The Immigrant Artist Biennial, In Dialogue

Maya Hayuk and Kathie Halfin Discuss Ukrainian Heritage and Identity

Still from Kathie Halfin’s performance Body, Land, and Water at Enmeshed, Dreams of Water on October 6, 2023. Photographed by flaneurshan. studio. Courtesy of The Immigrant Artist Biennial.

Having forced nearly one-third of Ukrainians to flee their homes as of 2022, the Russo-Ukrainian War has been a potent reminder of the absolute necessity to uphold peace, justice, and international solidarity in times of humanitarian crisis. Both being part of The Immigrant Asrtist Biennial 2023, Maya Hayuk and Kathie Halfin are artists who are inspired and empowered by their shared Ukrainian identity and heritage. Hayuk’s processes involve “set and setting,” mapping, and traditional design techniques, which is echoed by Kathie Halfin’s performance and hand-woven tapestry shown at Enmeshed: Dreams of Water. Together with TIAB’s writer-in-residence Xuezhu Jenny Wang, they speak about how their art grows out of cultural and political convictions.

How has your work changed since the start of the escalation of the Russo-Ukrainian war?

KH: Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has completely changed the focus and direction of my work. I felt an urge to find a way to share my rage, fear, and pain with the people around me, trying to find a way to let them know about the horrors and atrocities that have been going on in Ukraine. Ukraine must win. Ukraine must prevail. It is crucial not only for Ukraine but for the entire world. It is a fight between good and evil, in the purest form possible, amid a complicated world. The support of the United States is vital, and it is my mission to ensure that this strong support, driven by the American people, continues for as long as needed for Ukraine’s victory.

What effects has the escalation of the Russo-Ukrainian war had on the Ukrainian diaspora in the United States? How has it affected the relations among people from the former Soviet Bloc residing here?

KH: The war has mobilized the Ukrainian diaspora in support of the Ukrainian national effort to fight against Russian aggression, to free its land, and to remain a free and democratic country. The Ukrainians in the United States have been donating, organizing charity events in support of Ukraine, and lobbying the American public and politicians for continuous economic and military support of Ukraine.

Russia’s invasion has divided immigrants from the former Soviet Union into supporters of Ukraine and supporters of Russia. Fortunately, the divide is not by ethnicity or by country of origin. Instead, it is a divide between an overwhelming majority of empathetic and clear-sighted people who support Ukraine and an insignificant minority who have been brainwashed by Russian propaganda or genuinely hold anti-democratic, authoritarian, and chauvinistic views.

What questions should people be asking? And what questions should they not be asking?

KH: The only question people should ask is how we can help Ukraine win. They should not ask supporters of Ukraine what Ukraine should do to stop the war. The only path to establishing long-lasting peace and reducing the number of deaths and suffering is the complete Ukrainian victory against the aggressor.

Maya Hayuk. Big Bonfire (2012). Acrylic on panel, five 6 x 6 ft panels (14 x 25 ft overall). Courtesy of the artist.

How are your considerations different when creating work for public and outdoor spaces versus for private spaces?

MH: It all comes down to the ideas of “set and setting.” It’s not just about where something is made. I must also consider what the work might be applied to—physically and conceptually. What belongs where?

Some of the strict confines of painting outdoors actually liberate me. I only have so much time; the weather conditions might change unpredictably; I am working on machines that can break down, and I am reliant on a super tight production crew as well as my physical endurance. These all make for hard edits and quick decision-making during this whole process. I have gravity and scale at my disposal on big walls, so I’m using those to my advantage by articulating the viscosity of the paint itself and using 9” rollers as if they were pencils.

But most importantly, when I’m working with existing architecture, I must consider vantage points, shifting light, and an obligation to work with the environment instead of just slapping a big “sticker” on something.

In my studio, I have much more freedom in playing out ideas for longer periods—sometimes years- and I generally develop multiple ideas at once. I only have an 11’ ceiling height, which got me into developing modular systems to make large-scale artworks. This is another kind of constraint that has been pivotal in my evolution of making things.

How do you use mapping in your artistic process?

MH: I am trying to give myself interesting pathways that might yield an unexpected result—a big exercise in learning to trust myself. It’s all about the freedom of drawing something for the first time, no matter what the scale is or what the process looks like. I generally inspect all the limitations presented to me—time, scale, materials, and appetite—and set them aside as non-negotiables. From there, I set up some parameters and threw in some intentional obstacles. I determine a palette, choose a brush size one size larger than what’s comfortable, and take off my glasses so that I don’t give in to the temptation to over-tweak. I am always reminding myself to stop and listen, and I have to be open to switching gears.

In Sudoku, solving the puzzle is only possible if you set up the right course of action and are open to failure. I have so many more failures under my belt than I’d deem “successes,” and I have a terrible habit of not throwing anything away. Sometimes, after one of those failures marinates in storage for a few years, it becomes promising again. I’m working on maximizing my industrious moves into the fewest, most poetic gestures. Some years ago, I was told that I was “all over the place,” but now I can see it coming into focus as one contiguous, frenetic, and meaningful brood.

How do you approach the use of historical techniques of making and traditional motifs/patterns in your work?

MH: I don’t remember when I started learning Ukrainian handicrafts, but I’m 100% sure that it’s in my DNA. My grandmother taught me vyshyvanka (embroidery) and pysanky (batik Easter eggs). These skills not only connected us intergenerationally but also introduced me to non-verbal communication practices that require great patience, concentration, discipline, and mathematical considerations. I learned strict systems, plotting, and troubleshooting when trying to recreate these ancient designs. I also learned how to develop my own design.

My grandmother’s style was so distinct. Her technique made the embroidery look impeccable from both sides of the cloth. She probably learned these traditions and designs from her grandmother, going deep into our ancestry for centuries. These indigenous patterns and motifs are extremely regional, speaking to identities, but they are, as a whole, really quite universal and sometimes strikingly similar across the globe. This realization brings me some form of peace, as it really speaks to human connectivity.

My most ubiquitous motif has been the “X,” which, at face value, references cross-stitching. At its core, the “X” is a signal for protection and is used in markings related to urban search and rescue, Underground Railroad routes, punk rock, and so many other things. Throughout my work, re-proportioning and scaling up the quiet work of the voiceless, the marginalized, and the lost has been a consistent mission.

About the Writer: Xuezhu Jenny Wang is a Chinese writer and translator specializing in postwar and contemporary visual culture and design. Currently, she is working on a research project that focuses on mid-century interior design and mechanization. Wang has previously served as copy editor of the Columbia Daily Spectator, editor of the Columbia Undergraduate Journal of Art History, and producer of The Conversation Art Podcast. Her art criticism has been published in ArteFuse, Art Spiel, and Cultbytes. She has held project-based positions at Barro, Aicon Gallery, and Cai Studio and is pursuing her Bachelor’s degree in History and Theory of Architecture at Columbia University.

Maya Hayuk and Kathie Halfin are part of The Immigrant Artist Biennial 2023: Contact Zone, held across venues in New York and New Jersey from September 2023 to January 2024. Find the full program here

For more information about the 2023 edition of the Immigrant Artist Biennial: Contact Zone, please find the program here. Art Spiel and Cultbytes are, for the second time, proud media sponsors of the biennial, and this review series is published as part of TIAB’s writer’s residency generously supported by Lesley Bodzy Studio and Fraser Birrell Grier, Esq.