Christopher Nunn – Borderland: Stories from Donbas

Two people embrace bending over the hood of a car. Balanced on the hood are cups and drinks.
Christopher Nunn, 'Danylevskoho Street, Donetsk' (May 2014). © Christopher Nunn / courtesy Impressions Gallery

Currently housed within the gallery space of Impressions Gallery, Bradford, the visitor finds a rare reflection of life in the Donbas region of the Ukraine. This is the region that borders Russia and which is the only active war zone in Europe. Produced over a period of six years, Borderland: Stories from Donbas, is the premier and first solo show of award-winning photographer Christopher Nunn.

Nunn did not expect to end up in the war zone. In 2013 he travelled to Kalush with the intention of learning more about his Ukrainian grandmother who had arrived in the North of England as a displaced person after the Second World War. In November 2013, then president of Ukraine, Viktor Yanukovych, suspended preparations for the implementation of an association agreement with the European Union. Ukraine, which had been invested in heavily by Russia, is the breadbasket of Europe and also forms the traditional route via which European forces invade Russia. Nunn was in the Ukraine a year later in 2014 when the Euromaidan protests began in Kiev. Over the following five years, he has witnessed the revolution, the early political chaos and the ongoing war with Russian forces.

This is not to say that the photographic exhibits displayed are an explicitly photojournalistic representation of the ongoing political and military points of historic import. Nunn shows the people of the Donbas living life as they know it. He demonstrates a genuine care and concern about people’s stories and how Donbas is represented. Consequently, the visitors find themselves engaging with both sympathetic frozen moments of human vulnerability and tenderness along with  instances of the human environment which are both brutal and beautiful.

Portrait of a man looking directly into the camera. His hair is short, he wears a black coat with a pale green top underneath. His eyes are strikingly outlined by black eyeliner, emphasising their green-brown colour.

Christopher Nunn, ‘Miners, Toretsk’ (2016). © Christopher Nunn / courtesy Impressions Gallery

On entering the main space, to the left, the visitor encounters a series of five portraits. The subject: miners – evidence of a major source of regional income generation. At first glance, the subjects appear to be wearing a subtle application of makeup. The eyes of the miners are darkened around the edges as though encircled by eyeliner. Curatorial explanation beside the images reveals that this effect is the result of heavily ingrained coal dust. A prima facie subversion of masculinity immediately lends a mitigating softness and humanity right at the beginning of the exhibition.

Further on, the visitor finds ‘Ukrainian soldiers from the 81st Airmobile Brigade relax by the Kazennyi Torets River, Druzhkivka’ (May, 2015). Here, the depiction is one of soldiers relaxing by a river. Two sit on the bank of the river, one swims, another flails above from a rope swing. The heat of the day is palpable. The green of the foliage is extremely powerful. This image embodies Nunn’s desire to depict aspects of everyday life in this warzone away from the precariousness of the political chaos and the danger of direct conflict. This is not to say that the exhibition on the whole is lacking in reminders of the latter. Contained in glass display cases the visitor finds evidence of this, for example, in the form of public information leaflets addressing the dangers of landmines.

People relax at a riverside. Two people crouch, topless, in the long grass on the bank. Two others climb and swing from a tree over the river, while others are in the water.

Christopher Nunn, ‘Ukrainian soldiers from the 81st Airmobile Brigade relax by the Kazennyi Torets River, Druzhkivka’ (May, 2015). © Christopher Nunn / courtesy Impressions Gallery

In ‘Elena and Ala in Elena’s kitchen, Avdirka’ (February 2017), we encounter a simple scene in double portrait format that speaks of basic domesticity and the human propensity to ‘keep calm and carry on’. This moving image captures an inner light of humanity in the ocular spark of the subjects. Curatorial explanation reveals that later that same day, after the photograph was taken, Elena was killed in a shelling attack whilst she stood in her kitchen.

What started for Nunn as a very personal investigation into his familial heritage, has grown into a remarkable body of work that speaks of loss, love, beauty and brutality, painted across a canvas of the mundane. While the UK considers itself to be engaged in time of great political, social and economic upheaval centring around controversy over the contraction of the European project, Borderland: Stories from Donbas is a highly topical exhibition which centres around its expansion, and which puts the UK’s dilemma into broader perspective.

Christopher Nunn, Borderland: Stories from Donbas is at Impressions Gallery, Bradford, from 4 October 2019 to 4 January 2020.

Published 28.11.2019 by Holly Grange in Reviews

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