Imagined Communities: Photographs by Mila Teshaieva at the MIT Museum

Mila Teshaieva, Commemoration of unknown burial place for my grandfather, 2016. Courtesy the artist and MIT Museum

Mila Teshaieva’s first retrospective in the United States is comprised of three powerful bodies of work exploring themes of nation building, identity construction, and political and ethnic conflict. Born in 1974 in Ukraine, Teshaieva worked as an economist before turning to photography, and she describes her approach as that of a “curious researcher.” The 47 works in Imagined Communities, on view at the MIT Museum through March 3, include portraits and landscape views with accompanying captions that demonstrate how communities are often created through the erasure and manipulation of memories and public and private histories.

Promising Waters (2010-13), published by Kehrer Verlag in 2013, looks at Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, and Turkmenistan, all of which gained independence from the Soviet Union in the early 1990s. In one photograph, a man sits in front of a mural depictinga landscape that has since been destroyed as the countries’ oil resources were mined. In other images, buildings of glass and steel and new but vacant public plazas point to a rush toward modernization. Teshaieva’s photographs capture a period of growth and uncertainty as individuals navigating the changing economy and new political terrain struggle to keep up.

Mila Teshaieva, An official of Narimanabad village in his office, Azerbaijan, 2010. Courtesy the artist and MIT Museum

Unfamiliar Memory (2015-ongoing) probes the tactics of suppression and fear employed by the Ukrainian state. The caption for an image of a tree on fire in a snowy field tells of a grandfather executed in 1937 as an enemy of the state. His burial site remains unknown. In a conceptual twist, Teshaieva also makes portraits of individuals reenacting stories of family members who were disappeared, exiled, imprisoned, or killed. In one, a woman appears to flee through the woods on her hands and knees. The accompanying caption recalls bedtime stories – fairy tales of survival involving wolves and a girl – told to her by a female relative. Despite the losses depicted, the images have a cinematic style that accentuates their narrative and romantic quality.

The most recent series, “Sorry, Not Sorry” (2017-ongoing), explores the various narratives of identity propagated in the Balkans throughofficial ceremonies that memorialize mass killings that began in World War II and continued throughout the Yugoslav wars of the 1990s. The series includes photographs of large gatherings of people commemorating acts of ethnic conflict and violence as well as portraits of victims and their families. While the images are contemplative, the captions describe the historical events being commemorated, atrocities like the massacre of Muslim men and boys by the Serb Army or detention camps run by the Bosnian Army for Serb and Croatian civilians. Ultimately, Teshaieva’s “imagined communities” are places of ambiguity, where state control, public history, and individual memories continue to alter national identities.