Violet: How did you become involved with the exhibition? What made you want to be a part of it?
Helena Christensen: When the museum approached me about curating their historical garment exhibit, I was excited and interested immediately. I am very passionate about history, antique garments and embroidery.
Can you tell us a little bit about your relationship with Ukraine? When did you first start spending time in the country?
I travelled to Ukraine with the UNHCR in 2016 to document, via both photography and writing, the devastating effects of the 2014 Donbass war. I saw many sides of Ukraine – beautiful and tragic – but what really stayed with me was how warm and embracing the Ukrainian people are.
As a photographer, you’ve documented the lives of displaced Ukrainian people and met many refugees in the country, several years before the latest invasion. This exhibition is a documentation of a joyful aspect of Ukrainian life – the clothes that would be worn to celebrate rituals and festivals in. Why is it important to document both aspects of Ukraine’s story?
Those two sides are so very much part of the Ukrainian history – a people with such a rich culture and so much heartache. When I was there, I met so many wonderful, elderly Ukrainians who invited me into their bullet-ridden homes. They allowed me to do portraits of them while they shared their heartfelt stories with me. Oftentimes, they were wearing traditional Ukrainian garments and it sort of felt like a full circle for me revisiting some of these garments while curating.
What was the process of curating the exhibition? How did you choose which pieces to include?
I spent many hours in the vault underneath the museum climbing up and down a ladder carrying boxes full of neatly folded and preserved garment pieces, going through each box discovering all these magical pieces and slowly figuring out which ones spoke to me and worked together as a whole for the exhibition.
Are there synergies between Ukrainian traditional clothing and the clothing of your own heritage?
Absolutely. My mother is from Peru and the traditional garments worn by indigenous people there have so many similarities with the Ukrainian traditional clothing - the layering, the fabric, the embroidery, the colours. You can tell there was so much love and artistry sewn into every stitch.
'Wearloom: Ukrainian Garments' runs at The Ukrainian Museum, 222 East 6th Street New York, until 21 January 2024.