Alina Senchenko is a Ukrainian artist based in Vancouver. Her work focuses on social-political issues and de-stereotyping Ukraine and Eastern Europe through images. With her interest in uncovering ideas about history, contemporary society, and public life, Alina works primarily with photography, while remaining open to other mediums (including oil painting and theatre work) to bring her ideas to life.
SAD Mag: How would you describe your art practice?
Alina Senchenko: It’s social-political. I’m from Ukraine. If you’re Ukrainian, it’s hard to be apolitical. My main medium is photography, but I do work in different iterations in order to create my projects. Another extension of my work is artist books.
SAD: You’re from Ukraine, how have your life experiences shaped where you are now?
AS: I came here around 8 years ago to study at Emily Carr, which was my first instance with Western culture. It is a very dramatically different society: architecturally, the way cities were built here compared to back home, all the history, and how people interact with each other. In Ukraine, there’s a stigma of mistrusting (understandably because of traumatic histories), people are a little bit sad and depressed. In Ukraine, the corruption really gets to you in every way in every part of your life.
SAD: How does the interaction of cultures translate to your work?
AS: My practice is really trying to de-stereotype Ukraine and Eastern European countries. I try to look at a different point of Ukrainian life and society and try to breakdown structures. A lot of photographers from the West go to any Third World country and look at it with an exploitative gaze. There are people trying to live their lives in these places. It always made me mad to see this type of artwork.
SAD: So is your work about having a more “ethical” view of Ukraine?
AS: I’m just trying to break down traditional ideas and look at them deeper, beyond what we see in the media. One of my earliest projects, Everything moves, everything passes and there is no end, was trying to uncover revolution and what it means in the 21st century. A revolution happened in the Ukraine and a lot of things have changed. People want to have more European views. I was trying to look at the revolution at an individual level rather than at the crowds. With social political art, there’s a fine line between where it becomes propaganda—I don’t want to go into that realm, but I want to make it open so the viewer can see what they think about it.
SAD: How do you see your gaze in relation to seeing and representing Ukraine?
AS: Moving into a different country, you learn a lot about yourself, your own country, and this country. In a way I have a distance. When you’re in your home country, it’s hard to see what’s happening in society. When you have this distance, it gives you a different perspective on what’s happening. I really appreciate my move here and the perspective it gave me.
SAD: Where do you show your work so it’s viewed the way you intend to?
AS: I’ve had a very interesting response in this city where people were curious about the work, but I would definitely be interested to see how it would be received back home. Being in Vancouver, it’s hard to enter the art scene back home.
I don’t want anyone to view my work one way or another, but I want to uncover Eastern Europe for myself and for the larger public as well, because there’s not a lot of self-representation, there are a lot of stereotypes from the Cold War and the fall of the Soviet Union.
SAD: What are your influences?
AS: There are so many great artists we don’t really hear about and I appreciate a range of artists. A book I read recently, Chernobyl Prayers by Svetlana Alexievich, was great. She interviews people who were witnesses of the Chernobyl tragedy. It’s very touching, humane...dear, and very honest. She’s my inspiration in that way.
Also, Mladen Stilinović, a Croation conceptual artist. He’s witty and interesting. He has a work saying “Artist that does not speak English is not artist,” playing with the idea of who is perceived as an artist. I enjoy that kind of work, that’s honest.
One really powerful play that stuck with me until now is by Andriy Zholdak. This production was from my home town and it’s called Lenin Love, Stalin Love about the Holodomor (famine) that happened in Ukraine in the 1930s. It’s a play and it includes video and sound, it’s powerful and intense. It stuck with me.
Filmmakers like Andrei Tarkovsky have beautiful imagery and face different philosophical issues portraying different issues in the people and characters. The land he portrays is something I can relate to.
Chantal Akerman is one of my favourite inspirations. In her movie D'Est (From the East) she travels with her video camera through the former Soviet Union countries. She doesn’t put any stereotypes but rather pans through the landscape, showing it for what it is.
SAD: What themes are you exploring these days? What are you working on?
AS: I’m trying to collaborate with a writer and theatre director on a play and video work about a couple in Eastern Europe trying to renovate their old Soviet apartment. The premise is that there’s kind of this phenomena, Euro-renovation, which we discovered was also very common in Estonia, where the writer is from. We discovered this commonality, and tried to make this play as a metaphor for how a lot of former Soviet Union countries were striving to remake in a western style, but in the end the renovation itself comes out very different. It’s kind of funny and a quirky subject. We’re still planning, but I’m excited to start producing it.
I started a few oil paintings, and I exhibited them recently with a small curatorial artist’s group. The paintings are of a fight in parliament in Ukraine, and hooligans at football matches. For now this work is a diptych juxtaposing the chaos in government with the rise of nationalism in Europe. Historical painting is a funny way to interpret contemporary history, and the connotation of art history before. It’s just a start and I want to do more paintings.
My last photo-based project was work and leisure from at trip back home. I was curious about the representation of work and leisure in Ukraine, photographing mundane and simple things, for example, an older woman selling honey, or of guys working on the river bank. There’s a poetry in that—it’s a different representation of Ukraine than I usually see. For me it was rediscovering how photography can function in Ukraine in a way. In Ukraine there was a lot of socialist-realist paintings, depicting workers in this glorified notion. I was trying to work against that. This project was straightforward photography, but I was considering other things in terms of inspiration.
SAD: Is there anything else you want people to know about your work?
AS: Even though my work touches on Ukrainian social and political issues, it’s not only Ukraine that deals with those issues. It feels universal with the turmoil going on everywhere, it’s interesting and terrifying, and we need society to discuss so we don’t go down the road of disaster. In Ukraine, the political situation was (and still is unstable) and I feel there is a similar situation happening next door to Canada. We have to be wary of those things. We need to be aware and take action and have discussions.