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In Conversation with Bozhena Pelenska

Updated: Oct 7, 2023

Three Stories of Art and War III


коли гуркочуть гармати- музи замовкають


The Russian invasion catapulted the Ukrainian art world into crisis, and desperate measures were undertaken to secure staff, collections, and artists. Dreams are deferred but stubborn resilience manifests as a desire to not only protect cultural heritage, but also somehow provide opportunities for continued creativity. Three institutions from all regions of Ukraine—Central, East, and West—reflect on their current challenges, on how they are coping, and what might be in store for the future. When cannons roar, the muses will not fall silent.


The Jam Factory was on the verge of its debut as an interdisciplinary contemporary art centre in a repurposed industrial space in the Western Ukrainian city of Lviv when the Russian invasion started.


Jam Factory General Director Bozhena Pelenska has a background in art and culture management, with a bachelor’s degree in philosophy from the Ukrainian Catholic University in Lviv, an overseas scholarship year of study at the University of Ottawa, as well as a master’s degree in cultural studies from Lviv National University through a programme affiliated with the Central European University. She fled temporarily to Poland at the onset of hostilities to place her young daughter in a safer environment and has been returning to Lviv to continue preparations for the opening in now radically changed circumstances.


This interview was conducted on 16 April 2022.


Peter Bejger, for CJLPA: Please describe the Jam Factory.


Bozhena Pelenska: The Jam Factory[1] is a complex of several buildings in the Pidzamche industrial district of Lviv. The main part, when you arrive at the site, is a beautiful old building which looks like a castle. It was built in a neo-Gothic style, with a tower, and the building was originally used to produce alcoholic beverages in the Austrian period, and jam during the Soviet era. This was a heritage building and had to be adapted and restored correctly. Our approach was to preserve as much as possible and to be true to ourselves. By May everything should have been finished. We had our timeline and date. The international press conference was planned for 4 April. We had our final timeline where the curators had to present the programme. The opening date actually was set for 26 August. That was in our calendar. This is where the war caught us.

Fig 1. An architectural rendering of the future Jam Factory Art Centre, Lviv. © The Jam Factory.
Fig 2. A current view of the Jam Factory. © The Jam Factory.

PB: Has everything been frozen now? Or is work continuing?


BP: The first week (of the war) was a shock for everyone. My colleagues and I couldn’t do anything the first week. We wanted to volunteer, to do something crucial, and for me this was important. When the air raids began, we were afraid and all of us in the neighbourhood used the basement of the building as a shelter. Lviv was being hit by rockets.


Our first question was: what can we do? We gave our offices to internally displaced people as a refuge. Also, regarding the renovations, many of the workers were from Central or Eastern Ukraine. In the early morning of the day the war started, they immediately returned to their families, to Kharkiv, or they became soldiers and joined the military to defend their cities. After a week and a half of the war, we had a meeting with the construction company to see if they could complete the renovation. Would they be able to get workers, material, and finish the Jam Factory? We are awaiting their response.


PB: Who is the owner of Jam Factory?


BP: He is a private investor, Dr Harald Binder, who is a Swiss academic with a special interest in East Central Europe and a cultural entrepreneur who lives in Vienna and London. He is the owner of the buildings, and he is the investor, or philanthropist, who invests all the costs in renovation.


Constance Uzwyshyn, for CJLPA: So, he bought the building?


BP: Yes. It was purchased by Dr Binder and it is part of his Foundation. He also established in Lviv in 2004 the Centre for Urban History[2] which is different from the Jam Factory and concentrates on academic research with an extensive public programme of lectures, exhibits, and events.


CU: I would like to talk about how your programme works, as well as the concept and the vision.


BP: The vision for the Jam Factory was to create an international art centre. I wanted to have a curatorial approach that would be rigorous, and we would create exhibitions of Ukrainian artists from Ukraine, Ukrainian artists that are abroad, and also international artists. This centre for contemporary art is important, in order to show Ukrainian art as an integral part of Europe and involved in world discourses.

Fig 3. An appeal for the ‘Artists in War’ programme. © The Jam Factory.

One of the biggest problems is that many people are not familiar with Ukrainian contemporary artists, or the Ukrainian avant-garde. We are connected to Europe, despite the borders separating us for many years. We have wonderful, brilliant artists who use different contemporary approaches in either the visual arts, painting, installation, or media arts. One of the artists we wanted to exhibit was Olena Turyanska.


We want to be inclusive. For example, we had one artist who is transgender. The curator selected the artist because of the interesting work. We want to be inclusive as much as possible, but we also want to have this frank approach where we choose what we believe is good and important and that can really talk about the subject.


Our first exhibition was to be ‘Organic Community’ and it was to involve theatre, music, and the visual arts. It was to include issues of colonialism and appropriation, ecology and human relationships, and modernisation. Colonialism is a very important topic today in Ukraine, with the war. We wanted to show that Ukrainian artists are engaged in global issues and showcase them to the world. And all this is created in Lviv!


CU: Now we are in a war, and you are living in Poland with your child, right? What’s next? Can you even make plans for the future?


BP: Well, I will be frank with you. Actually, it was a very hard decision for me to leave. I actually felt very guilty leaving Lviv because I felt I had to stay in Ukraine and do everything I need to do and do whatever is necessary. But on the first day there were all these sirens, and it was such a shock. I was so frightened, especially for my daughter. This was so stressful for her, and I simply didn’t know what was going to happen. I had a friend in Warsaw and she said, ‘Come, I have a room. My son will move out of his room and I will put a mattress on the floor and you can sleep there’. I didn’t know, I didn’t know…And there was someone with a car and they had two places and they said they were leaving in ten minutes. I took my backpack and my daughter’s backpack and our laptops and fled. This was one of the hardest decisions in my life.


PB: How old is your daughter now?


BP: She’s twelve now. It was very hard travelling, and it took 30 hours to get to the border.[3] But this was the moment when my responsibility for my daughter and the unknown future prevailed and I decided I must leave. Yes, there were a lot of difficulties, but I returned to Lviv last week. It is still very stressful for children, and adults for that matter. If you can imagine all these sirens. I have recorded some of them. There is martial law and a curfew and you have to return home very quickly. There is a shortage of different products. Of course, this is also a very exciting time for creating now and more people are in Lviv. And now after 50 days of war a lot of people are starting to write that they are ready to do something. It is so strange, there are few children in Lviv.


I recently spoke with Harald about how we will renew activities. However, it is hard to plan. There are many battles and then it is so psychologically difficult. I want to finish the renovations and we may open the Jam Factory, but now in totally different conditions. We don’t know many things.


PB: I understand now you are actively engaging with artists to help them through this crisis?


BP: Quite a lot of artists have said that they are blocked, and unable to create. Many are participating in humanitarian aid or doing military service. There are so many different stories. We created a program in response to the war. It’s called ‘Artists at War’ and a lot of artists can apply to this programme. We do not demand them to create, but we ask them in the next six months to create something in their work relating to the war. And we want these works to help us to collect funds, to help other artists. And I think we might also produce an exhibition later.


CU: So, you give them money to do this, is that the idea?


BP: We have collected some money for them already, and we are asking people to donate for that programme. We are selecting, we are looking at who the artist is…we are looking at their portfolios, and if they fit our criteria, we give them money for their needs and we ask them to create. The conditions are quite easy as we understand it’s already very hard to create, but I think this would encourage them and it’s important to give them a voice in these conditions.


PB: What is the mood like in Lviv now when you returned? What is it like psychologically?


BP: Oh well, I met quite a lot of people. They are exhausted and cannot sleep. They are very motivated to do as much as possible. A lot of volunteer work is being done. However, with some people there is a new feeling. They feel so vulnerable. There are so many people from the East or the northern part of the Kyiv region who have lost so much. They are in shelters and this situation tires them so much. I feel I can’t rest because they are not resting and I am conflicted about why I care so much about me when they have nothing? This is psychologically difficult. But many people are still very motivated to help.


PB: You might want to think about this question. How might the influx of people into Lviv have changed the art scene there?


BP: You know, it has changed a lot. And it is changing now.


PB: What’s going to happen with the Ukrainian art scene now, as it’s dispersed?


BP: It is changing now. For example, in theatre. We are also working in theatre. As you know Kharkiv is totally destroyed.[4]

Fig 4. A damaged building in Kharkiv, 23 May 2022. © Dimitar Dilfoff/AFP via Getty images.

Kharkiv was quite strong in theatre, in experimental theatre groups. They had a very good and very strong theatrical school, and people there. And most of them are now in Lviv. They very quickly created a new group and they started to perform. I think they will stay. One of the leaders, his last name is Utsyk, Anton Utsyk, said that most probably they will stay in Lviv and in Kharkiv after the war is over. So they created this group, and I’m sure it is already an influence, and I was thinking how I as a Jam Factory director can engage with them. We can give them space, maybe to one of the groups. And this will already change Lviv. And one of the designers, he is also in Lviv. He is from Kyiv. I’m sure he is going to change things quite a lot. It’s hard to envision exactly how, but I really hope for much better in the future for all of us who have been brought together quite unexpectedly.


CU: I know, it’s tough. Eight years you worked on this, right? So close. But you know what? It will happen. I just know the world will come into Lviv and it will be very exciting. Just hold on.

Fig 5. A rendering of the future Jam Factory with performance space. © The Jam Factory.
 

This interview was conducted by Constance Uzwyshyn and Peter Bejger.


Constance Uzwyshyn is an expert on Ukrainian contemporary art. She founded Ukraine’s first foreign-owned professional art gallery, the ARTEast Gallery, in Kyiv. Having written a masters dissertation entitled The Emergence of the Ukrainian Contemporary Art Market, she is currently a PhD candidate at the University of Cambridge researching Ukrainian contemporary art. She is also CJLPA 2’s Executive Editor and the Ukrainian Institute of London’s Creative Industries Advisor.


Peter Bejger is an editor, filmmaker, and writer based in San Francisco. He was a Fulbright Research Scholar in Ukraine, where he wrote and produced a documentary film on Secession-era architecture of the city of Lviv. Previously, he lived in Kyiv for several years, where he worked as a journalist, media consultant, and cultural critic.

 

[1] See <https://jamfactory.ua/> accessed 1 June 2022. [2] See <https://www.lvivcenter.org/en/> accessed 9 May 2022. [3] Lviv is located about 70 kilometres (43 miles) from the Polish border. [4] Taylor Dafoe, ‘Kharkiv’s Palace of Culture was Destroyed by a Russian Missile Attack, Leaving Eight Injured’ (Artnews, 24 May 2022) <https://news.artnet.com/art-world/a-ukrainian-palace-of-culture-in-kharkiv-destroyed-2120574> accessed 25 May 2022.

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