The drawings displayed here are the first in what I hope is a series of pictures on the theme of Contested Histories. I became interested in this project when I travelled to Eastern Europe, specifically the former Ukrainian, Belarusian, and Lithuanian SSRs. I had read quite a bit of history before I left, mostly by British, American, and Canadian historians. As can be imagined, when I started traveling around Ukraine, Belarus, and Lithuania, I came across many different, often conflicting views about what had happened between the Russian Revolution and the fall of the Berlin Wall.
This discrepancy between what I read and what I learned on site was most pronounced when I visited the Khatyn Memorial outside of Minsk, Belarus (not to be confused with Katyn, Russia, where 20,000 Polish officers and professionals were killed by the NKVD). This memorial commemorates the Belarusian villages destroyed by the World War II German army as they advanced toward Moscow, the Belarusian civilians killed by German soldiers, and the valiant efforts of the Belarusians to protect their homeland. The text accompanying the exhibits talked about the innocent Belarusian citizens and the cruel, not to say inhuman German soldiers. The statistics were staggering—some 9000 villages were partly or wholly destroyed, many cities bombed to rubble, one quarter of the population killed. But I had just finished reading Ivan's War (Catherine Merridale, Picador, 2006) and knew, given the right circumstances, Soviet soldiers could be just as cruel and inhuman as the Germans.
Without denigrating the hardships suffered and the patriotism of the Belarusian people, I wanted to show in my artwork that the tragedy of World War II (the Great Patriotic War in formerly Soviet countries) was more complex than as it was presented at Khatyn. I wanted to raise questions about who is victim, who is perpetrator, about where responsibility lies, about how difficult it is to know the truth. I wanted to avoid, as much as possible, demonizing any one group. I think of myself as a moral, right-thinking person, but how do I know what I would have done in similar circumstances?
How could I show the multiple perspectives, changing interpretations, and new historical evidence on a flat piece of paper? My first impulse was to do pairs of realistic drawings based on war-time photographs, depicting first Belarusian and then German views of the events, but that approach was too much like reporting, too focused on individual incidents. Rather than basing my images on actual villages, I needed a more expressive approach—something that could more fully evoke the emotions and the ideas I was trying to convey. I decided to make my images more abstract and symbolic. The pictures here are "everyman" landscapes, pared down to their essentials to emphasize the universality of the events being depicted. The burnt farmland could be in Belarus, Germany, Poland, or even Rwanda. The fields strewn with the dead could be in East Timor or Lithuania. At the same time, I wanted to remind my American audience about wartime conditions along the Eastern Front. I've used text, also pared down to essentials, to give historical context to the images and to comment further on the scale of events. Finally, I've chosen colors for their expressive value as well as for their realistic sense. The fields are literally black because they have been burnt, but black is also the color of death. The birch trees are actually green, but green also symbolizes birth, regeneration, and hope for the future.Return to top.