Nobody likes the middle seat. On a car, train or plane, no one cares about the middle seat’s needs or comfort.
This is how artists and co-curators Anna Mlasowsky and Anastasia Babenko described their exhibition, “The Middle Seat,” created to spotlight East-Central European immigrant artists, often overlooked in U.S. arts dialogue. While the exhibition at Seattle’s Das Schaufenster follows those intentions, the window exhibit also reflects geopolitical tensions that shattered in Europe, sprinkling glass over U.S.-based artists with worries halfway across the world.
The small gallery poignantly displays how art reflects life.
The free exhibition began Jan. 14 at the Ballard gallery with six solo exhibits featuring different Eastern and Central European artists. The current exhibit piece, Seattle-based Hungarian artist Timea Tihanyi’s “Like Love,” continues through the end of August, and features a deconstructed damask tablecloth adorned with hands in honor of Hungarian embroidery work.
Tihanyi knows art is often connected to current events; while hanging art for the exhibit’s July opening, just after Roe v. Wade was overturned, Tihanyi joked with Mlasowsky: Should the fabric represent a mouth or a vagina? Mouth, they decided, hanging the fabric horizontally.
Jokes aside, Tihanyi’s piece was inspired by women like her grandmother, who earned wages by creating embroidered fabric in Hungary. Though Tihanyi left Hungary soon after the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, the 53-year-old artist remembers growing up in the communist state.
“If you could keep your head down and kind of fit in, it wasn’t obvious that certain rights weren’t available to you,” she said.
She witnessed artists learn to criticize the government without actually criticizing it. Tihanyi left Hungary to become an artist and now works from her Seattle studio. It’s hands-on work and those skills were built into her by her grandmother, Tihanyi said.
“My work tends to have a tiny tinge of nostalgia,” she said. “But I know art speaks differently to different people.”
Few exhibits better showcase the impact of art, and how it means different things to people from different backgrounds, especially in times of conflict, than the art at this Ballard window gallery.
“The Middle Seat” faced several changes when Russia invaded Ukraine Feb. 24. The exhibition paused, then underwent a complete restructuring: A Russian artist released her space and two Ukrainian artists were added to the lineup.
The invasion rippled across the world, and the Ukrainian-born curator Babenko, 32, felt it vividly.
“My country is now on fire and people are dying every day,” the Seattle-based artist said of the ongoing conflict that backdrops the exhibition.
Babenko moved to the U.S. almost four years ago. She visited Ukraine in early January, when tensions were high, but Babenko and her loved ones laughed it off, not expecting the worst. While Babenko’s family is currently safe, she said there are no guarantees as the war continues.
“I’m here. I’m physically safe; I can do whatever I want,” she said. “But I have this other life and this other part of me that is in Ukraine — and it’s not good.”
Babenko was ready to quit art and the exhibition but refused to take her safety for granted, so instead she is using her work to spread the word about Ukraine. As Babenko grappled with her home being invaded, she and Mlasowsky added two Ukrainian artists to the roster.
Darya Husak, a 36-year-old artist and nursing student, moved from Ukraine to the U.S. when she was 18. She visited Ukraine late last year.
Growing up in Ukraine was poetic, Husak said. The landscape and folklore created a fertile environment for her imagination, and community was one of the strongest aspects of her childhood. Now living on Capitol Hill, Husak admitted she locked away all feelings of sadness and loneliness and didn’t process them until 10 years later. Sometimes, she would wake up in bed thinking she was in Ukraine.
“When you immigrate, you don’t really think much about the feelings you’re having,” Husak said. “You’re just trying to assimilate yourself … and survive.”
From afar, Husak would see Ukraine’s destruction play out in the news daily. She felt anger and despair until she neared tears but would channel it into work and art. Just as she recovered, she would see the news cycle repeat. She said it was like climbing up a well, but falling deeper and deeper into humanity’s bottomless capability for atrocities.
She can’t escape the news, so she wanted to remind the world that the war is destroying more than infrastructure; it’s also targeting culture, language and folklore. She wanted to evoke the rich and poetic history of Ukraine in her exhibit piece, which was on display in April.
She baked a traditional bread called korovai and donned the window exhibit with photos from her recent Ukraine trip, and her mother’s wedding rushnyk, an embroidered cloth made for symbolic events.
As attention drifts to and away from Ukraine, Husak said she found solidarity with Seattleites with a simple chant for independence used by Ukrainian people.
“Slava Ukraini. Heroyam Slava,” she said. Translated: “Glory to Ukraine. Glory to heroes.”
Recognizing and celebrating heroes is exactly what Ukrainian-born, Bellevue-based artist Sashko Danylenko, 33, intended with his “Superheroes Among Us” piece in June. He created illustrations of everyday Ukrainian wartime heroes, like an Irpin woman who saved dogs from a shelter and a professor who taught lessons from the battlefield.
Danylenko immigrated to the U.S. in 2015. His family have moved to Ukraine’s countryside because of the war, but he said he worries about the long-term consequences that will come when the fighting stops. He saw Ukrainian people unable to shake the fear of starvation after past generations lived through Holodomor, also known as the Terror Famine, from 1932-33.
“I feel like I belong to this culture, and this culture is mine,” Danylenko said. “I feel like it is really important for me to do my part.”
He did a one-day fundraiser when his exhibit opened and donated $195 to Ukrainian war relief efforts. Danylenko plans to continue raising money and awareness, eventually creating a mural of a trident crafted from illustrations of Seattle landmarks as a “thank you” to the city.
Other Eastern and Central European immigrant artists created pieces representing their countries and identities, as the exhibition originally intended. The exhibition opened with Sasha Rudensky, followed later by Klara Glosova and Levan Mindiashvili.
September will open with New York-based Bulgarian artist Daniela Kostova’s still-developing exhibit, which will feature four photos of herself digitally manipulated into a new image. The piece will show both the familiar and the new, she said. “The Middle Seat” runs through the end of October.
Seattle-based curator Mlasowsky, born in Germany, created Das Schaufenster, which means “viewing window” or “looking at the window,” during the COVID-19 pandemic, when artists were struggling to find a place to host their work. Mlasowsky runs the space mostly out of her own pocket, but was able to fundraise $600 for “The Middle Seat,” which will be distributed among the contributing artists. She hopes to establish a sponsorship program for the space.
Opening the space allowed her to connect with more neighbors over the past two years than she has in the past five years living in the community.
“I see the impact the space can have … I give artists space to talk about the things that they find important,” she said. “I’m sharing culture and that’s what I care about.”
Mlasowsky has been inviting guest artists, like Babenko, to co-curate exhibitions so the window space can host diverse types of art and artists. “The Middle Seat” struck a nerve in part because it proves that art and news are rarely separated, by viewers and artists alike.
“I can’t do anything without looking at what’s happening,” Kostova said. “It’s always creeping in my work.”