It is a cold and frosty November evening in Vilnius. Liisa and I have returned to our Airbnb to warm up a little before attending an exhibition opening as part of the children’s literature festival. Weariness has seeped into our bones, prompting a brief pause to reflect on the experiences at the festival and exchange impressions. As it often happens, our conversation smoothly drifts away from the festival, lingering on the absurd and comical moments of life. This time, Liisa, with her characteristic laughter, recalls how her great-grandmother got married at the age of 16 to a 40-year-old landowner.
This could describe the prelude to this exhibition. However, the idea for the exhibition did not immediately arise from this peculiar memory, torn out from its temporal and spatial context. Liisa had played with the idea of creating a graphic novel about her grandmother’s return from Siberia several times, while I had always wanted to curate an exhibition of illustrations. Over time, the feeling strengthened that Liisa’s grandmother’s memories could be also shared with other people.
But how to create an exhibition on the topic of Siberia when it is associated with some of the most horrifying chapters in our history? Siberia is so deeply ingrained in our consciousness through the bitter tragedy of deportations that the possibility of alternative stories seems almost non-existent. Nevertheless, at the end of the 19th century, numerous families migrated from Estonia to Siberia, hoping to build a better life there. The land shortage that had developed here was so extensive that it led to the migration of a significant portion of the rural population to the vacant and sparsely populated regions of Russia. Resettlement was also an attempt to escape famines.
Friedrich Reinhold Kreutzwald wrote to his Estophile friend Georg Julius von Schultz-Bertram in 1870: “As much as I talked to the people who passed through here, they unanimously affirmed: whatever the future might bring them according to God’s will, they were ready to endure it calmly; there could be no worse hell anywhere else in the world than what they left behind in their homeland here.” One and a half centuries later, nothing much seems to have changed. There are still many departing, driven by the same defiance and dissatisfaction. Currently, we are concerned about the drain of qualified labor, but at that time too, manor owners faced the question of how and with what means to prevent a massive decrease in the workforce. The exhibition raises universal questions about migration: why do people leave, what do they hope to find, and what connects us to our home and brings us back?
The aim of Memories from Altai Krai is to narrate, through comic strip visuals, a story based on Liisa’s grandmother’s memories of her life in Siberia. The story doesn’t follow a linear chronological framework, but rather highlights both brighter and more tragic memories. Interestingly, in her previous exhibition at Tallinn City Gallery, America Talks & New York Sketchbook, Liisa also displayed her drawings. Over a decade has passed since that exhibition, which was based on her own memories from studying in America. Now, the artist had to revive memories based on her grandmother’s writings. How do you recreate someone else’s memories that you haven’t experienced yourself?
Liisa’s recent exhibitions have mainly focused on the genre of painting. Indeed, she primarily identifies herself as a painter. However, in this exhibition, we get to see her as a comic artist. Having travelled extensively with Liisa, I have witnessed how natural it is for her to sketch what she sees and experiences. Similar to her grandmother, she enjoys collecting memories. However, unlike her grandmother, her medium is not written words, but rather quick sketches driven by the emotion of the moment.
Liisa’s ancestors migrated to Siberia, dreaming of finding a better life there. The unknown and distant land brought them tremendous difficulties, but also beautiful moments. Whether the dream of a better life came true or not is hard to say. As Fernando Pessoa has written, some people have big dreams in life which they never fulfill. Others don’t have any dreams in life, and they don’t fulfill those either.