Olga Bubich. “Bigger than I”, 06.09 — 06.10

Svetlana and Maria, girls from 2014 project, looking at their photos on a camera screen on summer day in Turine.

Svetlana and Maria, girls from 2014 project, looking at their photos on a camera screen on summer day in Turin.

On April 26, 1986 an explosion happened at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant which was recognized as the largest industrial disaster of the 20th century. Volunteers from different countries began helping to cope with its consequences, and one of them was Adi Roche from Ireland, the founder of “Chernobyl Children International”, the world’s first fund aimed at helping children who live in contaminated areas. In 1991, it was difficult to imagine that the initiative of kids’ health improvement projects abroad would soon become one of the most famous forms of humanitarian aid: approximately over half a million children have participated in such programs for 30 years.

Trips abroad and the life in foreign families were for children from Belarusian towns and villages something much bigger than immune system strengthening and health improvement. Doctors and scientists said that even two weeks spent outside the radioactive territory reduced the level of a child’s body contamination by 30–50%, and mentioned the positive influence of changes in diet and climate. However, the impact of the radical change in living conditions (from everyday life routine to the language, culture and psychology) on the child’s personality remains poorly studied.

Homiel, Mahilioŭ and Brest regions affected by Chernobyl NPP accident were less developed economically, and children who took part in health programs often lived in disadvantaged families or orphanages. In the late 1990s, many did not have a home telephone, central heating, toilet or running water, some had to walk to school several kilometers every day. The problems of alcoholism, unemployment and early sexual debut remained topical.

Thanks to humanitarian programs, especially those which supposed regular trips of one and the same child from the age of 6–7 to 18, the whole generation of the Belarusians with a very particular value system gradually grew up. They were fluent in two languages, treated their host parents as their second family, aspired to get further education and a decent standard of living.

Since 2000, I have been working as a volunteer at the charitable organization “Hope for the Future”, regularly accompanying the groups of the so-called “Chernobyl children” in health improvement programs abroad. I saw dozens of young Belarussians growing up and changing from frightened kids to confident, purposeful teenagers. However, observing those changes, just like numerous host families, I repeatedly asked myself what those kids felt during their first trips, with what mood they returned from the European paradise to their native villages. Didn’t, for example, the society of consumption instill values ​​that were alien to them? Didn’t that violent “ejection” out of the comfort zone disrupt their ordinary life style? Wasn’t that new world, where they got after two hours spent in a ‘monster’-plane, too strange and too big for them?

The project “Bigger than I” puts together some materials I have managed to collect during the years of volunteering as a chaperon and interpreter in the children’s groups. These are the archives of Italian host families, the drawings of children from the Buda-Liušeŭskaja secondary school, who for the first time were hosted by Dutch families in the framework of the humanitarian project, the passport photos of the kids from the Homiel region groups of the 2000s and finally my own photographs of one summer of the “Chernobyl girls” spent the north of Italy.

Both the exhibition and the book I am planning to complete in future are a story about possibilities, about the comfort zone and a different uncomfortable world, about awareness, searching and finding oneself. It is not a value judgement or an attempt to put labels. It is a story about growing up, changes that never pass quickly and painlessly, a story of freedom to choose your own life scenario.

Curators: Artur Bondar and Oksana Yushko

06.09 — 06.10
“Canteen XYZ” Gallery

14:00 – 22:00, daily

06.09
Opening

“Canteen XYZ” Gallery, 19:00