Today, I will not be a business consultant for Peace Corps. Instead, I will be a treasure hunter with the Baba Yelka Cultural Expedition. The sun is not up. I wedge into the back seat of the Renault four-wheel-drive wagon, where Inna and Svitlana chatter joyfully in Ukrainian about our destination. Grigory Nikolayevich drives, Aleksandr rides shotgun. His camera is pointed toward sunrise. My camera is ready in my lap. I have chosen a lens that will capture landscape and humanity. Today’s village is 200 kilometers away. What will it reveal?
We search for the heart of Ukraine. We embrace a shared aspiration: preserving Ukrainian history – stories, songs, recipes, embroidery – traditions sustained primarily by inestimably resilient “babusyas,” grandmothers, in remote villages. They embody treasures for future generations to learn about, understand and respect.
The traditions we discover today, and on the many other days we spend together exploring the Ukrainian back country, cannot be canceled, even by today’s invaders. Heritage here has been annealed into the hearts of Ukrainians for generations. Babusyas we meet and document are no strangers to tragedy. They offer tearful recollections of Stalin’s starvation campaign, Holodomor, in 1933, Nazi occupation, the strife imposed by meager Soviet pensions and other struggles. But joy always emerges from their anguish. They have lights in their eyes and smiles on their lips. They recount stories and laugh, offer us lavish family food and drink at their village tables. They sing songs and dance.
I was in awe of these events as they unfolded in 2018 and 19 and continue to be astounded by Baba Yelka’s discoveries today, despite the myriad tragedies and obstacles that surround the work. “Resilience, The Heart of Ukraine” is tribute to the babusyas and families who preserve Ukraine’s unique and beautiful culture and to the Baba Yelka Expedition’s race against time and unthinkable war to preserve Ukraine’s unique traditions for future generations to embrace.
There is much to learn about and discuss regarding the lives of people in these images. Elementally, the photographs depict incredible resilience, hope and perseverance deep in the heart of village life – qualities durable in the past and essential for future prosperity, for Ukraine, and for us all.
The Baba Yelka Cultural Expedition is named for Olena Rybalkina, nicknamed “Yelka,” who lived in the village of Rossohuvatka, Malovyskiv district, Kirovohrad Oblast, Ukraine. Yelka was the grandmother of Svitlana Bulanova, a founder of the cultural project. Baba Yelka knew hundreds of folk songs, treated local villagers with herbs, raised ten children, and survived the Holodomor.
Realizing the knowledge that their ancestors possessed was disappearing, the expedition’s founders decided to tour the entire Kirovohrad Oblast in search of authentic folk songs and artifacts that are unique cultural markers of the Kirovohrad region and which are not well known to the world. These are the culinary traditions of great-grandmothers, patterns on old towels and shirts, ornaments on chests and relics. "Baba Yelka" is also interested in preserving memories of the Holodomor, collectivization, testimonies about beliefs, witchcraft, wedding traditions, and more.
Since 2018, the project has visited 80 villages, recorded more than 800 ancient songs, captured 200 recipes, and talked to hundreds of respondents. They produced a cookbook of traditional recipes in 2021 and today have their own traditional clothing line and operate an ethnolaboratory in the city of Kropyvnytskyi, Ukraine.
The photo exhibition, “Resilience: The Heart of Ukraine” features work by American photographer Michael Andrews. As a volunteer with United States Peace Corps Ukraine in 2018–19, Andrews augmented his service as consultant to an HIV and AIDS service agency working as a photographer for Ukraine’s Baba Yelka Cultural Expedition. The group was formed in 2018 to preserve and share the unique cultural traditions of Ukraine’s Kirovoghad region — stories, songs, recipes and material culture, including traditional embroidery.
“Resilience” offers a unique window into remote village life before Russia’s invasion, and focuses on the lives of Ukrainian “babusyas” (grandmothers) and their cultural roots.
The exhibition was a year in the making and required long-distance collaboration between Andrews and his Ukrainian colleagues. “Resilience” debuted in Charlotte, NC in 2022, and presently is on tour to a number of American venues. The exhibition invites discussion of a range of timely topics, including the iconic role of grandmothers in Ukrainian culture, the country’s history, unique traditions and the today’s war.
“Resilience: The Heart of Ukraine” is tribute to the babusyas and families who preserve Ukraine’s unique and beautiful culture and to the Baba Yelka Expedition’s race against time and unthinkable war to preserve Ukraine’s unique traditions for future generations to embrace.
February 26–March 31, 2023
FREE and open to the public
Sunday, February 26, 5:30–6:30pm
Immediately preceding the Lviv National Philharmonic Orchestra concert at 7:30pm
Thursday, March 30, 2023, 5:00–6:00pm
All art will be available for sale
(RSVP on Facebook)
Artist talk with Michael Andrews
Thursday, March 30, 2023 at 5:30pm
Krannert Center for the Performing Arts
The Spot (formerly The Promenade)
500 S Goodwin Ave, Urbana, IL 61801
(or by appointment with Sam Smith <email@example.com>)
Note: All images are the copyrighted property of their respective owners.