Local artist exhibits at Chernobyl Exclusion Zone

A lecturer from a northern arts school is leading on an international project to boost the cultural arts scene in the Ukraine with an unofficial photographic exhibition in the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone and the development of a new festival, including arts, for the communities affected by the disaster.

Claire Baker, a textile lecturer at Cleveland College of Art and Design (CCAD), recently returned from a two-week research trip to the country where she is helping to manage the organisation of a three-day ‘radioactive’ event around the Chernobyl region.

Back in the UK, Claire is the project manager and lead artist of the 26:86 Collective, a group of 14 artists who visited the site of the world’s biggest nuclear disaster on its 30th anniversary last year and documented the visit with film, photos and interviews.

One year later, the embroidery artist from Norton in Stockton-on-Tees returned to Pripyat – the place which inspired the artwork – to display the series of striking photographic images of the work created after the group’s visit in 2016. At the Palace of Culture in the abandoned city of Pripyat, the series of mixed media, photography, photomontage and collage images created by the Collective document the after effects of the nuclear disaster in the Ukraine.

Named after the day and year of the Chernobyl disaster, 26:86 Collective is made up of established and emerging artists and designers across the fields of illustrative and fine art, textiles, graphic design and photography. Some of the work was inspired by the evacuated homes and the destruction of the interior walls over time, reflecting on those who had to suddenly leave their homes with little notice and only a few belongings.

Claire was absolutely delighted to be able to display the work of the Collective at the Palace of Culture and hopes people will happen across the work when exploring the zone.

She said: “It was the quickest exhibition I have ever hung, a little tense but exciting. The Palace of Culture in main square was an obvious place as that is what the building was for, and a perfect location for the guerrilla-style exhibition. We came back a week later and due to the conditions, with rooms open to the elements somewhat, some of the work had slipped or fallen down, which is quite poetic in a way and fits the location well.

“Officially tourists are not allowed inside the buildings throughout the exclusion zone due to health and safety issues, and I wouldn’t recommend it. But people will come across the exhibition, and hopefully the images will remain there for many years and become part of the debris and history of this mesmeric place.”

The Collective has already featured their photographic and documentary research work and creative artworks inspired by the visit in a successful series of exhibitions, including the Liverpool Biennial Fringe Festival 2016 and art venues in Middlesbrough and County Durham. They have a ‘grand finale’ exhibition coming up in October this year at Hartlepool Art Gallery.

However, the main reason for Claire’s expedition to the Ukraine was to help plan a new three-day festival – Chernobyling – in conjunction with tour company CHERNOBYLwel.come and other partners, also supported by CCAD.

The festival, which has been developed as both a cultural and economic boost to the communities affected by the disaster, will take place in Slavutych, a new city built for the evacuated people of Pripyat, Chernobyl.

From 30 August to 1 September 2017, the Chernobyling festival – the first of its kind – will feature a series of artist workshops and lectures from the self-settler community, as well as a programme of activities and music aimed at both local communities and tourists alike.

Claire is currently organising the artistic programme for the event, which hopes to attract up to 6,000 visitors, and will also be an attraction for fans of urbex – urban exploration – and the increasingly popular geographical treasure hunt of ‘geocaching’ – due to its highly unusual location.

Through her close working relationship with CHERNOBYLwel.come Claire contributed to the concept of the festival, which began as a fairly small event. During planning meetings, it became obvious through Claire’s passions for the creative arts that the festival could be expanded to take on international artists, and so the event grew.

Working closely with CHERNOBYLwel.come, Claire has met Councillors and townspeople of Slavutych and despite the obvious language barrier, is delighted with the progress for the Festival and its ambitions, and even stars in the commercial for the event.

She said: “This is an amazing place for artists and photographers to come because there is so much visual inspiration. I could do my life’s work here and I want to as I have such passion for it.

“It is an incredibly exciting opportunity to get even more immersed in the culture and communities across the Chernobyl region and really make a difference. Having worked on the project since December, a lot of research, planning, organisation and liaison has already been done but there is still so much to do to bring this original, innovative and potentially life-changing event together.

“I am currently sourcing artists and photographers for the event, including featuring a street photography workshop followed by an exhibition on location in Slavutych. Artworks created by local residents and visitors during the festival will be on permanent display in buildings across the community, including an artist cyanotype (photographic printing process that produces a cyan-blue print) book workshop by Collective member Nicola Golightly, where the books created will be part of an archive collection in the public library and exhibited inside the bookshelves.

“During the festival, there will be the opportunity for people to work with international street artists to produce a large, colourful mural on one of the abandoned buildings in the city, symbolising hope for the future.”