“Metempsychosis,” a solo exhibition of works by artist Ola Rondiak now on display at WhiteBox-Harlem Art Center until Jan. 26, is one of the holiday season’s best unexpected ‘sleeper’ sensations in New York City.
This exhibition comes as a pleasant surprise in every way; well executed in every aspect — the quality of the art works, the atmospheric lighting, the edgy ambience, and the artist’s warmth and hospitality.
The thrill and delight begins as soon as you exit the subway in East Harlem. Stepping outside, you immediately feel you’re back in that edgy 1980s Manhattan, an era in the city’s history that was marked by both incredible freedom and creativity, but also lots of dodgy characters on the street. No reason to worry, however; unlike the 1980s, today the NYPD heavily patrols this neighborhood.
Upon setting foot into White Box, the exhibition immediately becomes a silent feast for the visual senses — a large ‘motanka’ stands watch over the entire hall; the lighting is sensual and seductive, enticing you further into the exhibition space.
Born in Ohio and steeped in Ukrainian culture over the course of her upbringing in the USA, Ms Rondiak is a Ukrainian-American who moved back to Ukraine in the mid 1990s and stayed. Today, she finds herself as an artist caught in the tumultuous and often surrealistic times that define Ukraine and US relations.
Walking around the exhibition, you start wondering: Just what does ‘metempsychosis’ mean? Turns out that this is a philosophical term from Ancient Greece that refers to transmigration of the soul, especially its reincarnation after death. In recent decades, the term metempsychosis has been recontextualised by modern philosophers and artists.
Rondiak’s extraordinary artworks are inseparable from her own experience, which is expressed in her oeuvre that dazzles the public with her ‘art as historical conscience’.
Her art is folk-inspired and seems to challenge the widely-held belief that in order to be ‘contemporary’ one must entirely turn their back on the past; and that ‘proper’ and ‘sellable’ contemporary art must conform to the widely accepted ‘globalized-anodized’ body of works that we see in many major art fairs.
This brings us to question No. 2? What’s a ‘motanka’? These traditional Ukrainian dolls are meant to protect a child from evil spirits and to restore health. Ms Rondiak began to make her own when she discovered her grandmother’s miraculously preserved motankas, which she made while unjustly jailed in a Soviet gulag camp. Traditionally the motankas were made out of rags but Ms Rondiak has made them out of plaster of Paris, which of course is used to treat broken bones (casts); this symbolizes the element of healing after the war broke out in eastern Ukraine.
In these motankas Ms Rondiak sees the image of her grandmother’s feat of survival, and her determination to make something valuable and with healing properties out of practically nothing, despite being in a place of great terror and repression.
Ms Rondiak seeks to honor and celebrate her grandmother’s accomplishment in trying to extend health and safety for her imprisoned comrades during the Stalinist era. And perhaps these motankas are bringing health and safety to her family today, as well as the exhibition audience, across space and time.
The exhibition in Harlem will run simultaneously with one in Ukraine; similar artworks of motankas will open on Jan 15 at the Kyiv History Museum, presented by the Revolution of Dignity Museum/ Maidan Museum.
Also, a live stream discussion panel will be held at noon on Jan. 11 in the office of the Ukrainian Congress Committee of America (New York City) and at the Maidan Museum (Kyiv) at 7 p.m.
Ola Rondiak, “Metempsychosis”
December 29, 2019 to January 26, 2020
213 East 121st Street
New York, NY