Kyiv-born visual artist Yelena Yemchuk fled her home country at the tender age of 11, building a new life with her family in the US during the 1970s, away from the influence of the Soviet Union. Taken from her friends and her grandmother, Yemchuk felt a great loss upon arriving in the US, and she spent her formative years dreaming of the day she could return to Kyiv.
A decade later, she would finally make that journey, reuniting with her grandmother and the city that she grew up in. In the following years, she returned frequently to Ukraine, and as she steadily embraced the art of photography, the country became a key focal point in her work. In 2013, she began a long-term series on Odesa, a port city in southern Ukraine that she was fascinated by.
Over the next five years, she created an extensive collection of images, documenting the people and the spaces of Odesa, but also the impact of war on the city as Russia invaded and annexed the Crimean Peninsula in 2014.
War returned once again to Ukraine in 2022, with Russia pushing further into Ukrainian territory. In the years preceding this escalation, Yemchuk had been working on a different series looking at life in the country – this time at a folkloric ritual called Malanka that takes place each year on January 14 (the Old New Year in the Julian calendar).
Celebrated by ethnic Romanians in western Ukraine, the celebrations are meant to help drive out winter and catalyse the arrival of spring. Following Russia’s most recent invasion, it felt like a pertinent time for Yemchuk to share the work, to serve as a poignant reminder of Ukraine’s rich culture and traditions.
After debuting a short film on Malanka in 2023, Yemchuk’s accompanying series of otherworldly photographs depicting the ritual has now been published in a book by Edition Patrick Frey. Shot in Crasna, photographs of the night-long festival exhibit the artist’s distinctive blend of reality and fiction found in much of her work.
Against a freezing, wintery backdrop, the bold costumes of the festival’s attendees appear beautiful and distinctive. Subjects traverse the frozen ground wearing masks with exaggerated features, appearing as hallucinatory figures from some kind of fever dream.
The array of colours and textures found in the costumes are equally inviting, standing in stark contrast to the white of the snow and the dull brown of the leafless landscape. The rosy cheeks and wide-eyed grins of the children show their excitement at the festivities, and this sudden surge of energy from within a wintery slumber is palpable in the images.
In the series, Yemchuk captures not only an old tradition, but an important portrait of the Ukrainian people, who despite ongoing hardship, still emerge from their homes full of life.
“The Malanka’s survival is miraculous,” writes Romanian cultural journalist Ioana Pelehatai at the end of the book, where she recounts a visit to a Malanka in western Ukraine last January. “It manages to tame the unknown through successive repetitions, familiar roles, spectacular costumes, brandy, pairings, anonymity, shouting, songs, and hora. The Malanka lives in spite of war, in spite of death, because of death.”
Malanka by Yelena Yemchuk is published by Edition Patrick Frey; editionpatrickfrey.com