My story - Kateryna Seheda
Ukrainian artist Kateryna Seheda, from Crimea, works with paintings, textile, ceramics and performance art. Meet her in an interview where we talk about how the very beginning of life can affect us, the involvement of culture and language in war and how art can be a source of life itself.
Text & interview: Maria Söderberg, Studio Karavan with interpreter Lena Shulga, Artists at Risk (AR)
Foto: Nicklas Thegerström
I understand that you work with textiles, paintings and ceramics. Why did you choose to work in all these creative fields?
- I’d like to add to the list you mentioned that I also do performance art. That’s what I’ve been doing in Sweden together with Theresa Lekberg. It’s a new media for me. I like to use different kind of medias because every single one of them gives me different ways of express myself. I’m also paying attention to video works, documentary film. That’s also a form of expression for me. I think visual art, paintings and installations are very impressive ways of showing what’s inside and with help of this I can really drag symbols and meaning out of myself. For the moment I’m not doing the ceramics since I don’t have a studio or material for that. But actually, with ceramics, I was repeating and using the same symbols as I do in the other art forms.
What does the materials and tactile feeling mean to you when you work?
- I work with textiles because they’re smooth. They remind me of the human skin. One of the main topics of my work is the embryo. That comes from a traumatic experience from when my mother was pregnant with me. This was during the Soviet time and the medical treatment of the woman body was quite aggressive. The doctors could not determine that she was pregnant, they diagnosed my mother with infertility and chose a treatment with ten sessions of electric shocks. For me it was a traumatic experience being an embryo and all this is preserved in my genetic memory. I returned to this topic when I gave birth to my own daughter. I had the feeling of what it’s like to be an embryo and what it’s like to be inside another body. I remembered the story about my mother, and I could express it. The first practical experience of this was when I made dolls for my daughter. Dolls have the parts of the human body and through that I understood what I wanted to do.
What is it like, being an artist in Ukraine?
- You know, I’m from Crimea. Crimea is Ukrainian but was annexed by the Russians in 2014 – taken in one day. It´s an occupied territory. I had one exhibition in Kyiv before I came to Sweden. And I had to transfer my wooden sculpture over the border, from Crimea to Kyiv. That was really stressful, and I had to hide the sculpture. Crossing the border is like leaving the prison with controls and all that. I crossed the border walking, with the sculpture in a backpack.
Being an artist from Crimea in Ukraine can be hard. Maybe they see me as a kind of a betrayer because I live in Crimea, an annexed territory. I felt I never could get into the Ukrainian cultural scene. I felt completely left out from the Ukrainian cultural society that I really want to be a part of. I know the Ukrainian language well even though people in Crimea speak mostly Russian. We speak Russian because we are used to it, and we are used to it because of our history and the USSR Regime. All countries in the USSR Regime had to speak Russian. Culture and language are some of the reasons for the war.
The language is actually an issue. Many Ukrainians have since the beginning of the war abandoned the Russian language, to speak only Ukrainian. But that’s difficult, especially for the people from the eastern parts of Ukraine. They were born with the Russian language in their surroundings. You subconsciously think that Russian is your mother tongue because that’s what you hear. Talking Russian with parents and friends. It’s difficult to just change. This is a huge problem in our country. In this interview, Lena (the interpreter) and I speak Russian, because that’s the language both of us are most used to. But if this would be an official event, we would talk Ukrainian. The Russians are killing us, that’s why we have an aggression against the Russian language.
I’ve noticed that Ukrainians from the eastern parts being here in Sweden speak Russian and they also learn Swedish. I’m not really good at languages so it’s really hard for me since I need to study English, Swedish but also Ukrainian. My consciousness tells me that I must write and speak Ukrainian in all official meetings or everywhere where I express myself as an artist. As a Ukrainian artist and as a part of Ukrainian culture. So that’s what I do. Using the Ukrainian language is my responsibility.
Do you remember what you did the day before the war broke out?
- I really do remember this day. Just before the war I had uncontrolled asthma. Two years earlier I had Covid and after Covid I got a diagnose of obstructual bronchitis even if it was controllable. But just before the war the asthma was really, really bad. The situation was also hard emotionally because the situation was forcing us to sell our house in Sevastopol. A house that we had constructed ourselves. At the same time, I had to leave my grandmother. And that was really tough emotionally. I couldn’t breathe properly for a couple of months. In the end I just refused to sell the house and my husband went to a small village to find out if we could relocate our family. All this happened in January 2021. When the war started in February the situation was all about leaving Ukraine.
"Now I reflect on my art, before I was just doing my art. Doing, doing, doing. Otherwise I would explode."
How was it to leave Crimea?
- We had a car with Ukrainian numbers which is a problem when you are going through Russia. This was very scary because we didn’t know what would happen. We couldn’t go through Ukraine since the border between Crimea and Ukraine is closed. The only way to get out was through Russian federation where the police occupiers tore up the Ukrainian document customs declaration on our car. We weren’t sure what would happen. It was hard to get out of there.
It was also a big inner conflict for me because I just had to get out of Crimea, I just had to leave. And then, on the other hand, I had my grandmother. I had to leave her. That was so hard for me, she raised me. She actually passed away this February and I could never take a proper goodbye. That’s a big tragedy for me. All of this is very complicated. Leaving Crimea is like leaving a prison. We have barbed wire everywhere. When you go to the beach in Sevastopol you can find barbed wire with electricity in the fence which is crazy. In Crimea you are in a prison, you are not allowed to do anything. This is somehow symbolic for me since my mum was treated with electricity when she was three months pregnant with me.
And a terrible thing is that maybe 80% of the citizens of Crimea believe in all the propaganda they are fed with, including my grandmother. They watch TV every day and they really trust the news that Russia is giving them. There are terrible things happening in Ukraine. They have only the Russian news and Russian culture since Russia took Crimea eight years ago.
- Actually, I don’t know why I ended up in Sweden. I was having an exhibition in Stockholm, at Supermarket Art Fair. This was in May 2022, and I was bringing my objects. In the end this was an important choice. I realize that it was really important for me to come to Sweden. Now I reflect on my art, before I was just doing my art. Doing, doing, doing. Otherwise, I would explode. I had to create my art to express myself and it was very aggressive. Some of my work I still can’t show in exhibitions or on Instagram because it’s 100% connected to terrible violence. For example, a boiler maker my mum was beating me up with. I created an art piece but could never show it. But now, I understand how important it is to shed light on it. When I fled Ukraine, I was in Estonia for two months and I couldn’t express myself as an artist. We were living in a hotel for refugees, in a very small room and I could only work with watercolors. When I came to the residency, Art Sea Ocean in Trosa, I could finally feel safe.
"I felt calmer. That’s why I can create.
Feeling safe is the most important thing, I think. "
Somehow, I feel this transcendental beauty of the Scandinavian nature. When looking at the nature in Sweden I understand that my art doesn’t have to be only aggressive. It can be dissolving. I left Crimea and suddenly all the colors were different in Sweden. The nature dictates the rules. In Crimea I saw only blue. In Sweden I saw fifty or hundred shades. My art is changing. The nature also dictates the cultural differences. If I compare Sweden with Italy, Italy will never have the same art and cultural as Sweden. Crimea is similar to Italy. By mood, by sun, by nature.
How do you get strength and drive to not loose creativity in your current situation?
- This is a very interesting question and I have been reflecting on it. When I express myself through my art it comes from inside. I don’t have to force myself, it’s a natural process. Otherwise, it will tear me into pieces. It’s an ability for me to grief and I think that if they would put me in a Russian prison and take away the ability to make art, taking away the ability to draw, sew or perform I would just go crazy and die. Because then, why should I live? It’s really a very important question. The art is my life. My visons. An opportunity to feel alive.
My inspiration comes from nature. When I came to Sweden, one of my wishes was to visit Norway. And since we’re very close to Norway we decided to go there. I saw the waterfalls and the mountains, and it was so spectacular. I felt so much artistic energy inside. I felt I had more ideas and could do more art. I felt relaxed at last, I felt better. I could rest. That is definitely my inspiration, the nature. Another inspiration is art made by other artists. Such as Joseph Beuys, Carol Rama, Marina Abramovic and Edvard Munch. I dream about visiting the Munch Museum in Oslo.
What are the biggest challenges for you as an artist while being in Sweden?
- It’s still really challenging for me as an artist. In every country the artistic society is hard to get into. In order to break thorough and to become a known artist you need to have connections, networks and personnel contacts that can allow you to get in. I’m facing difficulties with that. I wouldn’t say I’m super ambitious, but I would like people to see my art.
Another challenge is the weather. It’s very cold in Sweden. The cold and the reduced hours of sun is hard for me. Crimea is subtropical; very sunny, warm and close to the sea. Crimea is like a resort for the Ukrainians.
I’m also struggling with all the tragedy happening in Ukraine right now. Constantly reading the news. I want to read it, because I want to express what’s happening in Ukraine through my art. That’s my duty and what I want to do. Somehow, I need to cope with all that information, but it’s hard. I donate to the armed forces, but I have the feeling that I’m not doing enough for my country.
And when I go to immigration services or social services, I must deal with that. I guess that’s a challenge for all migrants – how to fill in the papers, the bureaucracy and things like that. Before the annexation of Crimea, I had sun, my own house and I was in a very good condition. I had homemade food, products and everything. That’s another experience from what I have now.
"Constantly reading the news. I want to read it, because I want to express what's happening in Ukraine through my art. That's my duty and what I want to do."
How can artists highlight social issues, injustice and oppression? And is that something you work on through your art?
- My personnel experience is that when the annexation of Crimea happened, I began to read about political oppression of injustice globally. Because it affected me. I don’t think I would keep thinking about the Soviet experience from my childhood if Crimea would be free. An annexation is a first step of a war. In interviews and published articles that I have been participating in, I have always talked about the annexation of Crimea because it’s a format of war. They take the freedom away; they take a physical territory away and they change the life completely for people. Just without the physical murders and victims. I think I must shed some light and hope with my art. Not only talk about these terrible things. Have something positive in it. I felt hopelessness in Crimea but now I feel hope.
Tell me what opportunities you got during your artist residency, to highlight the Russian war on Ukraine?
- The first opportunity was the Super Market Exhibition where I was showing my paintings, some of them I took from Crimea. I have also done a performance with Theresa Lekberg that was highlighting the question of the war in Ukraine. We sew all the costumes ourselves and did this performance. We never invited people, but we documented this performance in a video format.
What’s the main goal with your artistry for the moment?
- One of the pieces I’m working on is connected to the medical first aid kit. And right now, I think I would like to be inspired by the work of film directors. That fulfills me the most right now. I have this transformation of my art right now. I feel that my art is becoming deeper. I want to express my art deeper. That is a goal - the process of transformation of my art.
What is most important for you right now?
- I want to add grace and elegance to my art. I want to crystalize it. I want to have a moment where I feel “Yes, this is what I want, this is what I feel. Now it’s elegant and graceful and deep”.
I also want my daughter to feel comfortable because she’s very much like me. She’s my little clone. She’s having difficulties with the language which is hard and tough for her when she’s in Swedish school. I can see her stress and I want to find a solution for her so she can feel better.
What are your wishes for the future?
- Oh, I can’t imagine my future. I see Ukraine liberated from the "russian plague", and prosperous, where all the Ukrainian people have united. I see myself in my native country. I see my Crimea in Ukraine, and it’s not an annexed territory. I would like to go back, but I can’t imagine that. I don’t know where I’m going to be, what I’m going to do and what country I’m going to live in. I’m lost. I think most Ukrainians have that feeling right now. The first thing I’d like to do is to return to a free Crimea. To a Crimea that’s not a prison. I’d like to drive through an open border. I would go to my house and take the things that are important to me and go to my grandmother’s grave. That’s most important and what I’d like to do. Kiss the soil, my earth.