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Trypillya Culture enthusiast who restores and reconstructs Trypillya artifacts
Lyudmyla Smolyakova is a Ukrainian sculptor from Kyiv who, among other things, seeks her inspiration in the ancient Trypillya culture that flourished several thousand years ago in some areas of the present-day Ukraine. Ms Smolyakova was awarded several prestigious prizes for reconstructions of Trypillya culture artefacts. At the Expo–2005, which was held in Japan, her works were exhibited in the Ukrainian pavilion and at the Ukrainian Souvenir–2005 Show. She was recently made a member of the Union of Folk Craft Masters of Ukraine.
Yevhen BUDKO, International Tourism Magazine senior editor interviewed Ms Smolyakova for International Tourism Magazine and Welcome to Ukraine Magazine. The interview took place in Ms Smolyakova’s studio-apartment, which is full of her works — fabulous creatures and mysterious objects — most of which are made of clay.
Ms Smolyakova, for how long have you already been creating your art?
For six years. I’m an engineer by profession, and I used to work at the Budynok Kino (Cinema House) in Kyiv. Once, when I was at my dacha not far from Kyiv, digging in my vegetable garden — I just loved growing fruit and vegetables — a neighbour from the next door asked me something. We fell into conversation; I invited him to see some of my amateur art work. When I told him that I worked as an engineer, he said I should be doing something else, and invited me to come to see him at the Kolo-Ra Society which engaged in reconstruction of Trypillya ceramics. Mostly there were young people, members of that society, and at first, being close to fifty, I felt somewhat awkward among them. But I was excited by what they were doing, and little by little I got used to my new environment and started creating my first works made of clay.
And gradually a hobby developed into a full occupation?
Yes, it did! I was fascinated by those Trypillya artefacts. It’s a pleasure to handle those objects — your fingers feel the harmony built into them. It’s beauty embodied in objects which, at first glance, look so simple and unsophisticated…
I began to study things about the Trypillya culture (better known as Cucuteni-Tripolye culture — it is a Neolithic European culture that arose in Ukraine about 3,000 BC or earlier; the culture’s characteristic pottery was decorated with curvilinear designs painted or grooved on the surface; its makers occupied villages of long, rectangular houses that were sometimes arranged in concentric circles; the Trypillya people practiced shifting agriculture, frequently moving their settlements — tr.). I went to see the archaeological excavations, I organized exhibitions. I even went to study at a tourism organization and promotion school. I thought that through tourism people could be better acquainted with the Trypillya culture — reading books is not enough if you really want to come to know an ancient culture. Besides, not everyone would be prepared to read scholarly books or go to museums to see artefacts in glass cases. Many people find it boring. It’s quite another thing to see an actual archaeological dig. And where you have tourists, you have an interest in souvenirs. At the Kolo-Ra Society, in addition to the reconstruction and restoration of Trypillya artefacts, we developed such crafts as weaving and making toys. We even created a sort of logo for loaves of bread, based on Trypillya symbols.
There is very little support from the state in promoting knowledge about the Trypillya culture. Frankly, I got tired of trying to convince people in high places of the importance of the Trypillya culture. I’m becoming content with my own immersion into it, with creating objects which are inspired by the Trypillya culture artefacts without trying to make others see the importance of the Trypillya culture. I’ve got all that is needed for living with that culture — clay, my hands and my wish.
I understand that it is possible to reconstruct such things as pottery on the basis of the shards that have been dug up, or certain things in the house, or make models of the houses the Trypillya people must have lived in. But what about their clothes or hairstyle? And what about those signs which are found on some objects and which are claimed to be a sort of hieroglyphs?
Such things as clothes and hairstyle are recreated on the basis of statuettes that are found during excavations. And of course, you have to use some of your imagination in reconstructing this or that thing… Some of the Trypillya pots that have been unearthed contained grain seeds and what must have been food, so we know what kind of grain the Trypillya people used to grow and what kind of food they might have eaten. As far as the Trypillya signs are concerned, they are symbols which can be rather easily deciphered. I could actually teach you to understand the meaning of those signs in a short period of time. Look at this, for example (Ms Smolyakova shows a pot covered with signs). This is a symbol of the sky, and this is a symbol of the earth, and this a symbol of rain. And look at this picture here that looks like a ladder between the earth and the sky. Use your imagination! I personally think that the ascension of human spirit is shown here in a symbolical way.
You mentioned Trypillya-style souvenirs. Can’t it lead to some cheapening of an ancient culture?
We’ve not yet come to a point when vulgar souvenirs can, as you put it, cheapen an ancient culture, you know, like those little horrible things that represent Egyptian pyramids, or sphinxes or other similar things made in Egypt. Those who make such souvenirs have nothing to do with the glory of the ancient Egyptian culture but they get their little profits out of it. But Ukrainians, in my opinion, are direct descendants from the Trypillya people. Those great pyramids and everything else were created by slave labour but the Trypillya culture was created by free people. It is no good that so little remains known among the general public about the Trypillya culture…
My Trypillya souvenirs are very close in spirit to the originals by which they have been inspired. Sometimes people, who want to have such souvenirs, ask not for reconstructions but for things that would just have Trypillya motifs. But I don’t care to do such work, though I think it would be very good if Trypillya culture motifs were used in costume jewellery, in fashion design, or even in tattoo design. Incidentally, a jeweller I know did use some of the Trypillya motifs in the design for his jewellery pieces.
I’d want not only to reconstruct the objects but even use the same sort of clay the Trypillya people used in making their artefacts. I wish I could learn about their lifestyle, about their spiritual life. I do feel a strong affinity to the Trypillya people…
Look at this little jar. It’s almost impossible to overturn it, and that means — whatever liquid it may contain, it will not get spilled. I recreated it on the basis of a similar Trypillya jar. I tried to figure out with the help of geometry and calculations the secret of this tumbler, and I failed but then I let my intuition work for me and I did it! Or look at this little thing in the form of a woman’s breast — such a beauty!
Do you see any symbolism in those twin vessels which look like binoculars?
I do. I think they symbolize the unity of the male and the female principles. There are quite a few of such twin artefacts from the Trypillya culture and I think they all symbolize one and the same thing.
I see a wooden trunk over there. Has it been made fairly recently? Does it have anything to do with the Trypillya culture?
This trunk was made over a hindered and fifty years ago but it carries some symbols which can be traced back to the Trypillya culture. I find it to be one of the proofs that the Trypillya culture did not just disappear — it lives in Ukraine in the form of patterns and designs that you find in embroideries, painted Easter eggs or decorative elements similar to the ones that you see here.
Have you seen anything similar to the Trypillya artefacts in any other cultures of the past or of today?
I can say that I’ve discovered amazing things. In Tunis, for example, they build two- or three-story clay houses that look pretty much like the models of the Trypillya houses that have been unearthed. Some of the symbols used by an ancient culture in Ecuador and by one of the ancient cultures in China look very similar to the Trypillya culture signs. There is still so much that has to be explained. Incidentally, tourists can help find parallels in various cultures…
Even children can make amazing discoveries. Recently, at an exhibition of my works in Moscow, a child picked a bowl in the shape of a house, and said, “Dim — povna chasha” that is “It’s a house of plenty” (Dim — povna chasha is a set expression, which translated literally means A house like a bowl full of good things — tr).
You are one of the leading enthusiasts of the Trypillya culture — do you find there is a popular interest in it? Do the media pay any attention to this phenomenon?
As I’ve mentioned earlier, there is no support from the state to speak of. The number of people who want to know more about the Trypillya culture grows. I hope a day will come when the Trypillya culture will become common knowledge.
Will reconstructions of the Trypillya culture artefacts continue to generate popular demand abroad?
I am sure they will. Such evidence of great ancient times will always create an interest, and it is up to us, people of Ukraine, to sustain that interest. Tourism, exhibitions, festivals and, of course, souvenirs, can be helpful in this respect. I think that it’d be very useful if a sort of a club of Trypillya culture enthusiasts be set up. I’m prepared to offer my apartment as a springboard for such a club. I do hope that this dream of mine will come true.
Photos by Yuriy Tymochko
Major symbols that can be found
These clay artifacts are believed
A fabulous animal with the sign
A ritual bowl held by figurines
A ritual bowl.
This drawing symbolizes
Other symbolic signs on Trypillya
A model of a Trypillya house
Reconstruction of paired artifact
This sign on a plate