Ukrainian curator Katya Taylor reflects on language, identity, and art as a decolonization tool

Ukrainian curator and cultural producer Katya Taylor curated the exhibition Language Exercises at Salaam Cinema Baku during her CEC ArtsLink’s Art Prospect Network Residency in Azerbaijan in May – June 2023. The exhibition investigated decolonial processes and experiences of Ukrainians and Azerbaijanis, featuring artworks by contemporary artists from both countries.

Language Exercises opened a dialogue between artists and audiences, encouraging examination of daily life through the lens of colonial legacies, delving into the subjects of identity, culture, traditions and, particularly, language. While North Azerbaijani – a Turkic language – is spoken by the majority of the country’s people, Russian plays a significant role in education and communication, especially in urban centers. The urgency of Katya’s curatorial perspective was informed by Ukraine’s harrowing reckoning with colonial legacies, including those of Russian language, on the current fields of war.

Katya’s residency notes, originally posted on social media and shared here with her permission, viscerally reflect her experience and the thought process behind its transformation into an impactful curatorial work.

By Katya Taylor

May 31
Second week in Baku. At the art residency. When I first arrived, I had no idea what to do for the project. But everything fell into place on its own. I sat at the gate in Frankfurt, the flight was delayed. There was a suspiciously large amount of russian* being spoken around me. I had grown accustomed to not hearing it. As they say, the smallest number of russians (at least those alive) are currently in Ukraine.

I felt tense. Even more so on the plane. And even more so when I took a step onto Azerbaijani soil. It was a challenge. Everyone wanted to speak to me in russian. Which I understand perfectly. Even those who were conversing in Azerbaijani among themselves automatically switched to russian when addressing me as a foreigner. I responded in English.

“Russia”, from the “World War III” series, 2022, Igor Gusev, Ukraine, mixed media

On the second day, I decided that this was not effective and switched to Ukrainian. So, for every ‘Good day, miss,’ I replied with ‘Hello’ in Ukrainian. No one understood me, but some individual Ukrainian words were remembered by the locals, and that at least prompted them to engage in dialogue and ask, ‘Where are you from?’

My quiet protest escalated into a nervous breakdown. Because no one wanted to harm me. Furthermore, none of them are russians. They try to be pleasant, attentive. While inside me, everything is ablaze with hatred for the language of the occupier.

I understand perfectly well that my life would have been much easier if I spoke russian here. But instead, I seem to be creating an additional problem, an additional conflict. I am the problem myself. Because nobody has any business with my heightened pressure.

Here, the process of decolonization and the return to Azerbaijani traditions and values is taking place. But it’s going its own way. One could say it’s slow compared to us. But can we blame someone for not moving at the same pace as us? Didn’t I exclusively speak russian just a few years ago, which, for me, is just as much a colonial language as it is for them?

For many, there is no connection between the language and the occupation of Azerbaijan by the USSR. But still, not for everyone. And if we’re generalizing, we needed a challenge, a catapult, for internal and external processes of self-identification to happen sooner. And it’s strange to observe from this current point that what was the norm two years ago is now impossible.

Katya with works by Babi Badalov, Azerbaijan - “Politics killing poetry” and “Mine not understand yours”

It’s impossible to go back to the language I spoke for decades. It’s impossible not to get irritated when I notice Soviet stars in the architecture. It’s impossible to accept the idea that someone is moving at a different speed. And it’s not just about decolonization. It’s about everything now. We are impatient. I am impatient.

In short, the exhibition will be about language. It’s called “Lessons Exercises.” Every person I spoke to here has their own story about language. Someone studied in the Azerbaijani sector (schools here were divided in half within one building) and dreamt of studying in a “normal” russian class. Someone dreamed of speaking russian without an accent. Someone chose to speak either Azerbaijani or English. Some don’t consider the russian language a problem. Someone can’t speak with their grandmother because they studied in a russian school, and she only knows Azerbaijani. Someone listens to Azerbaijani songs translated into russian. Most people’s grandfathers had to change their surnames to a russified version ending in “yev” or “ov.” Someone doesn’t want to speak russian, but it’s the only language they teach art in at the university, and you have to choose whether to acquire knowledge in the language of the colonizer or give up your career. Everyone has a story. Everyone has something to say. It’s interesting that all my people here were unsettled by this conversation. Because it’s uncomfortable. With my presence, my arrival, I brought bitterness. I created a theatrical provocation.

It’s funny that we met with the team to discuss a language debate, and the discussion about the discussion took three and half hours. The topic is inexhaustible. It seems to be just about language, but in reality, it’s about cultural identification as a whole, understanding oneself in one way or another. This conversation is uncomfortable because it’s about choice. A choice that each person will have to make every day. As Khaled Hosseini said in “The Kite Runner” (which I read in Russian): ‘If culture is a house, then language is the key to the front door’.

June 9
“What roles do culture and art play in the processes of decolonization? From my experience, artists serve as critics of history. They don’t merely document it; they offer a particular lens through which we view the world. Some argue that art is perhaps the only honest reflection of the post-truth world. Can it help in the processes of decolonization and the search for identity, both collective and personal?

“If the war is not theirs, but putin’s – not a joke, April 1, 2022”, Alevtina Kakhidze, Ukraine, drawing

I have been exploring these questions in Baku for three weeks. Sharing a colonial experience with us, the locals in Baku have been sharing their stories with me about the repression of their native language and the trauma of the Soviet era. Each person has their own story. There hasn’t been a single individual who said, ‘I don’t have a story. Everything is fine for me.’

Sometimes, I don’t even have to ask. I simply mention that I am researching decolonization and interested in the repression of the Azerbaijani language during the Soviet occupation, and people start sharing their stories with me.

This becomes a sort of psychotherapeutic practice, a permission to talk about it and release the tension. They wanted their stories to be heard.

Installation “OFFSHORE”, Zamir Suleymanov, Azerbaijan

After the start of the war, I gradually stopped using russian. It felt like getting rid of a chronic but very comfortable illness. Now, there’s almost nothing left except reflexes, which can be inconvenient, especially here where everyone speaks russian, especially with me being from Ukraine, which they understand. I irritate people because for them, it’s a protest against communicating with them, rather than a protest against my russian identity. And that’s okay.

I continue to speak Ukrainian or English. Another reason I have for transitioning to Ukrainian is to finally give it a chance. I have spoken and written in russian my whole life. Texts are a significant part of my work, essentially what I earn a living from —columns, articles, concepts. Unique ideas, sophisticated expressions that are born not from words but from ready-made linguistic constructs, impossible to replicate in any other language.

By giving up russian, I gave up my russian identity. Instead, I now communicate very simply in my Ukrainian. It’s not just about vocabulary; it’s about the neural connections that are absent, for now. But the idea is that if I don’t fully let go of the russian language, I will never give a chance to my Ukrainian identity. And that’s very challenging.

Does language shape identity? Do we become someone else when we speak a different language? And if so, is language a tool of culture, propaganda, and politics? Of course, the answer is yes, but there’s also a more nuanced response.

To discuss these matters today, we are opening an exhibition at Salaam Cinema Baku with the support of CEC ArtsLink. This exhibition wouldn’t have been possible without the amazing team at Salaam Cinema and the artists who came together around this complex and intriguing theme.”

Exhibition poster featuring “Architectural Refugees” by Dana Kosmina, Ukraine

*Throughout the text, the author uses lowercase “r” to spell “russia” and “russian” as a way of minimizing the country’s colonial reach and ambitions.

May - June 2023
Article Decolonization Ukraine