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"Madonna of Faith with a Black Face cries with diamonds against the backdrop of churches." Ukrainian photo artist Marfa Vasilieva on war, immigration, and international recognition


Marfa Vasilieva moved to Amsterdam from Kiev in 2014 and has since completed several large-scale photo projects, video works, and solo exhibitions in different countries around the world.

Marfa's works have been exhibited in Kiev, Tokyo, Amsterdam, and at the Japanese Biennale in 2017. From March to early September 2023, her project on women titled "Breaking Fragility" was exhibited at the Dordrecht Museum.

Media Loft correspondent Irina Iakovleva spoke with Marfa about female beauty, pagan rituals, Japanese gods, the Ukrainian Dignity Revolution, and her love for Amsterdam.

Marfa Vasilieva
Photo: Darina Hodyreva

- Many of your projects are about female beauty and self-acceptance. But there are also some political statements, like "7 Madonnas of Maydan."

- Regarding the "7 Madonnas of Maydan" – it was my first conscious step into contemporary art. I absolutely had to realise it.

I was on the Maidan and could have been seriously injured. My ex-boyfriend and I went to protest, but we were lucky not to get involved in the bloody events of that winter. When people were doused with icy water on the streets in -20 degrees, thugs were killing people with bayonets in the crowd – those people had come to defend their rights and freedoms.

I came to shoot videos of the events in the square, and a heavy stone hit my clavicle. At that moment, I took a step back to transition to video, and a stone hit me on the collarbone. After that incident and the events on the Maidan, I started shooting the Madonnas of Maydan.

People came to the Maidan and united. They travelled from all over the country to stop the pro-Russian authorities and fight for their rights. Volunteers organised a movement where people arriving in Kiev stayed at locals' homes, took showers, and rested. Doctors and nurses were on the Maidan day and night, providing assistance to the wounded. Years later, I realised that humanism blossomed with renewed strength on the Maidan. That's why the Madonna project is about honest human warmth.

The Madonnas of Maydan represent seven aspects of women during times of war. Each one has her own name – Madonna of Adulthood, Birth, Anxiety, Hopelessness, Faith, Decay, and Humanity.

Madona of Growing up

These seven images of women are the images of Ukraine. The message of this project is that the maturing generation will conquer anxiety and hopelessness, because only faith in humanity is timeless.

Of course, each Madonna represents a separate metaphor.

There is the Madonna of Despair with a bare breast, as if she's giving away her body, which is a metaphor for the division of the land – Ukraine losing a piece of itself.

The Madonna of Faith with a black face crying diamonds against the backdrop of churches is a metaphor for corruption and the actions of pro-Russian politicians, which result in tears for ordinary people.

The Madonna with a child represents all the mothers who are with their children during the war and pregnant mothers who don't know what kind of world they're bringing their children into.

I created this project before I left for the Netherlands, and it means a lot to me.

Madona of Faith

At that time, I was a bit burned out from phototherapy, and I wanted to make a radical change in my life. I longed for silence and a search for myself within it. I fell in love with Amsterdam back in 2013 and decided to leave and start fresh. It was nine years ago.

- How did the war in Ukraine affect you as an artist, especially when the open invasion began?

- It primarily had an impact on me as a person. I used to have no interest in politics, and then it became impossible to ignore. For instance, the "referendum" in Crimea was shocking for me. I realised that I needed to speak out about what was happening, and I wanted to express myself through art.

I even sent the 7 Madonnas of Maydan to various museums around the world, but at that time, the world wasn't  interested.

There was one more Madonna of Maidan that I didn't shoot. She was supposed to be lying in a pool of blood, but the model refused to play that role – and I understand her. And now we all see this Madonna in reality. Starting in 2014 and to this day, the Kremlin thirsts for more blood.

- As far as I know, after the start of the war, you did an international project called Motanka with Ukrainian refugees and Dutch people.

- After the full-scale invasion, or rather, the beginning of the invasion. For me, as for many Ukrainians, the war began nine years ago.

I was creating  Motanka at the time when my parents came to visit. Seven more people came with my mother, refugees, and from March to August of last year, I was exclusively working with Ukrainians who fled the war. Even then, I thought about creating a project about it.

And then it happened that I had a dream.

The Motanka is a very powerful symbol of our ancestors, a female symbol passed down from mother to mother.The Motanka, which I made, is called Berehynia, and her role is to protect and bring protection and well-being to the home. The cross on her face is a solar symbol, the vertical represents the male line of ancestors, and the horizontal symbolises the female.


This doll cannot be sewn with needles and thread because it disrupts fate; you can only tie her with knots.

Through the symbolism of the motanka in my photograph, I showed on the vertical line, which belonged to men, how a woman takes on the role of a man in raising children during the war.

All the stories of women who came with their children to the Netherlands are filled with the pain of parting with their husbands. Choosing between a loved one and the children... I can't imagine what they're going through. It's very painful.

From August to November 2022, I was preparing for Motanka.

I'm currently working on a video project, and there's a moment in it where they all hold onto each other's shoulders – and the choreography makes them sway like a chain. I wanted to convey the tension of being both a mother and a father at the same time, how that burden falls on their shoulders. Of course, it's clear that a father can't be replaced, but they try, and they burn out because they often can't afford to cry in front of their children.

This project is also about the importance of mutual support and sisterhood during this period. This idea came to me after a dream with a Motanka.

I remember in the dream I was trying to tie together long cut-off hair into a single bundle, and there was so much hair, and I kept winding them up with red thread until a doll appeared.

- It seems you attach great importance to symbolism?

- My experience in Japan in 2017 greatly helped me understand the power of symbolism and culture because I had a 6-week immersion there, and my friend and art partner, Yoshi, would tell me various nuances of Japanese culture every day – and it's just an immense layer of incredible beauty and meaning. It's like meeting eternity.

Takamagahara - a joint project with Japanese artist Yoshiyasu Tamura

I believe that through ancient traditions and cultural symbols, you can feel the warmth of the people; the warmth of people who lived on this land, who had their own rules, beliefs, feelings, and hopes.

The same Motanka doll  was found in the Chernihiv region. This doll is about 5,000 years old. It is very close to the European culture of the Great Mother Goddess. Archaeology, ancient cultures, ancient cults – I find all of this interesting. Especially when it comes to the cult of women, which is my theme.

- Judging by your projects, you have a very warm attitude towards various pagan cults, both Slavic and Japanese. Are you fascinated by ancient culture, or is it purely an artistic quirk?

I think, for me, it was probably an intuitive process. I do really like pagan aspects. I even organised an event called "Ivan Kupala" in Kyiv for two years in a row.

I believe that the culture of paganism, due to its belief in natural phenomena, respect for nature, and fear of it, is more natural, in a sense.

For me, it's about mutual respect and care.

Of course, I'm not talking about bloody rituals and such things – that's a terrible aspect of ancient cults.

In Japan, by the way, they believe in 8,000,000 gods. When you walk down the street, you realise that they respect every pebble, every leaf. Any natural phenomenon is sacred to them. Looking at the tip of a pine needle, they feel its beauty. How something small becomes great. The Japanese believe that all objects have a soul.

They even have a toilet god and ads – that surprised and delighted me. Everything around Japan is alive. I think such a worldview keeps you grounded in the "here and now" with respect to the objects around you and helps you focus on gratitude and wonder.

In Japan, I walked on stones and actually felt how big these stones were, that I was walking on them – and they were holding me. I really like the idea of seeking the soul in surrounding objects.

Besides the pagan element, I also greatly appreciate the concept of childbirth itself. In the Breaking Fragility project, there is a scene where a girl lies like an embryo inside – and other women reach out to her, like petals of a flower. It's similar to the transmission of the Motanka doll from mother to mother – the transmission of experience, support.

Breaking Fragility

When you're feeling bad, lonely, or misunderstood, and unpleasant, frightening thoughts arise, you can imagine yourself as this little embryo. And imagine all your great-grandmothers, great-great-grandmothers, grandmothers, mothers – and just for a moment think about the fact that their lives also went through difficult moments, but they passed on this spark to you, and you live here and pass it on further.

And this gives a feeling of calmness and inner strength – after all, if they could do it, so can I.

- How did you realise that photography can do more than just convey an image? In other words, how did you transition from ordinary photography to creative projects?

- Through people. When I was 22 years old, I started doing "Women's Gatherings" – photo shoots for girls that revealed their inner beauty.

I came up with a special system called "Queen in the centre, all other participants on the sides." This meant that each participant in the shoot would pass through the centre – and at that moment, she became the main character, and the entire focus of the shoot was on her.

These were affordable photo shoots for students in Kyiv, costing about $10 at the time, but thanks to word of mouth, the project's popularity grew significantly. I involved aspiring makeup artists in the project and collaborated with future clothing designers. I provided materials and took portfolio photos for them in exchange for their work on the project. In the end, the project expanded, and the girls who participated posted their photos on social media – and their friends started coming to me.

- The main theme of many of your projects is women, female beauty, the female world, and the exploration of the female essence.

- This stems from my childhood. I was always a bit plump. Back then, I often heard that only thin and beautiful, curvy girls were loved. I really believed in this theme and had significant complexes about it.

Through photography, I felt like I was excavating my true self from beneath this pile of imposed complexes.

Then I went even further. One of my clients said that posing nude for a sculptor helped her open up, and I deliberately went to work as a model for sculptors at an art school and posed for them for about six months for their diploma projects.

This experience greatly helped me see my body, meet it, experience it, get tired of emotions, and see – this helped with self-acceptance.

Listening to the conversations of the sculptors, I absorbed the laws of creativity and form. They didn't look at me as chubby or fat; they admired the form and expressed that form in clay. One sculptor complimented me, saying I had divine ears. Could I ever have thought that ears could be divine? Posing for artists, in general, is a priceless and beneficial experience. Five different sculptors made life size sculptures of me and I got to see my body through the prism of five different perspectives – this became part of my foundation for self-acceptance.

Right after I finished modelling, I came up with the idea of "Phototherapy," which I later patented. I incorporated a psychologist into the program, a clothing designer who would explain what to wear to emphasise each body type, and a makeup artist who helped with makeup based on face type – it was like a psychological support team for women to help them accept themselves.

"Phototherapy" became a kind of women's basement for me, where, having tested everything on myself, I later began to implement it with other women.

We would photograph ourselves naked or in lingerie. I would also take them to sculpture workshops.

We did meditative shoots where they would sit in anguish, frozen for five minutes, and then I would ask them to move a finger on their hand or a toe, something small – and feel the power of that little movement, express inner gratitude to their body for serving us every day, helping us move, develop, do something, and experience pleasure.

Perhaps because I am a woman, I was interested in this and debunked the myths that only slender or otherworldly beauties are loved.

When I worked on this theme of self-acceptance, I started attracting boyfriends who, on the contrary, loved my type. In general, I was deeply passionate about this theme, and I felt rewarded when girls began to like their bodies thanks to these photo shoots.

There were many stories where girls were afraid to even look in the mirror. Plus-sized girls thought they were monsters, but after the shoots, they would call me, crying, and say, 'Oh my God, I thought I was a monster, but it turns out I have such a cool butt,' or 'beautiful hands,' or something else. I was thrilled by this – I really love to photograph women, the female body, and reveal female beauty.

- So, through your art, women can change their perception of themselves?

- If you consider yourself unattractive or unworthy, it's like you've cast a spell on yourself. But if you believe that you're a gorgeous beauty, radiating energy, with millions of kilotons of sex appeal – it makes you feel magnetic.

When I started shooting unconventional people, you know what they always asked for? 'Oh, can you make me thinner? Oh, can you fix something else for me?' They found it difficult to be themselves.

We're all weighed down by social norms, expectations, and tastes. We're disconnected from our inner wild nature.

For a while, I worked in fashion, and I just got tired of all these cold models with the traditional bitch face. People, are all alive, and I wanted to show that in my work.

- Women indeed tend to compare themselves and confine themselves to boundaries, and if they don't fit into these boundaries, many simply give up and start visually communicating it – through clothing and gestures, as if apologising for their existence.

- I think boundaries and comparisons apply to both men and women, just in different dimensions.

We are all formed from our childhoods; what our parents or teachers told us, our first loves, cultural influences, magazines, and fashion – all of this leaves an imprint on our souls.

It's important to remember that you are the most important person for yourself. To love yourself or try to do so, not to imprecate yourself, and if possible, just be here and now. And don't forget about tenderness towards your inner world.

- Today we've talked a lot about your photo works – they are indeed very deep, with multiple meanings, and also very emotional. But you also paint. And it seemed to me that they are fun, positive, and really uplift the mood. Do you separate different areas of your creativity? Or is it all part of one story for you?

- The paintings are a separate story; I wanted to try myself in pop art. In the first years of my intense immigration journey, I drew a lot with ink, a lot. I sat and watched people passing by, and I drew them and the associations that came to my mind.

In general, I love it when templates are broken, and something strange comes out.

In the first six months after moving to Amsterdam, I was thrown in different directions. I didn't know what would happen to me; I had nowhere to live, and no one knew me as a photographer. In Kyiv, many people knew me thanks to a well-established network, TV appearances, and frequent presence in the press, but here I was starting from scratch.

These ink sketches entertained me and helped me stay in the here and now. That's how I coped with anxiety and panic about the future. The characters turned out to be funny, and I enjoyed drawing them, immersing myself in the process and disconnecting from constant tension.

The paintings came later after I visited Japan. I asked Yoshiyasu Tamura to teach me how to draw in his style. He agreed – and I had six weeks to learn. The result can be seen in the "Gold series."

- I understand that life in immigration was not easy from the very beginning. What helped you not to give up?

- I left shortly after presenting the Seven Madonnas of Maidan. I had $1500 in my pocket, a suitcase with minimal clothing, photography equipment, and a computer. I arrived at Amsterdam's central station, full of energy, desire, and adrenaline, and... I started looking for couchsurfing. For about two months, every day, I searched for a couch, learned to be thankful for each evening and night. And I thought about what to do next. I struggled with anxiety and was very happy when I managed to find a room on the Single Canal for a whole month.

I remember the moment when I had only $150 left, and I cried, but when I had $5 left, I laughed. So, perhaps, the characters in my paintings are cheerful, to avoid going crazy, I guess.

Yes, it was tough in the beginning, but I wanted to be here in this city so much, just to exist within it. I was ready for the fact that no one would call me, and nobody knew me. I clearly understood what I was getting into.

Perhaps someone wouldn't have gone with the amount of money I had brought with me. But I needed to leave urgently because if I had lost that wave, I wouldn't have gone. I needed to act crazily and take a leap.

It was difficult, but somehow everything worked out. People appeared, a place to live appeared. I started working as a photographer at a makeup school.

Before that, I worked in various places, to be honest. In a restaurant, and at a yoga school – I discovered so many talents in myself!

And then, at one point, I was walking around the city and saw some premises, and there were mirrors, many beautiful girls. I knocked on the door and said, 'Hello. I'm a photographer, here's my business card, here's my website (I translated the website into English before moving). And they said to me, 'We just hung up the phone; our photographer just quit and you walked in through the door – and you're a photographer!' That's how I found my first job as a photographer in the Netherlands.

My love for Amsterdam helped me not to give up; I fell in love with this city, as if it were a man. I just needed to breathe Amsterdam's air, see its architecture, and ride a bicycle.

By the way, cycling saved me from anxiety a lot. I rode through the streets of Amsterdam, and it gave me the strength to keep moving forward. I clearly understood that a fairy tale wouldn't happen to me; to grow something big and beautiful, one needs to invest a lot of time and effort.

- You have a very beautiful and mesmerising project, unlike any other, and it has nothing to do with people. I'm talking about the Colourful Universes.

- I did this project before I found my visual language. It was an experiment with paint and water; I mirrored the images and looked into them, trying to understand what they resembled. And they resembled various deities. If you look closely at Poseidon, you can see that he is looking into a mirror. There's Ganesha, Kali, Tlaltekutli, Nyuva, Zephyr...

- It even seems a bit mystical, as if the gods are created from coloured ether. Who knows, maybe it is. Do you have a global message in your works that you're trying to convey to the audience?

- Everyone sees things through the prism of their feelings, experiences, and associations – and that inspires me, because creativity continues in the thoughts and feelings of the viewer. So, the work lives on.

I used to talk about what my works mean, but lately, I don't want to say anything so as not to disturb the inner wonder of each person.

When everything is revealed, there's no room left for your own thoughts. Something is born in emptiness.

By: Irina Iakovleva

Cover Photo: Madona of Anxiety