Exploring place, home, loss and legacy among the grandmothers of Chernobyl

Published Friday, 20th September 2019

The themes of ‘Place, Home, Loss and Legacy’ are explored in a fascinating and thought-provoking new exhibition of the same name which opens at Hartlepool Art Gallery later this month.

Devised by artist Claire A. Baker and featuring a mixture of textiles, photography and objects, the exhibition encompasses ongoing artist research carried out in the Chernobyl exclusion zone over the last five years, including in the homes of a number of the ‘Babushkas’ (the ‘grandmothers’) who returned to live in the zone.


‘Babushka’ Baba Hana at home. Photo: Lucy Baker

It documents not only a significant embroidery culture but also the resilience and obsolescence of an isolated, tiny community that has been marginalised from society due to its geography, history, class and notably its people’s insistence on returning to their contaminated land - land deemed uninhabitable for between 10 - 65,000 years.

Chernobyl as a ‘Place’ is dominated by its nuclear disaster, but this does not define its remaining population. Place is intrinsic to this research as the definitive motherland of the self-settlers. Their lifelong relationship with it plays a crucial role in the development and findings of this research. The Chernobyl exclusion zone is a place like no other and the self-settlers are a lost and rapidly declining people.

Claire says: “Throughout the research process the self-settlers have been a constant. Those who have the strongest and most enduring bond with their motherland.

“I have an intense and passionate interest in their daily lives and all that involves, their history and their struggle. I feel compassion, empathy and admiration for them.


‘Babushkas’ Baba Hana and her cousin Marusya. Photo: Claire A. Baker

“This work illustrates the bonds of attachment formed between us even in the absence of a common spoken language and our communication through the universal language and performance of hand embroidery.

“As the first artist to work together with the Babushkas on such a project - as a regular visitor, guest, instructor, facilitator and collaborator - my initial intentions in terms of embroidery and textiles included the discovery of how their regional embroidery has played a part in their lives by way of tradition and culture.

“In a broader sense this exhibition unifies and consolidates some of my investigations into the enduring and persisting effects of the world’s worst nuclear disaster in 1986 on a community today. It is of distinct and timely value precisely as the subjects, the Babushkas (or self-settlers) are dying out, as is their community, society and way of life.

“They, their personal narratives and the evidence of their experiences (and not least their embroideries) will soon have disappeared forever. I feel it is critical that it is recorded for future generations.”

Claire adds: “The exclusion zone as an entity becomes addictive and demands my immersion in it. To describe what it is like is difficult. My personal feelings upon being there are disparate and contradictory; melancholy, pure excitement, deep sadness, peace, solitude and community, wonder at its sheer beauty and the now embedded, aesthetics of decay, destruction and disintegration.”

The exhibition runs from Saturday 28 September to Saturday 2 November and entry is free. Hartlepool Art Gallery is in Church Square and is open Tuesdays to Saturdays from 10am to 5pm.