Mykola Ridnyi, a Berlin-based Ukrainian artist and filmmaker, has been exhibiting a new moving image project titled The Battle Over Mazepa at the John Hansard Gallery. To talk about the project, he joined us for a brief interview.
As an artist and filmmaker, how do you navigate the intersection of visual storytelling and rap music in The Battle Over Mazepa? What challenges and opportunities did you encounter in merging these artistic forms?
The Battle Over Mazepa is a rap battle which has a structure of 6 rounds. It is embodied by four performers Ellie, Moh, Caxxienne and Exo, who are representing different artistic approach, different gender and national background. Each round has own thematic direction related to the figure of Ivan Mazepa. He was a political and military leader of Ukraine in XVII-XVIII century. In Russian historiography he is iconic traitor of the empire. In Ukrainian historiography he is seen as a fighter for independence from more powerful neighbours. In this sense, “the battle” is ongoing for a few centuries of European history before I transformed it into rap. Together with my German colleague and literature researcher Susanne Straetling, we run a workshop for performers in Berlin where they came from different places in Germany, the UK and Romania, to get them in a course of political, historical and culture context of Mazepa. After that they wrote their reflections which now you can see and hear in the film.
The Battle Over Mazepa brings together hip-hop culture and European history. Can you share more about the inspiration behind this project and how you decided to use rap battle as the medium for this artistic exploration?
Everything started from the point when I learned about two poems: “Mazepa” by Lord Byron and “Poltava” by Alexander Pushkin. Both of them shape Mazepa as a central figure of the story. But the perspectives are entirely different. Byron romanticising Mazepa and telling a story of his youth and punishment for the forbidden love affair. Pushkin wrote his text in opposition to Byron and describes Mazepa as an elderly pervert and a political loser – betrayer of Russian empire. Nevertheless, romantic image of Byron inspired many other writers, painter and filmmakers to tell the story of Mazepa. Unfortunately, Pushkin’s approach fixed the negative image of Mazepa in Russian culture until the present day. When we think about contemporary form of poetic expression which is both sensitive about political context and inspired by human’s passions, different forms of rap culture come to a mind. Rappers often express their negative attitude towards each other in a form of a diss-tracks. Just like Pushkin did against Byron.
The juxtaposition of historical themes with current sentiments in your work highlights the enduring relevance of events from centuries ago. Can you discuss the significance of these historical narratives in today’s global context and why it’s essential to revisit and reevaluate them through contemporary art?
Mazepa is an interesting figure because it illustrates and proves that opposition between Ukraine and Russia has old roots. This opposition based on Russia’s imperialistic aggression and Ukraine’s anti-colonial struggle. The opposition of Mazepa and Russian tsar Peter I is the period when it started and when Ukraine has no chance to outstand. But this is not only Ukraine and Russia and its history. It related to Britain quite a lot. Because that was Lord Byron who made Mazepa’s name famous in the whole world. That fame transformed him from a real figure to a fiction character and even a popular name. For example, a few towns in the US and Canada are named Mazeppa but for sure most inhabitants don’t know why. That’s the problem when certain nations and societies doesn’t have own political agency and culture legacy in the world to be heard directly but not through interpreters from larger nations. Unfortunately order of things in a history change by tragedies. Today more a more people hear and start to be interested in Ukraine and its culture because of the ongoing war.
In what ways do you envision The Battle Over Mazepa contributing to larger conversations about the intersection of art, history, and contemporary culture? What do you hope viewers will take away from this immersive experience?
Historical and culture research and hip-hop type of expression is not something you can easily find in one place. That’s one of the goals of the project: to mix different audiences and change people’s approaches of how they look at different phenomena and context. Secondly, creative people today are very different from the era of Byron and Pushkin who’ve been two privileged white males of the time. Feminism and decolonisation changed a lot in the XX century but this fight is still ongoing. I’m grateful to the performers who bring contemporary perspective and critique to the historic material they worked with. They demonstrated that despite such things as local history or specifics, certain things are important everywhere.