Searching for Brighter Memories: the art and inquiry of Johanna Rannula8 min read

 In Culture, Eastern Europe, Interview
Every year on 14 June, Estonia commemorates the victims of the Soviet-imposed mass deportations of 1941, which together with the March 1949 deportations forcefully relocated approximately 30 000 Estonians to Siberia and Central Asia.

While the Soviet occupation and the deportations remain a scar left by history, the opening of a new exhibition, presently billed as “Siberian White: In search of bright memories” on 14 June this year at the Vabamu Museum of Occupations and Freedom in Tallinn challenges the commonly accepted narrative of the deportations as a national trauma.

Combining photography and anthropology, Estonian artist Johanna Rannula has chosen to approach her country’s history, and specific memories of the deportations, by collecting portraits of those who were forced to spend 10 years of their youth in a foreign land. Combining their stories with photography and some personal artifacts, Rannula’s work has previously been exhibited at the Rae community center outside Tallinn. While this exhibition focused on the local community of those previously exiled – commemorating their memories – her new exhibition in the country’s capital has not only grown in size, but also in its aim and target audience.

For the exhibition “Siberian Souvenir”, exhibited at the Rae community center in 2019, Rannula collected portraits, stories and artefacts from six Estonians who spent 10 years of their youth exiled in Siberia.

Interviewing Rannula a few days after the opening, we begin by talking about how Vabamu was recently renamed – “freedom” is a recent addition. Pursuing a broader perspective on occupation and political history makes it possible to unravel and examine different perspectives on both history and collective memory. 

This is exactly what Rannula is trying to do in her new exhibition. By focusing on the everyday lives of a handful of people who spent their childhood and adolescence in Siberia, she is challenging the common perception of the deportations as nothing but a nightmare, as well as of Siberia as a bad place, barren and filled with nothingness. 

From her own experience growing up in Estonia, she tells me that in a lot of families the deportations remain taboo. They are treated as black holes in the history of individual families, and the societal narrative is focused on victimization and collective trauma, which, according to her own perspective, cuts out many other layers and experiences.

“A lot of these older people who spent their childhood in Siberia feel like they can’t tell the whole story: of their everyday lives, of going to school, playing games, swimming in the lake, and enjoying themselves. They feel bad because these are memories that do not conform with the narrative that is embedded in our society.” Interviewing an old lady for the exhibition, Rannula recounts how the woman, absorbed in her own memories, turned awkward and stiff when her daughter interrupted her, reflecting on how her mother’s nostalgic feelings contrasted to the acceptable narrative of constant suffering. 

This time, with the aim set at reaching a broader audience, Rannula almost anxiously reassures me that – while she is trying to offer another layer to history and to collective memory – she is by no means trying to minimize or remove the traumatic experiences that the deportations have come to represent in Estonia’s modern history. As she puts it, “It is not possible to suffer 24/7 for 10 years of your life. You would not survive. The fact that these people managed to create and live ordinary lives even after being uprooted from their homeland shows how resilient people are. They organized dances, fell in love, got married – you can even find them laughing in old photographs.” 

In addition to her original material, the new exhibition displays an installation of photographs carefully selected by Rannula from a family archive of around 2500 images, which had been donated to the museum 10 years ago, and which Rannula chose to incorporate in the exhibition. She tells me that this really gave her a chance to delve into the lives and memories of the Siberian community, showing another, more intimate side that is often overlooked. 

The collection humanizes and emphasizes different kinds of memories. In an effort to provoke, she also tells me that she went for the images in which people looked their happiest. These were then printed onto white linens (a symbolic choice symbolizing peace while simultaneously reconnecting to the practice of hanging white linen in the background of portraits), on which she added stitches of thread. The thread, she explains, symbolizes her own efforts to heal the wounds made by history.

Happy memories? A centerpiece of the exhibition focuses on photographs from the Viir family archive, which was donated to the museum 10 years ago and which depicts a brighter perspective on everyday life in Siberia.

Rannula believes that society is more ready for different perspectives now than ten years ago. Existing initiatives to commemorate and remember the occupation and deportations are mainly organized by and for old people. Rannula tells me that it is difficult for them to attract new people and to figure out new ways of keeping the memory alive. She too wants to keep the memory alive but believes that in order to succeed, the focus on trauma and suffering has to be challenged and made more inclusive. 

This is where the anthropological perspective kicks in. By recording the memories and recollections of everyday life in Siberia, the perspective is broadened, giving former deportees a chance to expand their own narrative and reminiscences without feeling ashamed. Being told stories of how they had to steal branches from bushes by the riverside in order to construct fences, or how they dried and stomped cow excrement into bricks that were used to build houses, Rannula expresses that you understand that the living conditions were harsh. ”However”, she adds, “these practical everyday stories show that people were strong and that they survived.”

She also wants to point out that precisely as with any historical archive, the stories and photographs are subjective accounts of former deportees. As they spent their childhood in Siberia, their perspectives are probably different. “Children are more adaptive, they are going to play anyway, while their parents were the ones who had to find food and work. I guess the parents felt the loss of the homeland more than their children”.

The photographer’s own family heirloom: Rannula’s great grandmother sent bread to her deported sister, who saved the pieces that had been marked with her nephew’s fingerprints.

When I ask her about her own personal connection to Siberia and how she ended up focusing on this specific topic, she tells me she only got connected with her own family’s history after creating her first exhibition.

Her grandfather’s aunt was sent to a prison camp after having engaged in political dissidence, but this was never talked about in the family. While putting together her first exhibition, her grandfather presented her with the only thing that remains from that period: a couple of bread crumbs with two holes in them. They were from a larger piece of bread that his mother, Rannula’s great-grandmother, had baked and sent to her deported sister. As for the two holes, they were made by her grandfather, who was six years old at the time. While the rest had been consumed, she had saved these tiny pieces of bread and brought them back with her to Estonia, once she was allowed to leave. 

Talking about why she chose Siberia, Rannula tells me that it was a field trip to Krasnoyarsk Krai, organized by the Art Academy where she was a student, that initially brought her there. Immediately after arriving, she felt like the place spoke to her. She and her cohort were greeted by an idyllic picture of rural life: cows and geese wandering the streets, children playing and old ladies chatting away outside their houses. It was nothing like what she had imagined. 

In a way, Rannula’s work offers a new path to examine not only Estonia’s history but also its relationship to Russia. Keeping in mind the sizable Russian minority who still live in Estonia and who have been the subject of nationalist policies and debates – which have served to divide rather than to unite – I ask Rannula what she thinks about the relationship between Estonians and Russians and if this exhibition can be seen as part of an effort to bring the two communities closer. She tells me that there is a backstory to this exhibition that goes beyond the field trip to Siberia.

Studying abroad for her BA a few years back, she tells me when she introduced herself as Estonian, people would sometimes ask her “Estonia, isn’t that like part of Russia or something? So you speak Russian?” While she assured me that this did not happen too often, the question still disturbed and offended her in a way that, she explains, she could not come to terms with. So she decided to go to Russia – and ended up staying for two years. She tells me that the experience not only taught her to “unlearn” her Russian hatred but that she feels like she has become an advocate for better relations between the two countries. 

“Siberian White: In search of bright memories” indeed challenges the societal conception of a national trauma, finding new ways to talk about and preserve the memories of the Soviet-imposed deportations. It will be on display at Vabamu Museum of Occupations and Freedom until 14 February 2021. 

For more of Johanna Rannula’s work, visit her webpage.

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