginning of a story as a new family starts a new life in a new land. Here in this book the image itself has a new life. It is the center, or the middle, of all that is before and all that proceeds.
Her collection of vernacular family images in conversation with the present representation of self, landscape and everyday objects creates a sense of sadness and longing. She can be any woman in her self-portraits, a ghost from her past and, for the future, a reflection of another time. This very land is where Lesia conceals her face in her self-portraits, denying the camera the validation of identity as she turns from the camera, but she physically connects herself to the land in the performance and the photographs as she walks “barefoot – as her ancestors did when they arrived.” She is connected to the same land. She is participating in the symbolic experience and the photograph becomes the witness to her presence. Curator for our journey, she includes photographs of a seemingly salvaged, historical latter; a document of a young boy in a casket; the family cemetery; bound wheat stalks; family farmlands after the harvest; and a Ukrainian-inspired prairie church to build the story and mood of the book. Kraïna: My Canada is a narrative created by the artist and reads as artist project, family album, journey of self-exploration and a lament to those lost to time.
Untold and undocumented stories, many of men and women living subsistence and unremarkable lives leave many gaps in History, especially the stories of those in a new land with new lives and experiences: many lives lived and stories untold. They are people long forgotten, yet, their genes and diluted identity continue with each new generation. In Kraïna: My Canada, Lesia Maruschak honors her ancestors and, while many of their stories remain unrecored, she creates her own narrative that visually examines self and place for future generations.
© MELANIE MCWHORTER
Editing ‘Melanie McWhorter’