Butterflies in the Brain

Making traditional Ukrainian hair wreaths is an art that is no longer very common today. Olena Afanasenko talks about preserving the cultural heritage of her homeland in an interview with Irina Peter.

An artisan wraps paper around a thin piece of wire before dipping the tip into heated paraffin wax. She lets the drop dry and dips it into the coloured wax again, repeating the process over and over until the drop is the size she intends. She will make two to three thousand of these drops to create a traditional Ukrainian wreath, or vinok, which is a bride's headdress. Very few artisans master this skill today, but Olena Afanasenko (43) has set herself the task of retaining it. With her project Butterflies in the Brain (Metelyky v golovi) that she started five years ago, Afanasenko has been working to preserve this piece of Ukrainian cultural heritage and make it better known. In March the philologist left her home in Cherkasy, 160 kilometres southeast of Kyiv, and has been living in southern Germany. In an interview with ifa, she explains the uniqueness of Ukrainian wedding wreaths and why it is more important than ever to preserve the cultural identity of her homeland.

Olena Afanasenko and her colleagues make traditional Ukrainian wreaths, like this one, which were typical in the village of Zhovnyne (Жовнине) near Cherkasy © Metelyky v golovi

What is special about the Ukrainian headdress?

Olena Afanasenko: The Ukrainian wreath has always been part of traditional ceremonial dress. It varies quite a lot from region to region – there are headdresses with red pompoms, similar to those on hats from the Black Forest, and there are wreaths with floral elements made of paper and paraffin wax. The wreath originally symbolised a woman's virginity, particularly at a marriage ceremony. Until the end of the 20th century, wax wreaths based on the European model were common in many regions of Ukraine.

The wreaths were typically created in countryside communities and initially made by nuns who soaked simple materials in waxy paraffin to create tiny flowers, leaves or drops. These wreaths are very delicate and break easily. When we visit villages looking for original wedding wreaths, the old women often tell us that they let their grandchildren play with the headdresses, which led to the wreaths getting broken. That is why there are hardly any original headpieces left.  

Still, how do you manage to find these rare handcrafts? 

Afanasenko: Fortunately, some couples placed their wedding wreath in a display case immediately after the ceremony, keeping it for the rest of their lives. This is typical for certain regions, for example around Vinnytsia and Cherkasy, and that is why we still have wonderful examples of wreaths from these areas today. More often, we just have photographs of the headdresses. 

How are you working to preserve Ukrainian cultural heritage?

Afanasenko: We exhibit the original wreaths and replicas in museums. However, part of our project, called Metelyky v golovi, includes interviews with older women living in rural areas in Ukraine. We record what they know about the wreaths, like songs or customs, for ethnographic research purposes. In many regions, for example, the bride went to the cemetery before the wedding to invite her deceased relatives to the festivities. On social media, we also share historical images, new photos of replicas and texts on this topic. In so doing, we hope to dissolve the inferiority complex of Ukrainians who believe we are part of a "minority culture". For many of my fellow citizens, there is a lot of grief associated with our culture; during the 70 years of Soviet occupation, it was stigmatised as an inferior peasant culture, and our national identity was suppressed until our independence in 1991.

Eyewitness interview: Together with her colleague Olena Pochtareva, Olena Afanasenko visits women in rural areas who used to make wax wreaths and who wore one at their wedding © Metelyky v golovi

Where do you find your motivation? 

Afanasenko: From what I can see, Germany's cultural identity appears intact. It seems to me that Germans have a clear idea of what their language and faith is. This is not the case in Ukraine. There are people who believe that you can be Ukrainian even if you do not speak the language or know the culture, which is completely incomprehensible to me. I do not think this is how it works. If you break away from your culture, there is space for another culture to come in and take its place. In our case, that would mean the Russian culture, 100 percent.  I see the value of the unique, Ukrainian culture and would like to preserve it with my work while also strengthening our national sovereignty – especially now.

Oksana wears a traditional wedding wreath made by her grandmother Tetyana Ivashko, a very talented wreath maker. The replica of her grandmother’s wreath is exhibited in the Cherkasy Regional Museum of Local History. Photo: Pavel Androschtschyk (Павел Андрощук). © Metelyky v golovi

How is the war affecting your ethnographic research?

Afanasenko: We work with living memory. The people we have not yet interviewed might not live to see the end of the war. We might never be able to record their unique knowledge about traditional customs or handcraft techniques. Everything is on hold. Before, we were frequently invited to give lectures at universities or schools, but now that is impossible. We are also unable to give workshops explaining the historical background and teaching traditional techniques. Plus, we have a large collection of authentic wreaths and reconstructions. Losing them to an attack would be awful.  

How are you continuing your work in Germany? 

Afanasenko: After several friends were murdered and some taken prisoner, I was creatively inactive for a quite a while. Everything seemed pointless. I was very lucky to meet people in Germany who supported me and helped me to become active again. I am currently preparing an event with my colleague; in August we will have an exhibition and offer workshops with ethnographers in Poland. Unfortunately, the wait lists for German language courses are long, but I hope to be able to attend one in September and learn German well enough to also share my knowledge about Ukrainian history and culture in workshops and lectures here in Germany.  



Interview by
Irina Peter

Blogger Irina Peter works as ifa-Kulturassistentin 2022. Born in Kazakhstan, she has lived in Germany since childhood and discovered her interest in Ukraine a few years ago through family research. Her ancestors were Volhynian Germans. As a cultural assistant at the Council of Germans of Ukraine / Рада німців України / Совет немцев Украины, she will interview people of German origin from Ukraine about their experiences and current situation during the Russian war against their homeland. Their stories will be made visible online as well as in an exhibition at the end of the year.