Melbourne-based artist Nina Sanadze insists on the role of art in addressing Russia’s brutality in her collaboration with Nobel peace prize-winning organisation Memorial. By Nadine von Cohen.

Returning the Names at the Venice Biennale

Nina Sanadze during a Returning the Names event in Venice.
Nina Sanadze during a Returning the Names event in Venice.
Credit: Enrico Fiorese

It is said that actions speak louder than words, a false binary that disregards the resonance and power of combining the two. For Nina Sanadze, a Soviet-born, Melbourne-based artist-activist, the two are inextricably linked. Her latest work, as much of her oeuvre, stands boldly at the intersections of actions and words, art and activism.

Born in Tbilisi, Georgia, in 1976, to a choir conductor mother and a composer and conductor father, Sanadze’s creative path was perhaps inevitable. Immigrating to Australia in 1996, she worked as a children’s book illustrator and a stage and costume designer before pursuing a career in the visual arts. Now, she boasts an award-winning body of work deeply rooted in history and personal narratives, centred on the lived experience of victims and survivors of global conflicts, and “dedicated to peace-building”. 

Art is the vessel through which she challenges official histories and grand ideological narratives, and channels her own experiences of conflict, loss and trauma. Her practice is intuitive, urgent, aggressive. She has an idea for a project, and she must make it; her whole body feels it. “I’ve learnt to trust myself to make the projects I feel I need to make, even though I don’t always know why I need to make them.” The reason usually comes to her eventually, she says. 

Sanadze is married to no medium. She works fluidly with sculpture, performance, film and more, allowing the message of each piece to dictate its discipline. Believing art to be a living, moving beast with light and shade, humour and gravitas, she is drawn to replicating monuments and large urban objects, delighting in the surprise and exhibitionism of carrying them through city streets and placing them in unexpected tableaus.

Even as we speak, she makes another powerful connection in her work – while describing how her beloved father’s coffin was carried through the streets of Tbilisi, trailed by hordes of mourners, following his unexpected death at just 48. “And now that I’m talking to you,” she raises her voice, arms in the air, “it makes me think that why I carry things on the street is because we carried my dad! Oh my god.” It’s beautiful to watch.

Sanadze flew to Venice a few weeks ago, where Russia’s Biennale pavilion has stood closed since artists Alexandra Sukhareva and Kirill Savchenkov, and curator Raimundas Malašauskas, withdrew from this year’s event in response to Vladimir Putin’s acts of war. “There is nothing left to say,” the artists wrote in a joint statement posted to Instagram. “There is no place for art when civilians are dying under the fire of missiles, when citizens of Ukraine are hiding in shelters [and] when Russian protesters are getting silenced.”

Nina Sanadze begs to differ. There is always a place for art. Perhaps more now than ever.

As of October 31, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights has verified that more than 6430 civilians have died and more than 14 million have fled Ukraine since Russia invaded in February. 

This needless tragedy has lent one event all the more pertinence this year: the Returning the Names vigil. Held by Russian non-government organisation Memorial on October 29 every year, it commemorates those who died at the hands of the state during Joseph Stalin’s Great Terror. Historians continue to argue over exact numbers but somewhere between three million and 20 million people were executed or sent to gulags, barbarous prison camps from which the majority never returned. While most of these victims of political repression have had their reputations quietly rehabilitated since Stalin’s death in 1953, formal recognition of the sheer scale of the barbarity is yet to come, and the scars run deep. 

“My great-uncle, Alexander Sanadze, a university dean in Georgia, was accused of treason and executed in 1937 at the age of 36,” says Sanadze. “He left behind his daughter and wife and was rehabilitated in 1956. Only recently, I learnt about three more of my family members who were victims of repressions. Most Soviet families have someone in the family and yet the nation refuses to remember and acknowledge the atrocities, choosing to romanticise the regime, even reminiscing about cheap electricity and great education.” 

This appeal to nostalgia, combined with heaving doses of propaganda, “whitewashing” and, in some cases, outright denial of the past, is “one of the significant reasons we are looking at history repeating itself now”, says Sanadze, and why Returning the Names is so important.   

Since 2007, large crowds have gathered for this vigil at the Solovetsky Stone monument in Moscow’s Lubyanka Square, to read the names, ages and professions of the dead aloud – an act of testimony and symbolic resistance to their attempted erasure. 

Transported from the Solovki gulag, where more than 1000 political prisoners were executed, the monument stands proud, defiant, against a backdrop of the Federal Security Service (FSB) building. This institution was once home to the KGB headquarters, where orders for imprisonments, deportations and executions were issued.

But only the ghosts of the dead gathered at Lubyanka this year. Last December, Memorial – which is an extensive, volunteer-run archive, database, champion and watchdog founded in 1987 to preserve the memory of those murdered by the state and investigate human rights abuses past and continuing – was, ironically, liquidated by the Russian Supreme Court. Its leaders have vowed to continue their work in defending civil rights, as have satellite chapters throughout Europe.

In a rather poetic up-yours to the Putin regime, Memorial was last month awarded a joint 2022 Nobel peace prize with two other human rights advocates from the region. That gave Nina Sanadze an idea. With the blessing of Memorial’s Italian branch, she approached the Venice Biennale for permission to place a replica of the Solovetsky Stone and perform Returning the Names in front of the Russian Pavilion. The ensuing runaround from an organisation that exists at the very epicentre of art and politics gave her an even better idea.  

“I think it’s a better solution to exhibit at the back of the Russian Pavilion, symbolically, and not be part of the establishment.” The placement also makes it more accessible to the public, as people don’t need Biennale tickets to see it – a win in Sanadze’s eyes.

On October 29, she waited at Venice’s Garibaldi Monument with a giant polystyrene replica of the Solovetsky Stone, constructed in a week in a tiny Venetian studio. From there, a small group of volunteers helped her carry it through Venice, as if carrying her father’s body, as if holding the weight of all Stalin’s victims, the weight of history itself. “Our arms were hurting, but we all agreed that it was good that it was heavy as we wanted to feel this punishing heaviness. It was not meant to be easy.”

Behind the Russian Pavilion, they were joined by about 50 people from across Europe and the former USSR, some whose relatives were among some 1000 Italian political prisoners executed on Stalin’s watch. Sanadze held back tears reading the names and details of her four relatives and 12 other victims from Tbilisi, before turning the microphone over to the crowd. Over almost three hours they commemorated some 300 victims.  

“There was a very emotional energy. Nobody chatted, we all stood and listened to each other reading out names and short biographies of the victims,” Sanadze says. 

“It was so good to hear them in so many different languages. We shed some tears and in the end our hearts felt a bit lighter. Doing it as a group was really cathartic, the atmosphere was of mutual support and there was so much power in doing it together.”

In Russia, authorities may have shut down Memorial and banned Returning the Names in Moscow, but that didn’t stop people from joining the event. Prerecorded and captured livestream footage shows small groups and households across the country participating, as well as thousands of people in more than 50 cities around the world, including Sydney and Melbourne, calling out the dead in a symphony of tongues.

Sometimes the quietest actions echo the loudest. In Venice, Sanadze and others held small Ukrainian flags, planting them in the ground behind the Russian Pavilion when all the names had been read: “The only thing left behind.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on November 5, 2022 as "Memorial in Venice".

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