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Year Abroad Tales: Working in an art gallery on the Estonian-Russian border

Juliet Kennedy

Tuesday, 11 June 2024

Juliet shares her experience working at an eclectic art residence in Narva, Estonia, during her year abroad.

A month into my time in the frozen, still, city of Narva, nestled a little too cosily on the border between Russia and Estonia, I began to sense that overwhelming feeling of things being a little too slow, and a little too quiet.  With winter looming, days drawing shorter and classes finishing at 12:30 I was left with the bewildering question of what next? In this quiet and sleepy city, how could I possibly fill three months?


I had tentatively googled ‘art galleries, Narva’, keeping my hopes low because so far all I had seen were endless apartment blocks and abandoned playgrounds. But then, I stumbled across NART. It was an art residency, where artists from all over the world would come to complete a period of time working on a project inspired by Narva and its surroundings. After emailing in the morning, by that afternoon I was chatting with the director and assistant about their visions, goals for the space, what they do, what I do, being young in Narva, their staff, their artists… I felt inspired by the city, a feeling which I had been searching for amongst long Russian language classes and bowls of hot cabbage soup.


The residency was huge. It spanned an entire manor house which was divided into studio flats for artists, museum spaces for the public, an exhibition room, kitchens, and messy studios with concrete walls. It was striking, with its English-style red brick. It stood, proud and alone, like something from an Emily Brontë novel on the street Joala 18. It stood out as one of the few buildings that survived the devastation of Narva during World War II, a city where 98% of its infrastructure was destroyed by bombs. Having spent my recent weeks living in one of the many Khrushchevki, apartment buildings built during the Soviet Union, it was a welcome change to work and exist in a space that was old and grand and full of a much deeper sense of history.

The ‘living area’ of the residence 


The residence was, at its construction, the house for the director of Kreenholm Manufacture (another interesting building in Narva, a huge abandoned factory that straddles the river between Estonia and Russia), and since then has been a schoolhouse, a cinema, and now an art residence.


One Friday night I helped to set up a party that was being organized by some of the residents, as one of them had made a light projection that he wanted to show off, along with a DJ set. I remember running up and down the stairs of the sprawling house, searching for mismatched glasses hidden deep in kitchen cupboards to put at the homemade bar. It was like a maze of spiral staircases, adorned with photographs and paintings. Artists were making Moroccan egg sandwiches to sell at the party, along with ginger cocktails; another was offering a flash of tattoos in the living room; and I remember texting my friend to say, hey, come tonight, there will be eggs, ginger vodka, and tattoos. She was, naturally, quite confused. But it's in that kind of madness that I remember and love NART. 


I ended up working on the reception desk, sitting in the airy gallery and knitting whilst I waited for the odd visitor. And when they came, I would express, in convoluted Russian, that there was indeed an interesting exhibition just through those doors but, I can’t really explain it to you because the whole thing is about oddly specific and personal Estonian words which I can’t actually read. I got a lot of strange looks from locals, but I was just happy to be surrounded by beautiful architecture and artists who slipped in and out of the grand front doors to smoke a cigarette, to do their grocery shopping, to just walk around in the large gardens and snowy air.


I won’t forget the two Japanese artists, Reico Motohara and Kaori Sato. They were photographers who came to Narva with the task of completing ‘’kitchen stories’’, a photography exhibition and a cookbook. They reached out to locals, extending invitations for dinner to delve deeper into the local culture and cuisine, aiming to share heartfelt moments around a dinner table in a typical Soviet apartment. The culminating exhibition showcased a curated collection of photographs featuring classic dishes such as borscht and fish, capturing convivial moments in kitchens, accompanied by stories shared by locals about their families and histories. They returned to Japan with a collection of recipes to print and publish in a cookbook. Their exhibition and talk ended with a kind-of dinner party, where all guests were invited to bring a dish, exotic to Narva, and reminiscent of their home. Reico and Kaori made a delicious spread of sushi, and my friend and I decided to make and bring banana bread. We will never forget the moment that we saw a curious local from Narva pick up a slice of the sweet, chocolatey banana bread, only to embellish it with soy sauce, salmon, seaweed, and cucumber. Perhaps it was our oversight to place the bread next to the sushi. 


Sushi and other homemade dishes at the exhibition opening


The residence, upstairs, boasted a large, old fashioned cinema room. There was one night where I was at the reception desk welcoming visitors and guiding them to where the film would screen. As it started rolling in came a few locals, who I had already seen around a lot. We got chatting and, after having them poke fun at my Russian and answering the usual slurry of questions that aim to understand why I would choose Russian, and did I realize how hard it was, they pulled out a bottle of some kind of home brewed vodka, from under their jacket. It was now December and my time in Narva was coming to an end. So, in a poignant and only natural farewell to the city that had taught me so much, we sat, taking shots of the bitter, burning liquid, whilst I was taught a vital, albeit unconventional crash course in Russian profanities, that I would ‘absolutely need’ to navigate life’s challenges. 


Amidst Narva’s frozen tranquillity and political tensions, NART emerges as a flurry of art, culture and vibrant personalities. The feeling of a cold day, four months on and long departed from Estonia, sometimes takes me back to the reception desk of the residence, the lofty ceilings and dimly lit rooms, the chattering of artists, and the sound of echoing footsteps on tiled floors.


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Images provided by Juliet Kennedy.

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