A New Photobook Casts the Spell of an Ancient Festival

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The young men of Krasnoilsk dress up and don bear costumes to celebrate Malanka. All photos by Yelena Yemchuk for "Malanka" (2024), courtesy of Edition Patrick Frey


February 21, 2024

Every January 13 and 14, western Ukraine erupts with color, music, pranks, and plays. People dance and roam door to door, dressed in wild, ornate masks and costumes depicting bears, goats, and nurses to celebrate Malanka. The festival marks the Old New Year according to the Julian calendar with a raucous celebration and cherished cultural ritual to welcome the New Year and coming Spring.

In a new photobook called Malanka Yelena Yemchuk captures magic and spirit of the cultural tradition through a personal, feminine lens. The book, published by Edition Patrick Frey, is the Ukrainian-American artist’s sixth and is a poignant collection of images made with endless love for Ukraine and its people.

Although—or perhaps because—Yelena emigrated at age 11 while Ukraine was occupied by the Soviet Union, her emotional, cultural, and social ties to her homeland are indelible. Now an artist, photographer, and film director Yelena travels to Ukraine as often as she can, and much of her work revolves around the people and places that she encounters on her visits.

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Malanka gets its name from the Eastern European version of a widely known myth: Mother Earth’s daughter, Malanka, was stolen away by the devil, and spring bloomed upon her return from the underworld.

On a trip to Crasna (or Krasnoilsk in Ukrainian), a town known for its celebration of Malanka, Yelena was captivated. She joined the folkloric festivities in 2019 and again in 2020, which marked her last visit to her home Ukraine before the proliferation of Covid just weeks later and the Russian invasion in 2022.

In the years since, Yelena translated her experience at Malanka to the new photo book and an artistic short film. Each depiction contains an echo of magic, a bit surreal. The work is a portrait of the festival but also an examination of the artist’s Ukrainian identity, flavored with her particular taste for blending the reality of post-Soviet Ukraine with a dreamlike, cinematic femininity. The images blur her heritage with her New York perspective for a hazy and surreal effect.

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Anya Domashyna is a close friend and collaborator to Yelena. Courtesy of Edition Patrick Frey

The Malanka short film also bears Yelena’s trademark surrealist investigation of identity. It is the second in a trilogy of films made with Ukrainian artist Anya Domashyna. American actor Ebon Moss-Bachrach (The Bear, Girls—and Yelena’s husband) also features in the film, which debuted in 2023 as part of Yelena’s solo exhibition at the Ukrainian Museum in New York. “They’re surrealist films about loss of identity, and maybe have a lot to do with my never belonging psychologically to anywhere that I’ve been—except when I get back to Ukraine,” Yelena told Sixtysix ahead of the film’s release.

In light of the ongoing conflict with Russia Malanka, like Yelena’s 2022 books Odesa and УYY, takes on a certain solemnity, even in its enchanting, vibrant presentation. Ethnic Romanians in western Ukraine have kept the Spring festival alive through centuries of change, turbulence, and cultural and political shifts. Malanka has fed the spirit of Ukraine—a symbol and celebration of its unique culture and identity—over many years. Its depth of meaning comes through in Yelena’s photographs accompanied by a poetic essay by Romanian cultural journalist Ioana Pelehatăi.

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Yelena Yemchuk, “Malanka,” Edition Patrick Frey, 2024

The book launched at Arcana in LA on Saturday, February 17. Dashwood Books in New York will host a signing on March 6, and Claire de Rouen in London will host a signing on April 25.


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