Sunday, January 11, 2009
Preserving Traditional Culture
I suspect a great many of my posts during the next several months will deal with issues of preserving traditional culture. This week I visited, for the first of what I hope will be many visits, the Ivan Honchar Museum. Honchar was both a working artist and collector of traditional Ukrainian folk arts. His collection was housed privately during the Soviet era, but with Ukrainian independence it has become a state museum with a deep and comprehensive collection of folk art.
I went to both meet the deputy director, Ihor Poshvailo, who I had already corresponded with, and to see, at his invitation, a children's performance. Parents are no different anywhere--I sat in an audience filled with parents, grandparents, cameras and video cameras--as a wonderful group of young people both sang and performed a traditional Christmas play. After the conclusion of this performance, we then went off to a university to see another performance by college students of the same Christmas play, this time based on ethnographic field work 100 or so years ago. These performances, which I had also seen a version of on Christmas Day, was fascinating for several reasons. First, I think Ukrainians are singers--it often feels, in the US, as if audiences--and sometimes performers--sort of drag through songs (picture what it's like when we sing the Star-Spangled Banner). Here, in every situation I've been in so far (admittedly not too many), the audience joins enthusiastically and beautifully in the songs. The story also had scarier elements than those I was familiar with--as I understand it, Herod and his henchman are taken to hell by the devil. At the college performance, they used quite amazing masks, I think of wood, for a number of the parts.
The Christmas play is a variant of the Christmas pageant familiar to me from my childhood--but it's amazing to think that, because such performances were banned in Soviet times, that there's a whole generation of Ukrainians learning this anew, going back to ethnographic work and more distant memories to recreate a cherished part of life and community here. As I thought about it, it reminded me of both the ways in which Native Americans have had to reclaim their own language and traditions, and the ways in which Ireland, particularly in Gaeltacht's like Connemara, have also worked to maintain--and keep alive--the Gaelic language and traditions. It's interesting to see how much the desire for connection and community, for a way to make sense of the world, cuts across many different cultures.
And a brief note as I continue to learn: errors or assumptions about Ukrainian life, culture and history of this complicated place are entirely mine.
Young performers at the Ivan Honchar Museum