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Repatriants.

Lost branches.

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Yanka Smetanina 

Multidisyiplinary artist, researcher 

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Yanka Smetanina 

Multidisyiplinary artist, researcher 

Memories, violence, trauma and human aspects of politics are the main focus of the artwork by Yana Smetanina (*, Belebey, Russia). Her contribution to the future of German unity concerns the experiences as told by late repatriates to Germany. Her artform of choice is the graphic novel, which blends the art of drawing with a pointed narrative. She has created a touching visualisation of the complex history of these ethnic German aspects of migration.

The human migration process has been going on for centuries, caused by events such as World War I, the October Revolution and the resulting consequences – namely expropriation, banishment and exile (1929–1932), and arrests and imprisonment (1934–1939) under Stalin – followed by World War II and the deportation in 1941 of those living in the Volga region to Siberia and Kazakhstan for the purposes of forced labour. From 1955, vast swathes of native Germans and their descendants began to return home to the Federal Republic. Many of the Russian Ger-mans experienced the feeling of strangeness either way: in Russia they were regarded as Germans (identifiable by means of the nationality stated on their passports) but were not allowed to speak German, whereas in Germany they were considered Russians be-cause of their language. In both countries, they faced a lack of acceptance.

The concept for Yana Smetanina’s work emerged during discussions with repatriates from the former USSR at a seminar on migration. As a graphic novelist, she preserves important moments of this experience. It is not a political comic that tries to make light of challenging times with humour but rather consists of sketches and notes of memories not to be forgotten. Spontaneously and impulsively, she draws on the relevant situation, re-cording real-life occurrences and capturing shifting emotions, such as helplessness, despair and grief. She sketches scenes with Indian ink on delicate white paper doilies. The people in them feel familiar with their wavy hair, buttoned-up shirt collars and headscarves tied in a knot at the front, carrying their children and only a few belongings. Her reductive approach focuses on portraits and short sentences. There is no real plot or action tak-ing place and not much dialogue being used. The accompanying text is clear and concise. The artist often uses pragmatic statements, sometimes questions. These also reflect the way in which the individuals being portrayed are resigned to their fate. In this way, they defy any interpretation. And, in the process, parts of history that have seemed so far removed from reality and have been largely ignored become real and tangible.

As a canvas, the artist uses delicate white paper doilies which, in their heyday in the post-war era, were able to turn any cake being enjoyed with a cup of tea or coffee into something rather sump-tuous and luxurious. The fragility of the material itself is evoca-tive of the disparity between the contents and people’s desire to hold on to and cherish culture. In times of radical change, culture can provide a sense of stability. This is what the paper doilies with their perforated edges seem to symbolise. They are some-times an artistic frame surrounding the scenes depicted and yet, at other times, they are a component themselves and, by the same token, a link to the splintered and lost branches featured in the title.

Each of the illustrations tells a narrative through a single image. Together, they shine a light on another fate of the German people which the artist brings to life with faces and voices. Only through human expression and people’s perception and awareness can human destinies really be understood. Knowledge of others and their experiences is the first step to understanding and, at the same time, raise people’s awareness of the fate of those currently in exile.

  Dr. Susanne Rockweil

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