From an Art Historian
«Travel through art
Путешествие сквозь искусство»

The gallery you find yourself in is home to a unique collection: there is none like it in Ukraine. The collection came about thanks to two predilections its collector happens to possess – for travel and for art from different countries. The former passion became the catalyst for the latter. And this latter passion has taken shape in the form of a vast art collection that currently features around 50 works of art from Alaska, Guatemala, Côte d'Ivoire, Ghana, Rwanda, Kenya, Nigeria, Cameroon, Tanzania, Mexico, India, Nepal, Mali, North Korea, the Central African Republic and Iraqi Kurdistan…

As Leonid Khokhlovych, curator and owner of this collection, tells us in his deeply interesting, lively and humurous commentary, collecting these works of art from Asian, African and American countries has turned into a fascinating way of getting to know new people and cultures, and learning about different customs, beliefs and traditions. Each work carries with it a personal discovery about new sides of life – as well as new artists, who retell wondrous stories through their work in which creative fantasies and symbols from far-away cultures intertwine…

Leonid finds artwork for his collection – accumulating further with every trip he takes – in small galleries, shops and bazaars. Many of these works are by little-known authors, but there are some from creators who are well-known in the art world. One such artist is Barbara Lavallee, an American watercolorist who studied art at Illinois State University, later taught painting at a Navajo reservation, and now works at a school for native Alaskans and does graphical art. In 1991 she received the Golden Kite Award from the Society Of Children's Book Writers for excellence in illustration. In her lighthearted watercolors, filled with adorable notes of humor and stylistically similar to illustrations you would find in a children’s book, she depicts funny little tales and scenes from the life of people up north.

Two of these works – New Kuspuk (2008) and Cat Dreams (2012) – are part of the collection.

The artist behind the painting Flip-flop Merchant (2018р.) Jean Bosco Bakunzi from Rwanda, has quite the story in his own right. As a nine-year-old boy, he lost his parents to the bloody 1994 Rwandan genocide. Around a million innocent civilians died during that time. As a teenager, Jean’s interest in art led him to a circle of local artists who taught the young man how to work with oil and acrylic paints. He developed an admiration for the works of Picasso, Chagall and Van Gogh, and in 2011 he moved to Canada; his art is now featured all over the world. In his vibrant, decorative and simultaneously expressive canvases, always replete with color and motion, Jean depicts scenes from everyday life, turning our attention to the surrounding world and captivating us with his free-flowing colorwork as well as his truly unique take on contemporary Western art.

Isaac Opoku Badu is one of Ghana’s most renowned contemporary artists. He studied at a local Art and Industry college. The themes of his artwork, which has received international recognition and can be seen at many exhibitions, are the natural world and the people of Africa. The figures in his canvases range from mammals to birds to plants to human portraits, and he sometimes draws them as if zoomed in, bringing them right up close to the viewer, other times cropping out sections of the composition, other times drawing the piece with almost complete realism or with a certain element of fantasy, reproducing every detail with care. Is his work comparable to “naîve hyperrealism”, a style of art that captivates the viewer with its richly detailed vision of everyday life and ability to drum up inspiration from the wonders of the real world? At the very least, that is how Badu’s work Snail Merchant (2017р.) is described in the collection..

The gallery is also blessed with the presence of three paintings – Albinos, Mama Tanzania and Nets? What For? – from Mohamed Wasia Charinda (1941-2021), one of Africa’s most renowned artists. Works of his are kept at the British Museum in London as well as the Ethnographic Museum in Hamburg. Charinda was born in the Tanzanian village of Nakapanya, graduated from elementary school and started painting in 1975. Thanks to his mentor, a local artist by the name of Hasheem Mrut, Charinda learned to draw in the style of Tingatinga and became one of most famous artists to draw in that style. The artform was established in the 1960’s by Tanzanian artist Edward Tingatinga (1932-1972), who used enamel paint for cars to decorate various flat backgrounds. Typical scenes in these works include wild mammals, birds and silhouettes of people; the style spread widely and acquired many disciples. Tingatinga paintings were initially done on cardboard and masonite, then starting in 1989 artists began using canvases as well. For what it’s worth, Charinda himself is thought by some to have spearheaded this innovation. It was in the 1970’s that Tingatinga paintings really started taking off, and artwork in the style has been featured at exhibitions from Africa to Europe to Asia and America ever since. The style also received state support and has become a trademark for Tanzania. But Tingatinga is by no means stagnant – each new artist adds their own qualities, images, stylistic choices and colors to the tradition, and Charinda’s work is no exception. He draws wild animals, scenes from everyday life, stories from African mythology, fairy tales and legends, in unique comic strip-esque canvases; these canvases unveil narratives for the viewer in expressive and, because of his drawing style, grotesque, detail. He uses various temporal and abstract dimensions – past, present and future, plausible and made-up, real and fantasy – to tie together the world depicted on a given canvas. Images are woven almost into ornamental structures, enchanting the viewer with wondrous tales and an acutely sophisticated construction of rhythm and color.

Many canvases in the collection are unsigned or were done by unknown artists. Works like this, including Charinda’s, are typically referred to as “contemporary folk art” and are characterized as either “primitive” or “naïve”. Artists who lack a traditional artistic education fall into this category, and the style garnered interest at least as far back as the late 1800’s, during the dawn of modernism. Not only did “naïve” or “primitive” art maintain a firm place in museums as a phenomenon in the era of modernism; it set the course for that era. In its search to develop imagery, modernism put human individuality and subjectivity forward as the central ideological categories reflecting change in society. Widespread democratization allowed the masses, to that point unacknowledged neither as authors nor as consumers of art, to receive a cultural education and form a vast collective audience. And it was by rethinking established aesthetic values, from “beauty” and “harmony” to “expression”, “originality” and “uniqueness”, that modernism often picked up new artistic and creative ideals from areas of art that lay outside the academic canon and outside of high culture. “Uneducated” creativity provided the base features of artistic expression: an open-minded outlook on the world was coupled with a natural expressiveness, and the artist’s fantasies made for unique imagery in which lived human experience and archetypes of the “collective unconscious” were intricately intertwined. Works from great primitivists such as A. Rousseau, N. Pirosmanashvili, Serafina Louis, G. Sobachko, N. Drovnyak, M. Primachenko, K. Belokur and others have since solidified their place in art history and populated museums the world over. Naïve art, in addition to being sought-after by collectors, became a consistent subject of research and discussion in artistic, professional and scientific circles. One could even say that “naïve artists”, with their organic individuality and distinctively vibrant perceptions of the world – perceptions that held strong despite the circumstances – were heroes in a 21st century rife with turmoil and crises. In today’s rapidly globalizing world, where a widespread cultural “reset” has seen distinctions of “high” and “low”, “the masses” and “the elite” get replaced by discussions of authorship, individuality and popularity, the motif of the “naïve artist in the modern world” has changed its meaning. But it is no less relevant. The central feature of this artform is the artist’s personal gifts and a tenacious yearning to express oneself through imagery that surpasses real life circumstances and fate in its meaning and strength, overcoming the mundane barriers of life and leading a person into the creative world. That world, filled with a sincere spontaneity, echoes loudly in the naïve artform. The boundary between artist and viewer is practically nonexistent, and the art produced is can most often be seen as “portraits” of its authors – whose extraordinary individual personalities leave us mesmerized and charmed.

The incomparability, originality of experience and perception in this world manifests itself in the treatment of non-European cultures whose friendly nature, plastic expressiveness and symbolism so impressed the Western world. Living in Haiti had a profound impact on Paul Gauguin’s paintings; Tunisian art can be found in the work of Paul Klee. One of the most influential art movements in the 20th century – cubism – was heavily influenced during its emergence by African sculpture. A watershed moment in Emil Nolde’s creative journey was his trip to Africa and Oceania, where local art struck him with its sense of pure human existence, archetypical symbols and synthesis of thought. 20th century art broke down boundaries between cultures, unifying the world through visual creativity.

This artform has taken on a new meaning and perspective in the modern world of mass communication. Art historians have identified a shift in cultural centers that is seeing Asian and African countries take center stage over Europe, while art and artists from these countries are receiving more and more recognition in global forums. No international auction or local fair is complete without art from Africa, Asia and Latin America. African and Eastern art museums are opening in Europe and the United States, while modern art museums are opening in Africa and the East. The contemporary art world is at a new stage of cultural development, rethinking its conception of artistry and the “aesthetic”, rejecting long-established conventions and bringing a maximally diverse array of visual expression techniques to the world of art. In the massive art world, tied together so deeply by social connections and communication, it makes less and less sense to speak of “outsiders” or “naïve artists”. It’s no coincidence that new related categories are appearing: “contemporary folk art” or “self-taught art”, for example. Modern culture highlights the equality of every human voice, every creative impulse that carries with it meaning, expression, and energy.

Art from former third world countries nowadays does more than serve as inspiration for Western artists; it is becoming a full and equal participant in the art scene. The flagship 1989 Magiciens de la Terre art exhibition, held at Paris’s Centre Georges Pompidou and the Grande halle de la Villette, is worth a mention. Jean-Hubert Martin, the curator, turned the exhibition into a powerful show of post-colonial expression, and kickstarted the involvement and integration of areas of the world previously “off the map”, so to speak. After all, African and Asian art had long been viewed by the Western world through the lens of ethnography or folklore. At Magiciens de la Terre, Martin presented non-Western artists as conceptually equally to their Western counterparts, finding and displaying common themes in art from the different continents. Artists previously existing at the margins of the art world became world-famous. The spectactular, emotional and vibrant art of Africa, Asia, and Latin America, bursting with life force, has become a relevant and meaningful component of the global art world.

The breakdown of Western colonial art stereotypes was an ever-present theme in the work of Nigerian curator, critic and art historian Okwui Enwezor (1963-2019). Starting with his photographic exhibition "In/Sight: African Photographers” (1940-present), continuing at New York’s Guggenheim Museum and the Johannesburg Art Biennale in 1996, at the 2002 international contemporary art forum "Document" and the Palais de Tokyo in 2012, Enwezor persistently propagated the multidirectionality of art, changing the way in which it was perceived and making it possible to understand advances in art as multi-centered and thus untethered to the divisions of first, second and third world. The changes taking place on our planet due to new technology, globalization and social interaction affect not just the patriarchical world of peoples, tribes and countries in a complex and uncertain manner – these changes are also bringing the most remote of places into the global web, forcing us to rethink the cultural space, reckon with and evaluate its component parts.

Humanity is learning to understand itself through art, overcome stereotypes and open new frontiers. New voices are thus entering modern culture, telling stories in their languages that fascinate. And it is this diversity of voices that echoes forcefully throughout Leonid Khokhlovych’s collection. His is a collection hard to organize under some unified principle. Every work in it is original and seduces you with the uniqueness of its imagery – sometimes emanating from local traditions and other times unexpectedly sewing together a broad array of artistic movements…

Guatemalan artist Angelina Quic Ixtamer’s painting Mayan Market пis drawn from a bird’s eye view perspective, which turns a noisy Mayan bazaar, with its merchants and buyers, birds and pigs, grains and beans, into a shining ornament. And in this ornament, it’s the figures of those people – adorned colorfully, carrying round, woven gold baskets that look like shining suns from above, and around which the action is happening – which are thus woven into a coherent whole that is permeated by a general rhythm and energy. With the accuracy of the drawing, the structuring of color blots – featuring elements of both realism and relativism – the piece is reminiscent of artwork by Jose Orosco and Diego Rivera, which is based in traditional Mexican art, images and aesthetics from Native American peoples. Angelina Quic Ixtamer fits into this tradition, enriching it with the author’s original point of view.

The painting On This Day, Luck Was Not on Their Side (2016), from an artist by the name of Moussa in Côte d'Ivoire, tells a rather different story. This canvas depicts a bazaar as well, but that is where the similarity ends. A police car runs into a crowd and then crashes into a pole… bystanders are disturbed and scared, as green balls of fruit fall from a basket that’s been turned on its side. The author’s naïve “childlike” manner of painting puts a strong focus on blood leaking from a policeman’s head, a tongue stuck out in fear, as well as the movement of men, women and children in the crowd. The sign in French brings an unexpected note of irony to the work: “Guerrison au nom du Christ sur place” – “On-site healing in the name of Jesus Christ”. The realities of life in a former colony turned independent country, which suffers from its own corruption as well as constant national/religious and political conflicts, reveal themselves in the immediacy of the author’s vision.

Kurdish-Iraqi artist Rostam Zada, A.K.A. Namo, depicts events in North Kurdistan on his expressive canvas entitled Why Do You Kill Us? (2019). He was born in 1964 in the Iranian city of Boken (thus, an Iranian refugee), and studied at a college in Erbil, where he now teaches. His works include paintings and artistic objects which, through the language of modern art, give an interpretation of life in Kurdistan that can be seen at local exhibits. Why Do You Kill Us? is dedicated to the suffering of the Kurdish people. Its imagery borders on the abstract and objective, on artistic conventions, on concrete feelings and an impulse for action on which the piece is based. The handwritten signature underscores the painting’s social message.

The portrait – more specifically, this image – of a young bride in traditional attire, was drawn in 2018 by an artist from North Korea with the last name Kim. As part of a ritual, she extends a ceremonial cup to the groom’s parents as a show of respect. With almost naturalistic accuracy, the artist depicts the bride’s multicolored outfit, the mats on the floor as well as the painted folding screens behind her. She uses what looks almost like porcelain paint to draw the bride’s beautiful face – a manifestation of ideal beauty in the eyes of the Korean people.

It is in this way that Leonid Khokhlovych opens a unique and multicolored set of windows to the unusual world of art from countries afar, with their customs, realities, nature, ways of life, and gorgeous women who represent life force and beauty in all peoples, whose attire and jewellery are in and of themselves exquisite, unrepeatable works of art. Looking at these pieces, you realize once again what a wide range of voices our world contains, and how all of them are worthy of attention and deserve to be heard. The art space reciprocates amongst itself; alongside physical distances which can be easily “overcome” on an airplane, boundaries between cultures and countries are also overcome, and like a system of arteries and veins they fill each other with new ideas and creative impulses. The barriers between “naïve” and “professional” art no longer stand. These movements, in one way or another, are part of a unified cultural space; they feed off of and inspire each other. In fact, their dialogue extends beyond the bounds of art, allowing us to take a glimpse beyond the life we see around us, fathom its multidimensional natural and come to the realization that the concept of “modernity” includes not just the unification of urbanism and technology, but also traditional forms of existence – without which humanity will wither away.

Thus begins one’s experience of Leonid Khokhlovcych’s one-of-a-kind collection. It allows us not just to expand our understanding of the world and of art, but to perceive its beauty in a new way. For as the great writer and connoisseur of the human spirit Marcel Proust once wrote: "The real voyage of discovery consists, not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes”.

Halyna Sklyarenko, candidate in Art History