The MARIA Project memorializes the 1932-33 famine in Soviet Ukraine – the Holodomor – an event widely thought to be genocidal. The word Holodomor is a combination of the Ukrainian words for hunger (holod) and extermination (mor). It is a complex, highly debated, historical event. There are many vested interests, and hence many diverging stories. Eyewitness accounts attest to the fact that the famine was political and intentional; a state-sponsored assault on a single ethnic group as part of the Soviet Union’s new socio-economic model that required the subjugation of a sizable population whose national consciousness stood in the way of the new order.

As a Canadian artist of Ukrainian descent, I struggle to make sense of this event that has shaped my identity and that of my community. How is it that we move from an intellectual and emotional experience to a lasting shift in human conscience and morality? I believe that empathy is the critical factor; creating links between visitors, their lives, and the past with its associated trauma. 

At the center of the project is a single vernacular image of a young girl, Maria F., who survived the Holodomor and currently resides in Canada. This is the version of history I accept; the story I set out to tell.

The MARIA project began with screen captures gathered on the Internet. I eventually put out a call on Facebook and received one unexpected response: a family photograph of young Maria F. with her parents, taken in Ukraine. Maria F. became the heroine of my story. Maria F. inspired me to create the series RED where I photographed archival garments, dissected Maria’s photograph, scanned a crumbling 19th century album initially used for cabinet cards and created collages with all my raw materials. The result is a fabricated representation of an invisible geography. This work is from a series called COUNTING, derived from authenticated images taken by Alexander Weinberger, an engineer who lived in Kharkiv, Ukraine, during 1932-33. My most abstract work, COUNTING manifests my inability to make sense of the eradication of life on mass scales. The DIGGERS, is derived from IPHONE captures. The image here is part of a work in progress. When completed it will be a large-scale heavily worked piece printed on kozo paper, treated with wax, ash and pigment. I am not interested in being bound by categories and so while my work is photo-based it draws from multiple arenas. It is unstable, dynamic, moving from one form to another; a type of translation, where no single practice dominates. 

There are very few people still living who personally experienced the Holodomor. I have known three – all of whom are now dead from old age. Only one spoke to me of the event, describing the lack of food and how they ate the soles of their shoes. Testifying before U.S. Congress, witness Tetiana Pavlychka remembered that her sister, “had a large, swollen stomach, and her neck was long and thin like a bird’s neck. People didn’t look like people — they were more like starving ghosts.” In 33-I Holod — an archival publication compiled by Volodymyr Maniak and Lidiia Kovalenko — Mykola Stepanovych Pud recalled that his mother “looked like a glass jar, filled with clear spring water. All her body that could be seen … was see-through and filled with water, like a plastic bag.” In the same book, Anastasiia Maksiymivna Kucheruk could not rid himself of the memory of a child sitting, rocking its “body back and forth, back and forth,” reciting one endless “song” in a half voice: “eat, eat, eat.” These witness accounts run through my mind and emerge in my work like cinematic impressions: the repetition of the word “eat” by that child, the descriptions of humans translucent as glass jars, almost palimpsest like.  

I sometimes ask myself whether my primary aim is to establish a presence or an absence, the disappearance of something close — a type of separation. While it is important that a trace of the source image remains, as it does in the case of this piece entitled THE CHOSEN, I actually want the viewer to struggle with the image, hopefully gaining appreciation as they engage.

Egg tempera, gold and various pigments are applied to images printed on kozo paper and then pigmented with ash, wax, resin and salt. These materials arise from my interest in Byzantine art. In these paper works, aspects of the surface come into play as the materials, brought into action with my hand, disappear (or not) into the paper. The works are scarred with lumps of ash. Trapped by wax, they hide retraced cryptic words in Old Church Slavonic, a language that has been dead for centuries. They oxidize when exposed to light and temperature changes, they bear traces of suppressed hand marks and finally they are degraded with audience’s human touch.

The works are dynamic and performative, revealing conditions of the body through the laborious methods of making; bringing forth presence where there was absence. Materials are caught in relation to each other and the world in which they occupy space - the tangible world, the space of the audience and of the future.

New constructions facilitate memory making, reveal a context, and create a space for the viewer to experience and revisit the famine in Soviet Ukraine. I want this project to transform the ways we remember this tragedy, and inform how we relate to similar ones, keeping the experience of the art located in the present. The MARIA Project, conceived of as a memorial act, bears witness to the many phases of its own gestation, which eventually turns into a memory of its own creation, to be experienced in a public space. This process of memory-making is shared with audiences to capture multiple dimensions of time. The MARIA Project is a space for viewers to bear witness to an historical event by immersing themselves in a sensory experience and participating in the creation of individual and collective memories: themselves becoming creators of history. 

© Lesia Maruschak, MARIA, 2018

All pictures courtesy of the artist.


LESIA MARUSCHAK is a photography-based artist with a unique lens on the creation of mobile memorial spaces. In just three years of practice Maruschak’s works have been collected by museums, exhibited in many solo and group photographic exhibitions in nine countries. She has published four books; her Limited-Edition Art Book, TRANSFIGURATION, has been acquired by numerous private and public collections including Stanford University, Athenaeum, Columbia University, Thomas J. Dodd Research Center, and the Library of Congress.  Maruschak collaborates with recognized international memory museums, lectures at international conferences such as FORMAT 19 University of Derby (2019) and Why Remember? Sarajevo (2019). She makes special guest appearances at photo festivals including PhotoVenezia (2018) and Palm Springs Photo Festival (2017). In 2014, The Governor General of Canada presented Maruschak with the Caring Canadian and Silver Medal Award for her work.

Maruschak  holds a MA in Ethnography and an MBA in International Management.  She spends her time between Alvena and Ottawa, Canada. 

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