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Orest Skop: Cossack Mamai

June 12 – September 25, 2016 (EXTENDED!)

Article by Yuri Mischenko

The mythological figure of Cossack Mamai has a very special place in the pantheon of Ukrainian folkloric and mythological images. "Sacred warrior, warrior ancestor, hero warrior, warrior-musician and warrior-philosopher" – all these uniquely Ukrainian images have become somewhat of a calling card for Ukrainian folk art. Deeply rooted in prehistoric traditions and mythology, today Ukrainian folk artists view this character as a reflection of the most typical traits and mentality of the Ukrainian Cossack – a combination of strong warrior-defender and lyrical kobza-playing bard-musician with a relaxed attitude towards life.

Folk art images of Mamai reached a peak of popularity during the era of the Ukrainian Cossack state, when its paintings adorned nearly every house: from the humble dwellings of peasant farmers and Cossack warriors, to the mansions of affluent Ukrainian nobility. Traditionally, the Cossack Mamai paintings were staples in the interior decor of the highest ranking Cossack leaders, including their last supreme leader, Hetman Pavlo Skoropadsky.

Upon the destruction of the Zaporizhian Cossack Republic (Sich) in southern Ukraine (1775) and loss of autonomy of the Cossack state Hetmanate in north-eastern Ukraine (end of 18th century) by the Muscovites, the image of Cossack Mamai acquires an additional meaning – as warrior-defender, rebel-insurgent, and avenger – a kind of Ukrainian Robin Hood, who defends the Ukrainian peasantry from abuse by the Muscovite and Polish oppressors and their helpers: rent and tax collectors. Little wonder that under these circumstances, the image of Cossack Mamai attained almost iconic significance and was proudly displayed in the most respected spot of the Ukrainian house – on the interior wall across from the icons of Jesus Christ and the Virgin Mary. Additional proof that these images bore some measure of sacred symbolism was the fact that masters of icon painting from the renowned Kyiv Pechersk Lavra monastery also produced paintings of Cossack Mamai.

The exact origin of the image of Cossack Mamai remains an incompletely resolved mystery, shrouded in the veil of a millennia long turbulent connection between Ukraine and the Great Steppe and its warrior inhabitants – from the Sarmatians and Polovtsians to the Noghay Tatars and Circassians, a portion of whom were absorbed by the Ukrainian ethnos (especially, it's Cossack part) and enriched it with their traditions, mythology and symbolic images.


Download the exhibition brochure; Read the essay by the guest curator, art historian Oksana Pelenska.

Regardless of the various hypotheses about the exact origin of the resting Cossack, sitting with crossed legs, with his sword, horse and kobza in his hands, all researchers unequivocally agree that this image originates from the East and echoes images of the Polovtsian warriors on the ancient so-called Scythian stelae in the Ukrainian steppe, images of Buddha and Hinduist deities, as well as well-known artistic images of the Mongolian, Tatar, Iranian and Turkish warriors and rulers.

In this respect, the image of Cossack Mamai also symbolizes the integral connection of the Ukrainian folk art with the Steppe – not only the Ukrainian Black Sea Steppe, but also with the endless continental Great Steppe – from Ukraine in the west to Manchuria in the east. Again, regardless of the hypotheses about this image's origin, folk art researchers think that the composition of the Cossack Mamai image was fixed during the era of the Cossack state, some time during the XVII century. This seems substantiated due to the fact that certain attributes of this composition, namely, a tobacco pipe and firearms (pistol or gun), arrived in Ukraine only around that time.

The origin of the name Mamai is also not quite clear. Its roots may rest with the old Ukrainian word "mamai" or "mamaia" – a stone stela in the steppe, or perhaps in the name of the Tatar-Nogai khan Mamai. The latter spent most of his life fighting (often together with the Ukrainian and Lithuanian-Belarusian nobility) the Mongolian Golden Horde and its vassal – Moscow, and was viewed as a symbol of the struggle of the North Black Sea and Dnipro area's elites against their Golden Horde-Moscow enemies. In the XIV century, one of the descendants of the khan Mamai was baptized and established the Hlynsky family, which later became very influential within the ranks of the old Ukrainian and Muscovite nobility. At the same time, the last name Mamai and toponyms derived from it are quite common in Central Ukraine. Therefore, it is also possible that the historical prototypes of the legendary Cossack Mamai could be actual Cossack warriors.

With the notable exception of some rare paintings, where Cossack Mamai holds his hands on his chest or stomach in a gesture with a striking resemblance of the ritualistic gestures on the images of the Polovtsian stone stelae or Buddhist statues, we almost always see Mamai in the company of the traditional Ukrainian string instrument, the kobza. This long-mustached Cossack-bard, with his unique Cossack hairstyle, are consistently seen in folk art paintings of Cossack Mamai. These paintings also carry strong associations with the glorious era of the Ukrainian Cossack state, as well as with the wandering bards (kobzars), whose epic songs told tales of heroic and tragic events.

Orest Skop: Cossack Mamai (2016)
The bi-lingual (English and Ukrainian), 43-page, color illustrated, softcover catalogue includes an essay by guest curator Oksana Pelenska, artist bio, and checklist.

A more contemporary take on the Cossack Mamai image can be found in the artwork of the Lviv-based artist Orest Skop. In the early 1990s, Skop learned about the horrific tragedy of the Ukrainian kobza–playing bards of December of 1934. In a village near Kharkiv, Ukraine, at the order of Joseph Stalin, the Soviet NKVD political police summarily executed the elite of the Ukrainian bards – 337 kobzars, most of them blind, together with the children who acted as their seeing-eye guides.

This horrific Stalinist act struck Orest Skop to the depth of his heart and gave rise to a powerful creative impulse: the artist decided to commemorate the martyr bards with his artwork. Each of the slain kobzars would be remembered with a unique image of the mythical-sacred Cossack Mamai. For more than 25 years, Orest Skop has labored on this project, producing a lyrical and prodigious celebration of lives, ended too quickly, voices stilled too soon.

While Orest Skop reflects the themes of warrior-defender and lyrical bard in his images, he has also done so through the lens of his own vision and interpretation of this historical-artistic theme within the context of the contemporary Ukrainian art. While paying respect to the traditional canon, Cossack Mamai is always at the center of each composition together with the traditional accompanying attributes: kobza, sword, horse, and tobacco pipe. At the same time, Orest Skop's artistic vision makes this image both traditional and vividly alive – it is not affected by fleeting time, much in the same way as the highest spiritual values are not affected by time.

Orest Skop also incorporates some new symbolism in his own image of Cossack Mamai. His Mamai is not only evolution of the established iconographic style, but also enriched and very sensitive interpretation of the traditional theme, as well as the tribute to the contemporary time and contemporary challenges currently faced by Ukraine and its artists. In Orest Skop's paintings, traditional artistic canons are intertwined with the new ones, traditional components of the Mamai image are complemented with the contemporary artistic accents. For example, in one painting, Cossack Mamai wears a straw hat and behind him is an image of a windmill: perhaps symbols of the ever-changing winds of the contemporary era. Other paintings contain images of a dove or seagull next to a kobza – as symbols of harmony and peace; and the images of wine pot and rooster – symbols of the family home. One of the paintings has a strikingly atypical sand dial, which creates an impression that the thin stream of sand is flowing from the time of Cossack Mamai to our time, building bridges from the era of the Cossack state to the contemporary era of Ukraine. We can view the artwork of Orest Skop as an artistic bridge between the old traditional and the new contemporary Ukraine.

The exhibition Orest Skop: Cossack Mamai comprises 23 Cossack Mamai paintings by Lviv artist Orest Skop. In addition to the contemporary works by Skop, one traditional Mamai painting that is thought to be more than 100 years old is on display.

This article is based on information provided by research monograph of S.Bushak, V.Sukharyk & I. Sukharyk "Cossack Mamai" – Publishing house "Rodovid", Kyiv, 2008; Article by the exhibition curator Oksana Pelenska; Various articles and interviews with O. Skop in the Ukrainian mass media.



About the Museum

The Ukrainian Museum acquires, preserves, and exhibits articles of artistic or historic significance to the rich cultural heritage of Ukrainian Americans; its collections include thousands of items of folk art, fine art, and archival material. At its founding in 1976 by the Ukrainian National Womens League of America, the Museum was hailed as one of the finest achievements of Americans of Ukrainian descent. Since then, and particularly since its move in 2005 to a new, state-of-the-art building in Manhattans vibrant East Village, it has become known as one of the most interesting and dynamic smaller museums in New York City. Each year, the Museum organizes several exhibitions, publishes bilingual (English/Ukrainian) catalogues, and presents a wide range of public and educational programs, including concerts, films, lectures, courses, workshops, and special events.

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