Yelena Yemchuk, Malanka

JTF (just the facts): Published in 2024 by Edition Patrick Frey (here). Softcover (25.5 x 18.6 cm), 176 pages, with 121 color photographs. Includes texts by Ioana Pelehatǎi (in English, Romanian, and Ukrainian). Design by Katja Bruhin. (Cover and spread shots below.)

Comments/Context: Yelena Yemchuk currently lives in New York, but she was born and raised in Kyiv; she was 11 years old when her family emigrated to the United States. She became interested in photography when her father gave her a 35mm Minolta camera for her fourteenth birthday. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Yemchuk started regularly traveling back to Ukraine to reconnect with the country, and she often says that her childhood is a source of inspiration for her work. She has been photographing Ukraine for over two decades now and her photographs offer a human portrait of a country often pictured today as war-torn. Her 2022 photobook Odesa created an intimate portrait of life in the city, where the casual rhythms of youth are disrupted by the presence of war (reviewed here), and her first book Gidropark (from 2011) was a study of an amusement park in Kyiv, a “Soviet version of Coney Island”.

Yemchuk’s new book focuses on a folkloric ritual called Malanka that is celebrated each year on January 13th (New Year’s Eve in accordance with the Julian calendar). The ritual is meant to welcome Spring, and it is one of the oldest and happiest holidays in Ukrainian culture. Malanka was a mythological figure in folk tales of pagan origin, and despite the Soviet regime’s ban on its celebration, the tradition has endured. In a way, Malanka has fed the spirit of Ukraine over many years. Yemchuk’s otherworldly photographs of this ritual have now been published in a photobook, simply titled Malanka; she also made a short film commemorating the celebration, which premiered during her solo exhibition at the Ukrainian Museum in New York in 2023.

Malanka is a softcover photobook with flaps. White fur and a red scarf appear on the cover, representing a sideways fragment of a photograph, and this abstract introduction hints at the content of the book. The title and the artist’s name appear in three languages (Ukrainian, Romanian, and English) and a traditional Ukrainian pattern is embossed on the cover, a thoughtful design element. Inside, most of the photographs are vertically oriented, with a thin white border around them, and occasionally images appear horizontally, adding some visual dynamism. There are no captions, page numbers, or other design elements, immersing a viewer into continuous visual flow. The essay by the Romanian cultural journalist Ioana Pelehatǎi, also in three languages, is placed at the end, closing the book.

The photographic series was shot in Krasnoilsk, a town on the border with Romania known for its celebration of Malanka, where Yemchuk traveled in 2019 and 2020, before the war. In the opening sequence we get a glimpse of Krasnoilsk, beginning with a horizontal photograph shot from the front of a car window, showing a horse carriage and two cars on a road on a winter day, with a church in the background. And in another blurred shot, a person stands in front of their house. In this rural countryside, the present and the past seem co-exist in one space. 

Yemchuk’s photographs depict a world that hovers somewhere between fiction and reality. In page after page, they immerse us in the celebration of the holiday, creating a slightly disorienting, dreamlike atmosphere. While some people gaze straight into the camera, it feels like they are simply noticing the photographer rather than intentionally posing for a photo. Yemchuk seems to immediately connect with the people, while also keeping the curiosity and distance of an outsider. 

Shot during a freezing winter, the images document the festival and its attendees dressed in distinctive, almost surreal, costumes and masks. Masks are worn to ward off evil spirits, and the bright floral scarves and variety of textures of the outfits stand out even more against the backdrop of white snow. These homemade costumes depict bears, gypsies, goats, and nurses, and villagers move from house to house singing carols, acting out skits, and playing jokes. Through the night and well into the next day, the entire village will turn out to celebrate. Yemchuk’s series successfully captures the magical energy of the moment.

Eager to say farewell to winter and welcome spring, the villagers are seen out on the snowy streets. A close up portrait of a young man in a straw hat takes up the entire frame in one spread, and in a picture next to it, we see him on the street standing next to a person in a mask and another in a bear costume. Further along, a photograph of a group of men on a long sleigh, some dressed as bears, takes up another entire spread. In yet another shot, a young man is taking off his straw costume, and we see it in the next image, a giant bear made out of hay laying on top of a car. The pride of the people shines through Yemchuk’s photographs.

A poetic essay by Pelehatǎi offers additional background on the festival. She traveled to Ukraine in 2023 in search of Malanka celebrations and witnessed the effects of Russia’s ongoing war in Ukraine. “This year it’s different”, she writes. Pelehatǎi had to search for a while before she came across a celebration. And while people are still eager to celebrate, they are also mindful of death and loss. But she also notes that “The Malanka lives in spite of war, in spite of death, because of death.” 

Yemchuk’s photographs, beautifully printed and thoughtfully sequenced in this photobook, depict a magical element of Ukrainian culture. This old Ukrainian tradition clearly inspires hope, and given current events, the photographs carry a powerful sense of both heritage and renewal. 

Collector’s POV: Yelena Yemchuk does not appear to have consistent gallery representation at this time. As a result, interested collectors should likely follow up directly with the artist via her website (linked in the sidebar).

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