Posted: 02.03.2023 13:30:00

The country of the bird of paradise

Malyavankas, icons on glass and carving: craftswoman Volha Piletskaya revives ancient rituals and traditions

The Kletsk resident received the honorary title of People’s Master of Belarus two years ago. Last year, she was the best in ‘Spirituality and Culture’ nomination in the regional competition Woman of the Year of the Minsk Region. Thanks to her initiative, many folk costumes of the Kletsk District were found and restored. Three local rituals at once claim the status of the intangible cultural heritage of Belarus. The works of Volha Piletskaya are exhibited in Minsk, as well as at international festivals of cultures. Not so long ago her Malyavankas returned from a forum held in Türkiye. There, Belarusian swans, pigeons and deers captivated the audience with amazing light and magic.

Song of the stork 

Malyavankas, icons and drawings on glass of Volha Piletskaya are widely known in her birthplace — Kletsk District. Having travelled with scientific expeditions throughout the countryside of the district, the master was convinced that each village is a separate planet, unique and mysterious. “Kuhcitsy is one thing, Moroch is completely another,” Head of the Sector of Traditional Crafts and Arts of the Kletsk Regional Centre of Culture Volha Piletskaya notes and invites us to the workshop. There are Malyavankas on the walls. A huge wardrobe with antique icons in massive frames. On the floor are antique suitcases with drawings, paints and brushes. Every item needs to be seen. Something tells me: even a modest paper spider hanging from the ceiling has an interesting story.
“Our grandmothers did not have much time to decorate the house. After the Great Patriotic War, many of them had to take on the task of all household chores. There was no one to help the widows at all. In addition, this is what one grandmother told me: although there was a lot of work, the spider in the God’s corner (a place for icons) had to be attached. In order not to waste time on weaving from straw, they took tissue paper and made a charm out of it,” Volha Piletskaya said. 
Volha is a devoted person. She can talk endlessly about trips to the villages of the Kletsk District. It seems that during her research work there was a kind of reincarnation. The images of ancestors and their worldview crystallised in the soul of the young artist. She loved to draw since childhood. From a young age, she was inspired by the Polesian landscapes of the village of Bolshie Chuchevichi in the Luninets District, where she came on vacation. She remembers how close the storks came up to their house, played scenes from family bird life. I wonder why, then, on the Malyavankas painted by Volha, not storks, sparrows and larks are more often found, but parrots, firebirds, tigers, lions and various mythological characters? Here is the answer: our ancestors, like us, dreamed of something, they also waited for warmth in the icy winter. Hence, the plots with overseas animals, paradise gardens and fairy-tale characters. In ancient times, they were painted on an accessible basis — on homespun cloth.

Tales of life 

“The background of the drawings was originally linen, grey. Then the craftsmen saw that if the foundation is made black, then the plot will become brighter, more magical,” the master explains.

“Malyavankas were more than just decorative elements for our ancestors. It is also a sacred symbol, a kind of map of desires. Therefore, relatives gave the newlyweds wedding Malyavankas with the image of doves, which symbolised eternal love since ancient times,” Volha Piletskaya says. 
Similar scenes can be seen in the drawings on the glass. They get unusualness and volume with the help of an uneven foil base, which shines through separate, pre-defined areas. Why did our ancestors need shine? Everyone wanted to have a piece of paradise in his or her home. That is why the peasants could give the artist a sack of potatoes for such a masterpiece even in times of famine. 
The secrets of the amazing world of the fine arts of the ancestors were not immediately revealed to Volha. She graduated from Soligorsk State College, worked as the head of a children’s hobby group in the Kletsk Regional Centre of creativity, then as a methodologist at the local House of Culture. She began to study the local features of the traditional costume. Thus, there was a need to go on expeditions in order to see the art of folk art with her own eyes.  

Forward to the past 

“The village of Kolki was the first on my route. There I found grandmothers who still have wedding wreaths, veils and photographs. It turned out that every village in the Kletsk District had its own wedding fashion. Until 1939, our region was under the rule of Poland. Local residents travelled to the western regions to earn money. That’s where fashion trends come from. A veil up to five metres long looked especially chic, the bride could even turn into it several times. For example, there were no wedding dresses in Moroch, they were replaced by a shirt, skirt and vest,” the interlocutor says. 
Traveling Volha managed to reconstruct the traditional costume of the 1930s Kletsk District. It was kept by the former cultural worker Irina Shilina. The outfit worn in the village of Novoselye previously belonged to a woman born in 1901. It was given to Irina by her relative Maria Karazhan from the village of Zaostrovechi.
Volha Piletskaya recreated the traditional Kletsk outfit using the example of the found costume and now demonstrates it at exhibitions. Compatriots, seeing their local outfit for the first time, are amazed at its bright colours. The Morochan costume is distinguished by the peculiarities of weaving, embroidery, and corset with ties, as well as the number of coloured stripes. In addition, the folds on the scrunched up skirt are a completely different story. It turns out that grandmothers used to make folds using wrinkle technology: they moistened the fabric with a solution of water and vinegar, made folds, then ironed it with a loaf of hot bread and applied it like a press so that the folds did not diverge. This process took several weeks.
Once, having driven into the village of Moroch, Volha saw interesting Vytinankas from old newspapers on the windows. The patterns were not made with scissors, but by punching holes with real cartridge cases. Along the contour, they are painted in different colours. The colours are the same as for the fabric. Vytinankas for some time replaced the curtains on the windows. At the initiative of Volha Piletskaya, the Morochanskaya Vytinanka was included in the list of intangible cultural heritage of Belarusians.
Our heroine also restores the ancient rites of the Kletsk District. Together with the staff of the National Academy of Sciences, she managed to discover and describe the ancient Kletsk rite, similar to Kalyady Tsars from the village of Semezhevas, as well as Schedrets and Puppeteers (the village of Rubezh). Fragments of expeditions to the villages of Kletsk District are posted on social networks. The artist notes, “My main principle as a master is that the objects of traditional art should not be museum exhibits, but go to the people, resonate with contemporaries.”

By Marina Kuzmich