Hunted past: Katya Granova reimagines old photographs.

Over a year has passed since the full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine, and the situation has become increasingly unsafe for Russian artists. Many of them have fled their home country, seeking refuge around the world, due to the oppressive regime under Putin. Expressing anti-war sentiments has become a dangerous act, as it can lead to imprisonment and severe state persecution, as seen in the case of Alexandra Skochilenko, an artist based in Saint Petersburg. Skochilenko faced charges under a new law that prohibits “fake news” about Russia’s armed forces after she replaced supermarket price labels with anti-war messages. The potential punishment for such actions is a prison sentence of up to ten years.

In the West, particularly in London, there have been exhibitions supporting these courageous Russian artists who speak out against war. These exhibitions include Pavel Otdelnov’s Acting Out show held in winter 2022 at Pushkin House, Evgeny Antufiev & Lyubov Nalogina’s show titled We are a long echo of each other, hosted at Emalin, and the recent Ekaterina Muromtseva’s show Women in Black against the War, also held at Pushkin House. These exhibitions provide a platform for these artists to express their statements and raise awareness of the anti-war movement.

Katya Granova, an artist based in London and a Russian emigrant, has been actively involved in supporting anti-war movements. She has volunteered her time to assist Ukrainian refugees and has responded to the violence through her artistic work. With her mixed heritage of being both half Russian and half Ukrainian, Granova has personally experienced the conflicting positions within her own family. Her grandmothers, one of whom resides in Crimea, both support Russian aggression, which has caused tensions and distrust within the family. This generational discrepancy is a widespread phenomenon in Russia, as depicted in the recent documentary film Broken Ties by director Andrey Loshak, released on 19th June 2022. The film explores how the war has torn Russian families apart, leading to cracks in connections and strained relationships. It highlights the impact of state propaganda’s military rhetoric, which has deeply affected the interpersonal dynamics within families, leaving voices unheard. 

Exhibition: When my babushka joined the Reich, Barbican Group Art Trust, Art Project Space, London, October 2022

In her recent exhibition titled When my babushka joined the reich, showcased at ArtWorks Project Space in 2022, Katya Granova delved into the exploration of the current Russian political context through a deeply personal lens. Her artworks, both on a large and small scale, focused on uncovering the intricate connections between her family history and the larger socio-political backdrop. Using personal archives and biographical fragments from her grandmothers’ lives as a starting point, Granova’s intentions were to understand the origins of her family’s worldview. She sought hints and clues that could trace the roots of imperial thought processes. Through her artistic expression, Granova shed light on the profound impact of state propaganda’s manipulative machinery on private lives. This influence extends beyond her own family, representing a broader phenomenon derived from the enduring imperial trauma inherited since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Under Putin’s regime, propaganda has played a significant role in gradually reshaping and consolidating people’s perspectives on the past. This has involved the glorification of the Soviet Union, the suppression of organisations like the Memorial Society, which preserved the memory of those who suffered imprisonment and execution during Stalin’s leadership, the exploitation of nostalgia, and the fabrication of Ukrainian history. “The historical narrative became an ideological instrument that led to war, acceptance of war, genocide, and millions of refugees, and tragically, this is not an isolated case,” — says Katya in her artist statement. 

Katya Granova’s art revolves around delving into the past, collective memory, and history, using photography as a foundation for her paintings. Having grown up in a post-Soviet era marked by shifting attitudes toward the Soviet past, Granova has witnessed the transformation of historical narratives. In the 1990s, there was a critical perspective on the Soviet era, but with the conservative turn in Putin’s regime in 2012 (and even earlier), there has been a resurgence of nationalist sentiments. She observed how history textbooks for the millennial generation were modified to align with this ideological narrative. As a result, she considers herself an inheritor of this historical uncertainty, and her art stems from the desire for an “objective” and “stable” foundation to rely on within the collective past. Granova employs photography as a reliable and documentary form of evidence to delve into the “speculative archaeology of the image,” allowing her to explore the complexities and layers of post-Soviet history. 


Boiling crayfish, oil on canvas, 250x250cm, 2019, based on the family archive photograph

Granova’s ongoing project titled The Everydayness of the Past, starting in 2020 and also based on photographic materials, extended beyond her own personal collection and incorporated previously unrecognised vintage images discovered by the artist at flea markets. These photographs captured individuals experiencing various historical periods simultaneously, spanning from the aftermath of the Second World War to the era of Perestroika and the 90s. Granova’s primary interest lay in escaping the constraints of a diachronic loop, which implies a linear progression of time. Instead, she aimed to showcase the synchronicity of different moments in time, bringing together young grandparents in festive and celebratory settings. Granova reimagines her identity, exploring the underlying structures of the typical post-Soviet family representation. Her recontextualising approach to photographs turned into paintings emphasises that our memories are never entirely “ours” and photographs are never unmediated representations of our past. When we gaze upon these images, we engage in the construction of an imaginary version of the past while simultaneously embarking on a detective-like journey to uncover alternative versions of a presumed “real” past.Maria’s Sis ce ters, oil on canvas, 195x130x3cm, 2020

Maria and her sisters, oil on canvas, 195x130x3cm, 2020

Maria’s Sisters, an oil painting, was created by Granova in 2020 and exhibited at RuptureXIBIT in London in 2021. She based her work on her family’s 1903 photographs found in an album. The artwork explores the typical representation of a family gathering, where all the members align together, sitting and posing for a photograph. However, Granova deviates from the nostalgic and factual nature of old photographs by introducing elements of humour and irony. In the painting, she intentionally blurs the faces and figures of the subjects, incorporating a subtle pink palette reminiscent of Marlene Dumas, the brushwork and line quality of Cecily Brown, and the monumentality found in Rubens’ works. The textured and intense nature of the painting gives the smiling female figures a symbolic significance, representing loss and the artist’s attempt to imagine those who passed away. This desire to understand oneself before birth and to recognise visual traces, such as “mother’s clothes,” in relation to family connections, aligns with Roland Barthes’ concept of punctum in his book Camera Lucida. The image of his mother triggers a memorable moment of self-recognition that evolves into a process of self-discovery— “a discovery of a self-in-relation.” The act of finding and studying the photograph, and the subsequent recognition of himself within it, represent acts of “identity as familiality,” as explored by Barthes. (Hirsh). Similarly to Barthes, Granova elicits a moment of self-recognition, a piercing experience that evokes a deeply personal response. Within this response lies the intricate relationship between love and loss, presence and absence, and life and death. Granova’s painting is the instrument representing togetherness, but it also acts as a weighty burden, carrying references that naturalise cultural practices and signify lost memories of her childhood prior to immigration.

Surgeons, oil on canvas, 260x200x4cm, 2021

Another notable painting from the series The Everydayness of the Past is Surgeons, created in 2021. This artwork was exhibited at RCA, Cromwell Place in London in 2021 and currently holds a place in the Royal College of Art’s Permanent Collection. The foundation of this painting is a photograph sourced from Granova’s family album, capturing a moment where her grandfather, Anatoly Granov, a surgeon, is shown performing an operation on a child. Through painting her ancestors, Granova’s art delves into the concept of the “familial gaze,” which encompasses the reciprocal act of looking within the family unit. It involves a subject looking at an object who, in turn, looks (back) at the subject. Within these familial relationships, subjectivity is constructed through relational dynamics. Granova exists as both self and “othered,” as a speaking and observing subject as well as an object subjected to the gazes and narratives of others. In this interplay, she navigates the complexities of being both a subjective observer and an objectified figure. 

In conclusion, Katya Granova’s artistic exploration of recent Soviet history aligns with Maurice Halbwachs’ notion that memory is inherently multiple and specific, both collective and individual. By delving into the realm of family photographs, she navigates the intersection between personal memory and social history, bridging the gap between publicly accepted representations and personal unconsciousness. Through her paintings, Granova preserves the essence of lost vintage photographs, transforming them into a visual archive that serves as a recording of secondary memory. In doing so, she echoes Pierre Nora’s observations on the psychologization of contemporary memory, shifting from historical and social dimensions to the psychological and individual realms, from objective messages to subjective reception, and from repetition to remembrance. This transformative process reveals a new economy of self-identity, the mechanics of memory, and the significance of the past. Granova’s art demonstrates that history exists in the moment of its recontextualization and personal interpretations, as individuals uncover its traces and interact with them. Even within her own family history, Granova engages in a replaceable imagination of her relatives, fictionalising and referencing their multilayered coexistence across time. Against the backdrop of ambiguity and incomprehensibility, she invites us to contemplate the intricacies of personal and collective narratives and the ever-evolving nature of memory itself.

 Text by Elena Kony