Jelena Pogosjan looks fondly at a worn icon of the Virgin Mary with two saints, hanging on an eggshell wall in downtown Edmonton.
The artwork, stripped of paint in places and surrounded by similarly worn pieces, made its way from Ukraine to Canada over 42 years ago.
“When you are bringing an icon like that, not only are you bringing your heritage, but you’re also saving an icon.”
Entitled “The Mother of God with Saints,” the piece is one of several featured in Images of Faith, Hope and Beauty, a new exhibit of Ukrainian icons presented by the University of Alberta’s Kule Folklore Centre and the Ukrainian Pioneers Association of Alberta. The exhibit runs until Jan. 28 at the U of A’s Enterprise Square location.
“Today, the Ukrainian community is growing very fast,” said Pogosjan, the director of the Kule Folklore Centre and one of two curators of the exhibit. “And when communities grow, the question of the roots of the heritage and the history becomes very important.”
Images of Faith, Hope and Beauty features five collections, from artists like Wadym Dobrolige, who grew up in Soviet-controlled Ukraine and escaped to Canada, where he painted icons and designed iconostasis (a wall of icons) that now permeate Ukrainian Catholic and Ukrainian Orthodox churches in Alberta.
Dobrolige’s collection includes initial sketches and a “black book” of ideas, which inspired the Images of Faith, Hope and Beauty exhibit. Also featured is Oleksander Klymenko’s Icons in Ammo Boxes, a series of icons painted on wooden boards from ammunition boxes from the Donbass War, the ongoing armed conflict with pro-Russian forces following Russia’s occupation and annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean region.
“For me, what’s really unexpectedly interesting is that when you put together pieces from different collections, they suddenly explain each other,” said Pogosjan. “This is for me, something really special.”
Included in the exhibit is a wall of icons, an embroidered vestment, and an authorized copy of the Shroud of Turin provided by the Ukrainian Catholic Eparchy of Edmonton, one of only 10 authorized copies in the world. The shroud is a length of linen cloth bearing the image of a man believed to be Jesus.
“It’s not a Ukrainian icon. However, we heard from Catholic schools that they would love to be close to it, and explain to students, to children, the significance and the history. But in a church setting, it’s very hard to do. Here, you can have a proper lesson, you can have a discussion.”
One of the most important aspects of this exhibit, according to Pogosjan, is the accessibility of the exhibit for those who may not visit Ukrainian churches. “It’s nice to have this loud space, where you can approach sacred objects which were taken out of this holy space and can be looked at closely.”
Several of the icons, including “The Mother of God with Saints,” were smuggled out during the Cold War, when Ukraine was controlled by the former Soviet Union.
“Most icons were kept hidden,” said Pogosjan. “And it doesn’t take very long for an icon to be destroyed.”
Though the exhibit ends in January, the icons might travel once again, with the exhibit possibly moving to Calgary and other locations outside of Edmonton in the future. Regardless, the information gleaned from an ever-increasing collection inspires Pogosjan to look towards the future.
“We’ve already collected a lot of interesting information about the pieces, and it looks like we need to share them.”
More information about the exhibit can be found by calling the Kule Folklore Centre at 780-492-6906, or by visiting the University of Alberta’s website at https://www.ualberta.ca/canadian-institute-of-ukrainian-studies/index.html