Photographs by Mila Teshaieva – The Brooklyn Rail

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Cambridge, MA

MIT Museum
August 2, 2018 – February 28, 2019

Although her first solo exhibition on the East Coast is officially promoted as featuring three of her recent photographic series that explore the complexity of national identities and memories in the former territories of the USSR, the brilliance of the photographer’s exhibition Mila Teshaieva resides not only in the expansive and consciously composed photographs, but in their total installation. By borrowing a few didactic practices chosen from historical museums, the presentation of his works deliberately and effectively blurs the line between reality and fiction, that is, where memory lives.

An impressive golden wall bearing the title of the show, imagined communities, and an introductory text greets the visitor at the entrance. On the adjacent wall, a small nondescript map of the countries of the Caspian region in Central Asia, the Balkans and Ukraine further orients the visitor to the places that will be discussed, adding to the objective pretext of the exhibition. An enlarged version of one of Teshaieva’s photographs – placed next to the generic card – shows a boy standing with his back to the audience, transfixed by a painted group portrait of exotically dressed Iranian women. Its promise to draw the visitor into the penetrating odyssey of the national and historical imagination of Teshaieva.

Instead of conventional labels providing the title and relevant information of the works, each photograph in Imagined communities is accompanied by a long caption printed on the wall seriously explaining the subject of each image. However, the didactic and political explanation of the image text is often unclear or bizarre, which is usually the way didactic works in state historical museums, leaving the viewer to question the intent of the text. , image or both.

The captions attempt to tell the meaning of the images with absurd and sometimes comedic effect. In one example, an unhappy man in a dark suit and sunglasses stands in front of a barren white mountain range. The legend describes this person as a confused driver who cannot read the signs, which the new government of Turkmenistan recently changed from Cyrillic to Latin. The caption wryly notes in its conclusion: “For now, he’s relying on intuition to find his direction.” This photo is part of the first photographic series, “Promising Waters”, of the three presented in the exhibition. Detailing how ordinary people in Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan – like the driver – are adjusting to the new social and national realities of independence from Soviet rule, “Promising Waters” presents national identity and memory in a state of transition.

“Sorry, not sorry,” the second photographic series in the exhibition, moves west into contemporary Balkan countries and considers memory and identity as created through national historic sites. A photograph in this series apparently captures the commemoration ceremony of the 1389 Battle of Kosovo, a significant battle that was also used politically to justify the Serbian territorial wars in the 1990s six centuries later. Yet the image does not represent only a desolate landscape with a few obscure figures in the background. The entire surface of the image is so deliberately covered with a gray film of mist that it becomes difficult to imagine that a crucial battle took place here, let alone a commemoration ceremony in the present day. Teshaieva’s refusal in “Sorry, Not Sorry” to focus on the grand narratives of the past, as well as their service to group interests in the present, creates an uncanny space for a third narrative to emerge from these sites, one that stands outside the national memory and its historical mobilization.

For her third series, “Unfamiliar Memories,” Teshaieva invited people in Ukraine to recreate memories of their grandparents’ generation during World War II and the Soviet era that followed. The captions that accompany each photograph are quotes from those people reflecting the particular memory they have chosen to recreate for Teshaieva’s camera. It is a powerful body of work that explores historical and national memory as the construction of personal narratives rather than collectively produced visions.

But as in the images of “Promising Waters” and “Sorry, Not Sorry”, in “Unfamiliar Memory” historical fact and fantasy mutually fulfill each other. A work in “Unfamiliar Memory” quotes a participant who says he and his family never got to know his grandparents, who served in the military. The corresponding image depicts an idyllic scene of three men in military uniforms resting in the grass. However, it is unclear whose memory they are performing on camera – their own memory of their grandparents, the unknowable memory of their wartime grandparents, or their grandparents’ memory reconciled with the memory national more familiar with war.

Back at the entrance to exit the show, we see the boy again looking at the painted group portrait. His caption reveals that the boy is falsely informed that those pictured are his ancestors. From an early age, memory and identity are learned through these images and words. And they are inescapable even once one realizes that images and words are also imagined.

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