The art of Ukrainian artist Vlada Ralko gets under your skin - quite literally. At the heart of her drawings and large-scale paintings lies the human figure, which she painterly dissects and brings to light. Under the title "Political Anatomy. Version“, her work is currently on display at the 91 Gallery.

The floor-to-ceiling windows of the 91 Gallery in Frankfurt city centre offer a first glimpse of Vlada Ralko's work. The new exhibition space, which opened in December 2023, is dedicated to promoting contemporary Ukrainian art and culture while facilitating dialogue between the Ukrainian and German art scenes.

Ralko employs expressive gestures and a visual language infused with symbols to delve into the impacts of global conflicts on both body and mind. She constructs her analysis methodically, layering anatomical examinations of the human form with recurrent symbols, abstract shapes, and typography. Unraveling her work requires meticulous dissection of these levels, stripping away layers to penetrate to the essence within.

Detail: exhibition view "Political Anatomy. Version", 91 Gallery, 2024 Frankfurt, photo: Dominik Dresel
It gets under your skin!

The title of the exhibition already hints at the medical, almost surgical approach that seems evident at first glance in the artist's works. The curator of the exhibition, Maryna Shcherbenko, observes that Ralko utilizes this anatomical perspective as a metaphor to shed light on social and political processes: „In this context, anatomy serves not just as a depiction of the physical body but as a means to visualize the internal, often hidden mechanisms shaping human society and its political structure.“

The human body - partly sketched, partly fragmented, and often wounded - is a fundamental element and recurring motif in Ralko's work. Instead of using a scalpel, she dissects it with a brush. For the artist, personal experiences are intertwined with the political and social contexts that shape our lives and are reflected in our bodies. Examining these bodies is therefore a critical inquiry into political systems, power dynamics, vulnerability, and resistance. „In their political identity, a person is not just a mechanism composed of functional organs, but also a symbolic figure, whose internal mechanisms are determined not only by biology but also reflect political realities“, explains Shcherbenko.

Detail: Exhibition view, "Political Anatomy. Version", 91 Gallery 2024, photo: Denys Kuznietsov
Detail: Exhibition view, "Political Anatomy. Version", 91 Gallery 2024, photo: Dominik Dresel
A politics of the body

Vlada Ralko is collaborating with artist Volodymyr Budnikov on the "Political Anatomy" project. The inaugural exhibition took place in spring 2023 at the Arsenał Municipal Gallery in Poznań, Poland. Lectures and a planned publication further complement the project, which is currently on display in Frankfurt. The catalyst for this project is the Russian war of aggression against Ukraine. „In my earlier works, the fragmented body was more of a metaphor akin to a quote or a chosen detail to enhance the artistic expression,“ reflects Vlada Ralko. „However, since the beginning of the Maidan and the Russian military aggression in Ukraine, the incomplete human figure for me has transformed from a metaphor into a kind of documentation of a body wounded and distorted by war.“

This shift in her visual language is evident in the series "Lviv's Diary," displayed in two niches of the 91 Gallery. Ralko began working on the diary in 2022, finding refuge in Lviv, a city in western Ukraine. The diary now spans over 1,000 pages, with Ralko continuing to add to it almost daily. The drawings on paper depict body parts, skulls, and open wounds. Additionally, Christian symbols such as the dove of peace or Jesus on the cross are incorporated into the diary. The artist plays with formal parallels: The cross symbolizes not only the Christian faith but also the medical service of the Red Cross. However, in Ralko's work, the cross also represents a particular type of Russian bomb, whose shape resembles that of a cross.

Vlada Ralko

„These symbols have simultaneously become emptied and objects of manipulation,“ Ralko explains. „Part of my life took place during the Soviet era, where ritual manipulations with symbols that were supposed to indicate the good sides of humanity and give hope were a routine ideological practice. Therefore, I am now using these all-too-familiar signifiers, completely torn from their signified due to the change in political context.”

Art within the community

The exhibition is a collaborative project that brings together various Ukrainian initiatives, as well as individuals from Germany and other countries, with the Frankfurt cultural scene. The 91 Gallery was established by the registered association Perspektive Ukraine. „The gallery aims to spotlight Ukrainian contemporary art, Ukraine’s art diversity and cultural heritage, fostering connections among Ukrainian galleries, artists, curators, and the German art scene," explain Katia Garan and Oksana Pavliuk, the initiators of the gallery. "Art serves as a language that can provide unparalleled access to understanding, empathy, and cultural exchange." The premises are provided by the Massif Central project company.

Detail: Exhibition view, "Political Anatomy. Version", 91 Gallery 2024, photo: Dominik Dresel

91 Gallery

Political Anatomy. Version