Documentary exhibition

Polina Raiko and the fragility of art

Organised by the National Centre "Ukrainian House"

In partnership with the Polina Raiko Charitable Foundation

Exhibition's curators: Olexiy Ananov, Alisa Hryshanova, and Maryana Dzhulai

Photo and video material kindly provided by the Polina Raiko Charitable Foundation

Polina Raiko is an amazing self-taught artist and an exceptional Ukrainian naïve painter. The artist's family home in the Oleshky township in the Kherson region became her masterpiece. Inside the house reflected light from the Dnieper marshes falls on Raiko's real-life dramatic scenes painted with regular household paints on the walls and ceiling.

The wide spread flooding caused by the destruction of the Kakhovka dam totally ruined most of the wall décor. Also, the painter's family house is located on the Left Bank of the Kherson region which is now controlled by the Russian forces. As a result, Ukrainian specialists have no access to the property to salvage the frescos or assess the damage.

But we can still tell the story of Raiko's remarkable family home and celebrate her life's work, discussing the importance of her art in the context of Ukrainian artistic tradition and keep her legacy alive. Her almost completely destroyed family house continues to live on in the symbolic world created by books, film, photo projects, and professional art catalogues. Luckily, the frescoes were documented in detail by a team of enthusiasts. Still, it lives on as a magic fairy tale and a beautiful mirage.

Raiko's art is very distinct. Her artistic roots lie in the folk tradition of interior wall decoration. The artist combines religious motifs, folk legends, and Soviet imagery. Raiko goes far beyond telling her own life story – she speaks for generations of people, her time, and the region.

The Kherson art community active in the last decade, like Stas Volyazlovski and Vyacheslav Mashnitski name Raiko among their key influences. Her fantastically powerful images continue to excite the spectators even today, though only on photo and film.

Naïve art is fragile – the paintings are usually done without the application of professional priming technologies due to which the durability of painting is significantly reduced. Often the artists and their close circle undervalue their work, art experts have limited access to naïve art and are unable to provide their professional opinion. At the same time, Ukrainian art history will be incomplete without the input from the naïve artists.

So, it's absolutely vital to overcome the challenges and salvage Raiko's unique universe which is part of the Ukrainian national identity which our country is trying to protect in this atrocious war. And it is something WE need to do. Because art is fragile and delicate, it needs OUR protection, attention, discussion, participation, action, and care. All of which contributes to our shared strength.

Polina Raiko (born Soldatova) is a naïve artist from the Kherson region, she is completely self-taught. Raiko was born in Tsiurupynsk, now the Oleshky township. Her official papers list her date of birth as May 15th, 1928 but she was born in April. At the age of 22 she married Mykola Raiko. In 1951 the couple welcomes their first child, a daughter Olena and two years later their son Serhiy is born. The year following the birth of their youngest child, the family moves into their new home on the bank of the river Dnipro, the same house, which now serves as Raiko's museum.

Raiko starts to paint at the age of 69, following the death of her beloved daughter in a traffic accident and the next year she endures another tragedy as her husband dies. But bad luck continues to plague Raiko – her son was an abusive alcoholic, and drank away almost every possession she had. To support his habit, he often engaged in criminal behaviour which finally landed him in prison. Following his release he continued the abuse, which sometimes turned physical and in 2002 he died from liver disease. Raiko was left alone and without help, she found solace in the mundane daily activities like fixing and decorating the house, she used those activities for therapy and art.

Raiko began with decorating the ceiling of the house and the interior walls. Then she moved on to the summer kitchen, garden gates, garden walls, and the garage gates. She used the cheapest available enamel paints, popular with the country folk for painting wood floors and doors. The artist used all of the little pension money she had to buy jars of paint and tried to earn extra cash by doing odd jobs for the neighbours.

Art became Raiko's salvation. She painted scenes with birds of paradise, magic beasts, and angels which existed in a parallel universe where she was together with her family and all of them were leading happy and fulfilled lives. In 2004 Raiko peacefully passed away in her sleep.

Today Raiko stands together with such tremendously talented artists of the folk tradition like Maria Prymachenko and Kateryna Bilokur.

The artist's iconography

Polina Raiko was first discovered as an artist by Serhiy Dyachenko, a local historian. Her art is actively promoted by a team of Kherson artists, like Vyacheslav Mashnitski, Olena and Maxym Afanasyev, Stas Volyazlovski with support from the Totem centre for cultural development.

Olena Afanasyeva together with Serhiy Dyachenko recorded Raiko's stories, categorised and published them in an extensive art catalogue Polina Raiko: Stairway to heaven (2005) which today continues to be the most complete and comprehensive source of information on the artist. The exhibition largely draws on the artist's iconography as it was described in the text.

The husband

Raiko's family home features a portrait of her late husband which she painted after his death. Curiously, the man on the mural does not at all resemble Raiko's husband in real life. Olena Afanasyeva and Serhiy Dyachenko, researchers of Raiko's legacy, say that the artist's archive does not have any photos of her husband with a full moustache. The image is a product of the artist's fancy. Also, Raiko seems to be performing an ancient burial ritual when she includes in the painting a cash of burial goods to smooth her husband's passage to the netherworld. She paints his favourite alcoholic beverages, like home brewed wine and Ukrainian horilka (vodka) together with a big fishing rod he so much wanted but did not get during his life time.

The wedding

For many years the wedding mural stayed hidden on the bedroom wall. So, nobody directly questioned the artist during her life time about who's wedding it was – whether it was hers, or one of her children's. The bride with a crown of flowers is holding a wedding bouquet; she is at the cusp of two worlds – the real and the imaginary, the two worlds are separated by the transparent wedding vail and the flapping angel wings behind her.

Madame captain

On the night of May 9th, Victory Day in the Soviet Ukraine, Raiko was visited in her sleep by a female military officer. The artist immediately called her madame captain and painted her on a pedestal like a statue. Madam captain holds a rifle over her head just like the female military medic on the mural next room.

The medic is equipped with a standard medical kit, but she also has wings. These are no ordinary white angel wings; these are the wings of an angel born here on earth or a winged shadow of death the angel is here to protect us from.

Raiko often shared tragic stories about the life of Ukrainians under the Nazi occupation, forced labour in Germany, and their return back to Ukraine after the war ends.

The angel

A red star on the pedestal underneath the feet of madame captain is an allusion to Soviet symbolism. Also, the artist used red paint to paint a star over the angel's head but she only followed the general composition and space requirements. In Raiko's archive researchers have discovered a holy picture with the angel that the artist used for inspiration. The holy picture also has a five-pointed star but it's in white and not red.

The leopards

Huge leopards are some of the most prominent animals in Raiko's bestiary. The artist has always maintained that these are in fact leopards, and staunchly corrected anybody who called them cats. There are nine such animal figures inside the house and in the yard. Two of the leopards sit stretched out at the entrance to the artist's bedroom in sphinx poses.

The sister angels

A mural with four angels is one of Raiko's large-scale works – the angels are sitting on the half-moons in the luscious garden of paradise. It's a family portrait of the artist and her three sisters. Raiko wanted to attain the highest level of resemblance and painted herself from a photograph.

The mountain

There is a popular Ukrainian folk legend about a pair of doves which built a nest on the top of a steep mountain. The legend also exists as one of the many folk ballads, which Raiko is known to have performed. Inside her house the artists painted several themes with mountains – like a stairway to heaven, a luscious garden of Eden filled with flowers, beasts, and birds under a rose, which is a traditional Ukrainian symbol of harmony and beauty. On one of the murals the stairway to heaven is transformed into the road to paradise paved with precious rubies and turquoise.

Beatle the dog

Raiko had a yard dog called Beatle. She paints her pet on several occasions. Experts believe she also created a collage with her favourite dog, where Beatle is painted at different ages and sizes.

The black crow

The interior murals sometimes include a black vicious bird, the bird swoops in and grabs a chick from the family nest. Most certainly, the bird represents Raiko's terrible fate which snatched both of her children.

The mermaid

Raiko said that the mermaid painted on the garden gates is an old woman. All because her hair turned grey when the black paint chipped away revealing a grey underlayer. The mermaid is painted not with one but two Christian crosses, still she has a lily flower next to her heart.

History of interior murals

The tradition of interior murals has a long history and goes back many generations. It stems from the first settlements organised by humans who felt the need to decorate their living space and create magic imagery to protect them from evil. In Ukraine the tradition of interior decoration as an independent art form within the folk culture boomed in the late 19th century and the early 20th century. As a result, many Ukrainian country houses became amazing works of art.

The art of interior wall decoration builds on other applied arts like embroidery, Easer egg decoration, carpet weaving, ceramic tile production, and textile production. Usually, wall murals tell a story of nature, include folk and religious symbolism, and genre painting; the combination of which creates a unique visual language of communication.

Raiko's family home in the Oleshky township follows in the footsteps of this age-old tradition. By decorating her home, the artist has transformed her ordinary house into a sacred personal space. Raiko's images come alive and absolutely burst with energy. Traditional Ukrainian imagery are combined with the artist's own iconography and her unique art style.

The flooding damage

The story of Raiko's family home reminds us of the fragility of culture. Unfortunately, twenty years on after the artist's passing the country failed to attract the much-needed funds to conserve and maintain the heritage site. The house was built using most basic inexpensive materials, the paint was applied without any professional primer, and the unoccupied building gradually became derelict. Quite rapidly the plastered walls cracked and peeled, at times drastically damaging the murals.

From the first days of the full-scale invasion, which happened on February 24th, 2022 the Raiko museum is on the territory controlled by the Russian troops.

On June 6th, 2023 the Russian forces destroy the Kakhovka dam. It caused immense human suffering and massive cost to the environment, widespread flooding and destruction along the Dnieper river, as well as irreversible damage to the national heritage sites.

Ten days after the flood waters have receded and the experts were able to assess the damage from the photos sent from the occupied territories, it became painfully evident – Raiko's remarkable wall murals have almost completely perished in the floods.

Researchers and conservators

Raiko's art grew popular with the artistic community in the early 2000s. A team of artists from the Kherson region, which includes Vyacheslav Mashnitski, Olena and Maxym Afanasyev, Stas Volyazlovski with support from the Totem Cultural Centre actively promoted Raiko with the wider public. During the artist's life time they recorded her life stories, studied the iconography inside her family home, analysed and documented the murals. In time, the team produced a catalogue of the artist's works which today continues to be the most complete and comprehensive source of information on Raiko.

In the next two decades many artists, experts, reporters, and activists celebrated Raiko's life and work. Her family home became subject of many documentaries, art projects, conservation efforts, and other activities aimed at preserving and promoting her life's work. A lot has been done by Andrius Nemickas and Lenna Koszarny, husband and wife team from Canada who repurchased Raiko's family home and saved it from demolition;

filmmaker Serhiy Proskurnya became a great champion of Raiko's art (on the photo he is among the guests at the Raiko family home);

Nadia Koshman, documentary filmmaker made a documentary about Raiko titled Rai or Heaven in Ukrainian;

curator Marianna Dzhulai;

photographer Kostyantyn Rudeshko;

artist Borys Egiazaryan together with art dealer Aida Dzhangirova travelled to Oleshky to document Raiko's murals;

Petro Honchar, director of the Ivan Honchar Museum under the National Centre for Folk Culture organised own research in partnership with a team of experts from the museum and made a documentary on the house;

Olexandr Lyapin, researcher of naïve art, organised field research to record changes to the heritage site which occurred as a result of the passage of time;

and many more champions of Raiko's art and her active supporters.

In 2012 Raiko's iconography from her family home was recreated in the framework of the Sky project by Marianna Dzhulai, Kostyantyn Rudeshko, and Borys Egiazaryan at the Art Arsenal, which in 2019 was followed by the Own Space project, launched by the curators Tetyana Kochubinska and Tetyana Zhmurko in cooperation with artist Anna Scherbyna at the PinchukArtCentre.

During the past several years Raiko's heritage was being preserved by the Raiko Charitable Foundation, which was set up in Kherson by the artists Vyacheslav Mashnitski and Semen Khramtzov. In February 2022 with the start of the full-scale invasion Mashnitski - the foundation's director, had made a conscious choice to stay under the Russian occupation to preserve the collection of the Kherson contemporary art museum, which also included works by Polina Raiko. Soon after his family and friends lost contact with Mashnitski. Now he is officially declared missing. Mashnitski's colleague Semen Khramtzov has evacuated from Kherson, he continues to support the Oleshky house custodians by collecting donations.