Art of Survival: Material Culture of the Soviet Gulag
My MA research has been varied in subject matter and yet has had a consistent theme of exploring identity. I am interested in how identity has been imbued into objects and what the study of material culture can teach us about the past.
My first research project was an object study of an 1895 Czech poster from the V&A collections advertising an Ethnographic Exhibition. This project explored the materiality of the poster, looking into chromolithography as an art in the late nineteenth century, as well as uncovering the phenomenon of ‘ethnographic exhibitions’ during this period by comparing various posters for such events in Europe, ranging across Madrid, Prague, Brussels and Latvia. The final element of this project considered the depiction of folk costume in this poster and how such narratives played into the national Czech identity. As I had chosen the Performance pathway on the MA, I wanted to explore a theatre practise in my second project. I chose to investigate the changing nature of the art of ‘Kabarett’ against the fluctuations of the socio-political scene in Germany from 1918-1930. This project considered how the art altered its content in response to political and economic occurrences, and mapped the ebb and flow of its popularity in German society.
During my research on ‘Kabarett’, I came across the concept of cabarets that were performed in concentration camps during the Holocaust. This sparked an interest in objects created during periods of duress and oppression; I was intrigued by both the materiality of how these objects were made and also the agency that they gave prisoners, the why. My dissertation focused on the material culture of the Soviet Gulag, from the 1920’s to the 1960’s. This research examined the significance of art, craft, music and performance in the navigation of identity and the maintenance of agency for prisoners. My first chapter considered legal creation in the Gulag and how prisoners were forced to create state propaganda with their artistic and theatrical skills. My second chapter critically analysed clandestine creations such as toys, gifts and cushions that were made in secret. The second chapter of this dissertation went on to be accepted for publication in the Spring 2021 publication of Slovo, the postgraduate journal at SSEES, UCL.